Cognitive Ontology – Part 2: Concepts

As I mentioned in the previous blogpost, the core of the book consists in a close look at a number of case studies of putative cognitive kinds, with a chapter devoted to each of seven theoretical constructs drawn from a variety of research programs in the cognitive sciences. In this blogpost and the next I’ll give a brief overview of how I analyze two of these constructs, concept and episodic memory, respectively, and evaluate their claims to be cognitive kinds.

Concepts are often considered the most basic element in our cognitive ontology; they are frequently regarded as the building blocks of the mind or the vehicles of thought. There are currently a number of different research programs investigating concepts empirically using a variety of methods. Even though this is seldom made explicit, I argue that they do not always address the same questions. There are at least five different questions that are commonly at issue in recent theoretical and empirical work on concepts. First, what types of entities are concepts? Can they be identified with mental entities, neural entities, both, or neither? Are they concrete spatiotemporal particulars or abstract entities of a certain kind? Second, there is a question about concept individuation or grounding: in virtue of what does a concept have the content that it does? In other words, what gives a concept its identity conditions, or what makes something the concept of apple as opposed to orange? Third, researchers are interested in concept acquisition: how are concepts acquired in ontogeny? Are some concepts innate, or are they all learned, and by what processes are concepts learned? (There is also some research concerning the acquisition of concepts in phylogeny, though for obvious reasons there is less empirical work relevant to that question.) Fourth, there is a question about concept possession: what is it for a thinker to have a concept, or what determines whether a subject has acquired a concept? Finally, there is the issue of concept activation: what is it for a concept to be activated in the mind on a particular occasion (which is roughly the same as conceptual retrieval or processing)? What goes on in the minds or brains of thinkers when they entertain a particular concept? I try to show that some research programs are more focused on some of these questions or explananda than others. Hence, I claim that they are sometimes working at cross purposes and are not attempting to answer the same questions or explain the same phenomena.

One way of understanding the relationship between the main theories of concepts in the cognitive sciences is to think of them as pitched at Marr’s three levels of description and explanation. In cognitive neuroscience, many researchers advocate a “modal” or “sensorimotor theory” of concepts, which holds that the deployment of a concept on a particular occasion consists in the occurrence of patterns of neural activation that reactivate states in modality-specific systems in the brain, namely perceptual, motor, and affective systems. It aims to answer such questions as, what happens when a concept is actually being entertained? What is it for a concept to be active? The modal theory, which is supported mainly by evidence from neuroimaging experiments, is an implementational level theory and the kinds that it attempts to reveal are expressed in neural terms (levels and patterns of activation in certain brain regions).

Meanwhile, some investigations in cognitive psychology are more focused on recognition of concept instances and rapid deployment of concepts, primarily in perceptual contexts. These investigations purport to advance a theory of the internal structure of concepts and they posit specific representations and rules that specify how instances of a concept are recognized. The dominant theory in these investigations is the “prototype theory,” which is pitched primarily at the algorithmic level.

Finally, in some areas of cognitive psychology, the main explananda have to do with concept acquisition and possession. For example, what is it for a thinker to possess a concept? And how are concepts acquired in ontogeny? One of the primary theories put forward to answer these questions is the “theory theory” of concepts, which holds that concepts are embedded in a larger framework of explanatory beliefs (or theories), which thinkers rely upon in acquiring new concepts, solving problems, and performing complex tasks. Different parts of the entire corpus of beliefs may be deployed in different tasks, even ones involving a single concept. The methods used to support this theory consist in conducting extensive interviews with participants, sometimes over a relatively long period of time, and probing them closely for their considered responses, often asking for justifications or further clarifications. These investigations are best understood as operating at Marr’s computational level.

Since these theories pertain to different levels of description and explanation, I propose that they investigate different scientific domains, which are populated by different kinds. This is what should be expected if we hold that explanation in the cognitive sciences is primarily causal and different causal processes can exist “orthogonally” to each other in relatively self-contained domains. Rather than a unitary cognitive kind, concept, these theories are attempting to understand different constructs, call them concept1, concept2, and concept3, which are implicated in distinct causal processes. It may seem profligate to multiply concepts beyond necessity, but the alternative is to suppose that there is a neat correspondence among the entities tracked by these different research programs with their different explananda and methodologies. These research programs investigate disparate causal processes, some of which attend to social context and history while others do not, and some of which aim at explaining reflective thought and inference while others are primarily interested in recognition and spontaneous judgment. It would be more surprising to discover that they were all really theorizing about the very same kinds of things.

One comment

  1. Paul D. Van Pelt

    I intend and plan to follow these articles. If upon completion of that plan I am sufficiently satisfied, I will try to read your book. Thank you.

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