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.