A Dynamic Account of the Structure of Concepts

Master's Thesis, 2011

Peter Blouw


Concepts are widely agreed to be the basic constituents of thought. Amongst philosophers and psychologists, however, the question of how concepts are structured has been a longstanding problem and a locus of disagreement. I draw on recent work describing how representational content is ascribed to populations of neurons to develop a novel solution to this problem. Because disputes over the structure of concepts often reflect divergent explanatory goals, I begin by arguing for a set of six criteria that a good theory ought to accommodate. These criteria address philosophical concerns related to content, reference, scope, publicity, and compositionality, and psychological concerns related to categorization phenomena and neural plausibility. Next, I evaluate a number of existing theoretical approaches in relation to these six criteria. I consider classical views that identify concepts with definitions, similarity-based views that identify concepts with prototypes or exemplars, theory-based views that identify concepts with explanatory schemas, and atomistic views that identify concepts with unstructured mental symbols that enter into law-like relations with their referents. I conclude that none of these accounts can satisfactorily accommodate all of the criteria. I then describe the theory of representational content that I employ to motivate a novel account of concept structure. I briefly defend this theory against competitors, and I describe how it can be scaled from the level of basic perceptual representations to the level of highly complex conceptual representations. On the basis of this description, I contend that concepts are structured dynamically through sets of transformations of single source representation, and that the content of a given concept specifies the set of potential transformations it can enter into. I conclude by demonstrating that the ability of this account to meet all of the criteria introduced beforehand. I consider objections to my views throughout.

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University of Waterloo
Waterloo, ON
Master of Arts
Master's Thesis


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