Some Comments on Doing Without Concepts

By Jim Virtel

Edouard Machery’s Doing Without Concepts boldly argues for the elimination of the term “concept” from psychological literature.  His argument runs as follows: individuals possess many different kinds of concepts which have very few properties in common.  These concepts are used in distinct cognitive processes, so the term “concept” should not be used in psychology, leaving more descriptive terms such as “exemplar” and “prototype” in its place.  Nevertheless, Machery’s conclusion does not follow from the evidence he provides.

Machery’s treatment of the philosophical literature on concepts is questionable.  He argues that because psychologists and philosophers define “concepts” differently, the term “concept” is incommensurable between the two disciplines.  Psychologists should not concern themselves with what the philosophers think and vice-versa.  Yet Machery only considers one account to connect philosophy and psychology — Christopher Peacocke’s “Simple Account”— before dismissing the endeavor altogether.  This quick conclusion seems problematic.  Psychology has influenced philosophy and vice-versa, so prima facie there is overlap in the use of “concept”.  It would be interesting if Machery could explain how, in his opinion, concepts as the philosophers think of them relate to concepts as the psychologists think of them.

Machery also has trouble with following through on his intended goal of getting rid of “concept”.  He defines the book’s thesis in the closing sentence as a “drastic conceptual change” (251), thereby slightly undermining his own idea of removing “concept” from psychological literature.  His wording may be a minor slip, but shouldn’t he have used some other term?

Finally, Machery’s thesis may have a hard time being accepted by the psychological community.  Another student interviewed Henry Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, on Machery’s thesis.  Roediger does not believe “concept” will ever leave the psychological vocabulary regardless of how many different kinds of concepts exist.

Nevertheless, Machery’s book is a challenging and original analysis of the vast psychological literature on concepts.  The discussion it will generate will surely be beneficial to the field.


  1. Edouard Machery


    Thanks for the post! I hope you enjoyed the book.

    Naturally, I do not quite agree with this assessment.

    1. You write: ” Psychology has influenced philosophy and vice-versa, so there must be some overlap in the use of “concept”.”

    Do you mean philosophy in general and psychology in general? If so, surely, your point is a fallacy.

    More plausibly, you mean the philosophy of concepts and the psychology of concepts. Furthermore, let’s grant that the philosophy of concepts has had some influence on the psychology of concepts, and vice-versa. There are still two issues with your inference. First, the influences are in fact fairly shallow. Second, they do not prove much: influences might result from the erroneous belief that both disciplines use “concept” in the same way.

    Finally, your reply is not of the right kind: What you’d want to show is theories of concepts are about the same things in psychology and in philosophy. And you have not done it.

    (BTW, I discuss *two* ways of articulating the psychology and the philosophy of concepts – Peacocke’s simple account and the foundational account – I have in mind Fodor, Burge, etc.).

    2. You also write: “Machery’s thesis may have trouble being accepted by the psychological community.” This might be true, but again this is not really an argument. On the other hand, it might be false. Both Stephen Harnad and Barbara Malt have commentaries on my book where they basically agree with the claim that “concept” should be dropped from the theoretical vocabulary of psychology, although their reasons are very different from mine.


  2. gualtiero

    There has been some confusion about which version of Jim’s post should have been published, so there is now a slight mismatch between the post and Edouard’s quotes from it. Sorry about that.

    We read the book in my summer course on Concepts and found it very thought-provoking. That’s where Jim is coming from.

    I actually agree with Jim’s main points. First, Edouard should have said something more positive about the relationship between the psychology of concepts and the philosophy of concepts. Chapter 2 ends with the conclusion that there is no good account of their relationship. That is in tension with Edouard’s other claim — that concepts as used in psychology are simply something different from concepts as used in philosophy. (And BTW, the latter conclusion is independently implausible.)

    Edouard, thanks for sharing about current and forthcoming controversies surrounding your book. As you know, I am about to enter the controversy with my own commentary. I’m looking forward to it. 🙂

  3. Another comment: the fourth tenet of the Heterogeneity Hypothesis says that prototypes, exemplars, and theories are typically used in distinct cognitive processes. Categorization is a multi-process theory, so prototype categorization differs from exemplar categorization.

    However, concept combination, which creates new concepts from existing concepts, is a single process theory. Prototypes, exemplars, and theories are all used as input into the same cognitive process.

    My questions are:

    Why is concept combination the only single process theory? Why isn’t it a multi-process theory, which would strengthen the Heterogeneity Hypothesis?

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