Doing Without Concepts, Chap. 1 Comments

I open a thread where you can leave some comments on chap. 1.

A few of you have already sent me written comments. Many thanks.


  1. BB

    Hello, are you still welcoming chapter reviewers? I just stumbled upon this blog and noticed the invitation. I am a computer scientist by edu and patent consultant during the day, and read up on mind/brain as hobby. The title of your book intrigued me.

    Behfar Bastani
    Mountain View, CA

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    Edouard, it would be nice if you were willing to post an abstract of each chapter when you open it up for comments. That way, even people who have not read the chapter can know what’s going on.

    Chapter 1 defends a preliminary explication of concepts as “bodies of knowledge that are used by default in higher cognitive competencies”.

    Having defended an alternative working explication in a forthcoming article(, it won’t be surprising that I am not very satisfied.

    First, some philosophers (not me) will hate the fact that Edouard explicates concepts in terms of knowledge, rather than the other way around (as is common in philosophy). True, Edouard in turn explicates knowledge as content in general, without assuming that knowledge is propositional or even true or justified. Still, this approach is likely to turn off a large portion of the philosophical audience.

    Second, given that knowledge is just content, this explication is just as good as Edouard’s explication of content, which is not given. (Sometimes Edouard talks about information, but that is at best a promissory note on an explication of content.)

    Third, the other notions employed in the explication–especially “default use” and the distinction between higher and lower cognitive competencies–are more controversial and theory-laden than it would be desirable in a preliminary explication.

    The purpose of a preliminary explication is to fix the subject matter. It should be as theory neutral as possible, so as to avoid prejudging substantive questions as much as possible.

    Edouard says that his explication matches the way psychologists explicate the notion. But psychologists are notoriously unsophisticated in these matters, not to mention that they offer all kinds of different explications. Following psychologists’ explicit formulations does not seem to be an especially good strategy.

    An example of the difficulties created by Machery’s explication are visible when he tries to argue that his explication is neutral between classicist and connectionist theories. He ends up saying that it is up to connectionists to do the work to make it completely consistent with their view. It seems to me more likely that they will look elsewhere for a suitable notion of concept.

    To avoid this kind of problem, in the article mentioned above, Sam Scott and I explicated concepts in terms of the range of empirical phenomena that concepts are postulated to explain plus the role they are assumed to play in the explanation.

    The last proposal discussed by Machery, concepts as explanations for categorization, is a more restricted instance of our strategy. Machery rejects it on the grounds that it doesn’t include other important phenomena. But the solution is to include the other phenomena, as Scott and I did–not to ditch the whole approach and replace it with a more theory-laden one.

  3. edouard machery


    Thanks for your comments. It is also a very good idea to add a short abstract of each chapter. I’ll do it for the next chapters.

    Now, to your objections and comments. I’ll consider them in turn.

    But, before doing this, I should emphasize that the point of the chapter is to explain what the term “concept”–a theoretical term–is meant to refer to in psychology. It is no good to assume that when they use the word “concept”, psychologists mean what philosophers mean by this very same term. (Indeed, I argue in Chapter 2 that they don’t.) As we shall see, when one keeps this caveat in mind, your first two comments miss their target.

    It is also no good to assume that there is a pretheoretical notion of concept and that psychologists and philosophers are trying to account for the nature of the entities picked out by this pretheoretical notion.

    1. You note that I explain what “concept” is meant to refer to in psychology by reference to knowledge (concepts are bodies of knowledge), in contrast with the order of explanation most philosophers would prefer. Now, this were a problem if “concept” is not ambiguous between philosophy and psychology. However, this cannot be assumed.

    2. You take me to explain the notion of knowledge by means of the philosophical notion of content. You then object that since I do not explain the notion of content, this casts little light on what concepts are supposed to be.
    I am responsible for this misunderstanding. I do not want to explain the former notion by means of the latter. Rather, I merely call “content” the knowledge that is stored in a concept. For example, the content of the concept DOG is the knowledge that is is by default available when we reason about dogs, classify objects as dogs, and so on and so forth. I realize that using the term “content” might promote some misunderstandings among philosophers. I will probably get rid of this terminology.

    3. Finally, you promote your own characterization of the notion of concept (in an article I highly recommend). Some of the terms I use to describe what concepts are taken to be in psychology (to fix the subject matter, as Gualtiero appropriately puts it) are indeed theoretical–particularly, the notion of default and the notion of long-term memory.

    But, again, the point of the book is to discuss the psychology of concepts and most psychologists interested in concepts would agree, I think, with this characterization. (I do not understand why you think psychologists are unsophisticated in this matter: Remember that I am trying to see what concepts are in psychology. Thus psychologists are the only relevant experts. If you were to characterize what biologists mean by “drift”, you would take biologists to be the experts on this matter, wouldn’t you?)

    Additionally, I believe that the evidence is strong that some of our knowledge about x is dy default available and that the notion of a long-term memory is on a good empirical footing.

    Additionally, there various problems with Gualtiero and Sam Scott’s explanation of the notion of concept. First, they include some phenomena that are not clearly among those psychologists want to explain by means of concepts (particularly, perceptual discrimination, if I remember correctly). Second, the notion used by Gualtiero and Sam Scott is not restrictive enough. Concepts are but one component of the explanation of the phenomena picked out by Gualtiero and Sam Scott. These explanations include other components such as cognitive processes, but these aren’t concepts.

  4. anna-mari

    Dear G (and Edouard of course),

    I am going to defend Edouard here. Even though, G, you are a bit sceptical about Edouard`s strategical choices, I think that the question he poses is really important.

    If one considers the topic of Edouard`s book… What interests us is the conception of “concept” underlying psychology, and hence – as Edouard writes in his post – we should be asking what is the “essential” feature to which psychologists as scientists refer when they describe it/them as a concept. And I think that it would be extremely arrogant to tell psychologists what they should do without specifying and explicating their conceptions first. Special sciences are, after all these years, still special sciences… and it should be respected.

    I am not saying that philosophers should just… shut up. Not at all. I am just saying that if one aims to do serious philosophy of special science, one has to talk their language, so to speak. But I have been accused for beeing too gentle and understanding, so I may be wrong here.



  5. anna-mari rusanen


    I forgot to ask: Your book has clearly an agenda. But who are the possible readers? Psychologists, philosophers in general, philosophers of psychology or who? Gualtiero (that italian bloke, if you remember him) may have assumed that you are writing especially for philosophers “in general”. Is this is the case, then I agree that there may be some problems in your strategy.  

  6. gualtiero piccinini

    I agree that the goal here is to explicate ‘concept’ as it is used in psychology. (I never suggested anything different. I also never talked about a pretheoretical notion of concepts.)

    Re 1: I didn’t say there is a theoretical problem with doing thigs the way Edouard does with respect to his use of ‘knowledge’. It’s just going to drive some people up the wall, in a way that could be easily avoided. I’m just talking rhetorical strategy here.

    Re 3 (as well as Anna-Mari’s comment): Explicating what psychologists mean by ‘concept’ is not necessarily the same as interviewing psychologists and asking them, what do you mean by ‘concept’? Or equivalently, collecting a few quotes from psychological texts where psychologists define what they mean. Of all people, Edouard should be skeptical about such strategies.

    A better way to do it is to observe what role the theoretical term ‘concept’ plays in psychological theories, keeping in mind as many psychological theories as possible. This includes not only theories that are explicitly presented as theories of concepts, but also theories that simply employ the theoretical term ‘concept’ to explain some phenomenon, such as theories in developmental psychology and animal psychology. This is what Sam Scott and I did in our paper.

    We included all the phenomena that at least some psychological traditions explain in terms of concepts. And contrary to what Edouard suggests above, we explicitly pointed out that concepts are not the whole explanation. We said that “concepts are the constituents of structures posited in the explanation of certain psychological phenomena”. This formulation is intentionally left vague, to make room for different kinds of structures (and components thereof) postulated by different kinds of theory (classicist, connectionist, etc.).

  7. gualtiero piccinini

    By the way, if the right way to find out what psychologists mean by ‘concept’ is simply to look at what they say on the matter, may I suggest that you look at what my co-author, Sam Scott, says?  He was trained in psychology and his Ph.D. dissertation is an empirical investigation of non-referring concepts along the lines of classical experimental psychology of concepts.  So he qualifies as well as anyone as a psychologist working on concepts.  To find out what he thinks ‘concept’ means in psychology, you might want to consult the paper he co-wrote with me

  8. anna-mari

    Yes, of course you are right in your “Re3”. I just did not understand it earlier.

    I am also glad to find out that you are not as sceptical as you seemed to be on the basis of your first post. This is an important question, and I am really happy to see that this issue is discussed.

    However, perhaps we should wait and see what Edouard has in his mind before evaluating his work in detail. One just cannot say everything in one chapter.

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