Concept

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Concepts are defined as abstract ideas or general notions that occur in the mind, in speech, or in thought. They are understood to be the fundamental building blocks of thoughts and beliefs. They play an important role in all aspects of cognition. [1] [2] As such, concepts are studied by several disciplines, such as linguistics, psychology, and philosophy, and these disciplines are interested in the logical and psychological structure of concepts, and how they are put together to form thoughts and sentences. The study of concepts has served as an important flagship of an emerging interdisciplinary approach called cognitive science. [3]

Thought Mental activity involving an individuals subjective consciousness

Thought encompasses an "aim-oriented flow of ideas and associations that can lead to a reality-oriented conclusion". Although thinking is an activity of an existential value for humans, there is still no consensus as to how it is adequately defined or understood.

Belief is the attitude that something is the case or true. In epistemology, philosophers use the term "belief" to refer to personal attitudes associated with true or false ideas and concepts. However, "belief" does not require active introspection and circumspection. For example, few ponder whether the sun will rise, just assume it will. Since "belief" is an important aspect of mundane life, according to Eric Schwitzgebel in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a related question asks: "how a physical organism can have beliefs?"

Cognition is "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses". It encompasses many aspects of intellectual functions and processes such as attention, the formation of knowledge, memory and working memory, judgment and evaluation, reasoning and "computation", problem solving and decision making, comprehension and production of language. Cognitive processes use existing knowledge and generate new knowledge.

Contents

In contemporary philosophy, there are at least three prevailing ways to understand what a concept is: [4]

Contemporary philosophy

Contemporary philosophy is the present period in the history of Western philosophy beginning at the early 20th century with the increasing professionalization of the discipline and the rise of analytic and continental philosophy.

A mental representation, in philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science, is a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol that represents external reality, or else a mental process that makes use of such a symbol: "a formal system for making explicit certain entities or types of information, together with a specification of how the system does this".

A skill is the ability to carry out a task with determined results often within a given amount of time, energy, or both. Skills can often be divided into domain-general and domain-specific skills. For example, in the domain of work, some general skills would include time management, teamwork and leadership, self-motivation and others, whereas domain-specific skills would be used only for a certain job. Skill usually requires certain environmental stimuli and situations to assess the level of skill being shown and used.

Sense and reference mathematical paper by Gottlob Frege

In the philosophy of language, the distinction between sense and reference was an innovation of the German philosopher and mathematician Gottlob Frege in 1892, reflecting the two ways he believed a singular term may have meaning.

Concepts can be organized into a hierarchy, higher levels of which are termed "superordinate" and lower levels termed "subordinate". Additionally, there is the "basic" or "middle" level at which people will most readily categorize a concept. [5] For example, a basic-level concept would be "chair", with its superordinate, "furniture", and its subordinate, "easy chair".

When the mind makes a generalization such as the concept of tree, it extracts similarities from numerous examples; the simplification enables higher-level thinking. Generalization process using trees PNG version.png
When the mind makes a generalization such as the concept of tree, it extracts similarities from numerous examples; the simplification enables higher-level thinking.

A concept is instantiated (reified) by all of its actual or potential instances, whether these are things in the real world or other ideas.

Idea Mental image or concept

In philosophy, ideas are usually taken as mental representational images of some object. Ideas can also be abstract concepts that do not present as mental images. Many philosophers have considered ideas to be a fundamental ontological category of being. The capacity to create and understand the meaning of ideas is considered to be an essential and defining feature of human beings. In a popular sense, an idea arises in a reflexive, spontaneous manner, even without thinking or serious reflection, for example, when we talk about the idea of a person or a place. A new or original idea can often lead to innovation.

Concepts are studied as components of human cognition in the cognitive science disciplines of linguistics, psychology and, philosophy, where an ongoing debate asks whether all cognition must occur through concepts. Concepts are used as formal tools or models in mathematics, computer science, databases and artificial intelligence where they are sometimes called classes, schema or categories. In informal use the word concept often just means any idea.

Cognitive science interdisciplinary scientific study of the mind and its processes

Cognitive science is the interdisciplinary, scientific study of the mind and its processes. It examines the nature, the tasks, and the functions of cognition. Cognitive scientists study intelligence and behavior, with a focus on how nervous systems represent, process, and transform information. Mental faculties of concern to cognitive scientists include language, perception, memory, attention, reasoning, and emotion; to understand these faculties, cognitive scientists borrow from fields such as linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology. The typical analysis of cognitive science spans many levels of organization, from learning and decision to logic and planning; from neural circuitry to modular brain organization. The fundamental concept of cognitive science is that "thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures."

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. It involves analysing language form, language meaning, and language in context. The earliest activities in the documentation and description of language have been attributed to the 6th-century-BC Indian grammarian Pāṇini who wrote a formal description of the Sanskrit language in his Aṣṭādhyāyī.

Psychology is the science of behavior and mind. Psychology includes the study of conscious and unconscious phenomena, as well as feeling and thought. It is an academic discipline of immense scope. Psychologists seek an understanding of the emergent properties of brains, and all the variety of phenomena linked to those emergent properties, joining this way the broader neuroscientific group of researchers. As a social science it aims to understand individuals and groups by establishing general principles and researching specific cases.

Concepts in the representational theory of mind

Within the framework of the representational theory of mind, the structural position of concepts can be understood as follows: Concepts serve as the building blocks of what are called mental representations (colloquially understood as ideas in the mind). Mental representations, in turn, are the building blocks of what are called propositional attitudes (colloquially understood as the stances or perspectives we take towards ideas, be it "believing", "doubting", "wondering", "accepting", etc.). And these propositional attitudes, in turn, are the building blocks of our understanding of thoughts that populate everyday life, as well as folk psychology. In this way, we have an analysis that ties our common everyday understanding of thoughts down to the scientific and philosophical understanding of concepts. [6]

Nature of concepts

A central question in the study of concepts is the question of what they are. Philosophers construe this question as one about the ontology of concepts – what they are like. The ontology of concepts determines the answer to other questions, such as how to integrate concepts into a wider theory of the mind, what functions are allowed or disallowed by a concept's ontology, etc. There are two main views of the ontology of concepts: (1) Concepts are abstract objects, and (2) concepts are mental representations. [7]

Platonist views of the mind construe concepts as abstract objects, [8]

There is debate as to the relationship between concepts and natural language. [4] However, it is necessary at least to begin by understanding that the concept "dog" is philosophically distinct from the things in the world grouped by this concept – or the reference class or extension. [9] Concepts that can be equated to a single word are called "lexical concepts". [4]

Study of concepts and conceptual structure falls into the disciplines of linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science. [10]

In the simplest terms, a concept is a name or label that regards or treats an abstraction as if it had concrete or material existence, such as a person, a place, or a thing. It may represent a natural object that exists in the real world like a tree, an animal, a stone, etc. It may also name an artificial (man-made) object like a chair, computer, house, etc. Abstract ideas and knowledge domains such as freedom, equality, science, happiness, etc., are also symbolized by concepts. It is important to realize that a concept is merely a symbol, a representation of the abstraction. The word is not to be mistaken for the thing. For example, the word "moon" (a concept) is not the large, bright, shape-changing object up in the sky, but only represents that celestial object. Concepts are created (named) to describe, explain and capture reality as it is known and understood.

A priori concepts

Kant maintained the view that human minds possess pure or a priori concepts. Instead of being abstracted from individual perceptions, like empirical concepts, they originate in the mind itself. He called these concepts categories, in the sense of the word that means predicate, attribute, characteristic, or quality. But these pure categories are predicates of things in general, not of a particular thing. According to Kant, there are twelve categories that constitute the understanding of phenomenal objects. Each category is that one predicate which is common to multiple empirical concepts. In order to explain how an a priori concept can relate to individual phenomena, in a manner analogous to an a posteriori concept, Kant employed the technical concept of the schema. He held that the account of the concept as an abstraction of experience is only partly correct. He called those concepts that result from abstraction "a posteriori concepts" (meaning concepts that arise out of experience). An empirical or an a posteriori concept is a general representation (Vorstellung) or non-specific thought of that which is common to several specific perceived objects (Logic, I, 1., §1, Note 1)

A concept is a common feature or characteristic. Kant investigated the way that empirical a posteriori concepts are created.

The logical acts of the understanding by which concepts are generated as to their form are:

  1. comparison, i.e., the likening of mental images to one another in relation to the unity of consciousness;
  2. reflection, i.e., the going back over different mental images, how they can be comprehended in one consciousness; and finally
  3. abstraction or the segregation of everything else by which the mental images differ ...

In order to make our mental images into concepts, one must thus be able to compare, reflect, and abstract, for these three logical operations of the understanding are essential and general conditions of generating any concept whatever. For example, I see a fir, a willow, and a linden. In firstly comparing these objects, I notice that they are different from one another in respect of trunk, branches, leaves, and the like; further, however, I reflect only on what they have in common, the trunk, the branches, the leaves themselves, and abstract from their size, shape, and so forth; thus I gain a concept of a tree.

Logic, §6

Embodied content

In cognitive linguistics, abstract concepts are transformations of concrete concepts derived from embodied experience. The mechanism of transformation is structural mapping, in which properties of two or more source domains are selectively mapped onto a blended space (Fauconnier & Turner, 1995; see conceptual blending). A common class of blends are metaphors. This theory contrasts with the rationalist view that concepts are perceptions (or recollections, in Plato's term) of an independently existing world of ideas, in that it denies the existence of any such realm. It also contrasts with the empiricist view that concepts are abstract generalizations of individual experiences, because the contingent and bodily experience is preserved in a concept, and not abstracted away. While the perspective is compatible with Jamesian pragmatism, the notion of the transformation of embodied concepts through structural mapping makes a distinct contribution to the problem of concept formation.[ citation needed ]

Ontology

Plato was the starkest proponent of the realist thesis of universal concepts. By his view, concepts (and ideas in general) are innate ideas that were instantiations of a transcendental world of pure forms that lay behind the veil of the physical world. In this way, universals were explained as transcendent objects. Needless to say this form of realism was tied deeply with Plato's ontological projects. This remark on Plato is not of merely historical interest. For example, the view that numbers are Platonic objects was revived by Kurt Gödel as a result of certain puzzles that he took to arise from the phenomenological accounts. [11]

Gottlob Frege, founder of the analytic tradition in philosophy, famously argued for the analysis of language in terms of sense and reference. For him, the sense of an expression in language describes a certain state of affairs in the world, namely, the way that some object is presented. Since many commentators view the notion of sense as identical to the notion of concept, and Frege regards senses as the linguistic representations of states of affairs in the world, it seems to follow that we may understand concepts as the manner in which we grasp the world. Accordingly, concepts (as senses) have an ontological status (Morgolis:7).

According to Carl Benjamin Boyer, in the introduction to his The History of the Calculus and its Conceptual Development, concepts in calculus do not refer to perceptions. As long as the concepts are useful and mutually compatible, they are accepted on their own. For example, the concepts of the derivative and the integral are not considered to refer to spatial or temporal perceptions of the external world of experience. Neither are they related in any way to mysterious limits in which quantities are on the verge of nascence or evanescence, that is, coming into or going out of existence. The abstract concepts are now considered to be totally autonomous, even though they originated from the process of abstracting or taking away qualities from perceptions until only the common, essential attributes remained.

Mental representations

In a physicalist theory of mind, a concept is a mental representation, which the brain uses to denote a class of things in the world. This is to say that it is literally, a symbol or group of symbols together made from the physical material of the brain. [9] [10] Concepts are mental representations that allow us to draw appropriate inferences about the type of entities we encounter in our everyday lives. [10] Concepts do not encompass all mental representations, but are merely a subset of them. [9] The use of concepts is necessary to cognitive processes such as categorization, memory, decision making, learning, and inference.[ citation needed ]

Concepts are thought to be stored in long term cortical memory, [12] in contrast to episodic memory of the particular objects and events which they abstract, which are stored in hippocampus. Evidence for this separation comes from hippocampal damaged patients such as patient HM. The abstraction from the day's hippocampal events and objects into cortical concepts is often considered to be the computation underlying (some stages of) sleep and dreaming. Many people (beginning with Aristotle) report memories of dreams which appear to mix the day's events with analogous or related historical concepts and memories, and suggest that they were being sorted or organised into more abstract concepts. ("Sort" is itself another word for concept, and "sorting" thus means to organise into concepts.)

Notable theories on the structure of concepts

Classical theory

The classical theory of concepts, also referred to as the empiricist theory of concepts, [9] is the oldest theory about the structure of concepts (it can be traced back to Aristotle [10] ), and was prominently held until the 1970s. [10] The classical theory of concepts says that concepts have a definitional structure. [4] Adequate definitions of the kind required by this theory usually take the form of a list of features. These features must have two important qualities to provide a comprehensive definition. [10] Features entailed by the definition of a concept must be both necessary and sufficient for membership in the class of things covered by a particular concept. [10] A feature is considered necessary if every member of the denoted class has that feature. A feature is considered sufficient if something has all the parts required by the definition. [10] For example, the classic example bachelor is said to be defined by unmarried and man . [4] An entity is a bachelor (by this definition) if and only if it is both unmarried and a man. To check whether something is a member of the class, you compare its qualities to the features in the definition. [9] Another key part of this theory is that it obeys the law of the excluded middle , which means that there are no partial members of a class, you are either in or out. [10]

The classical theory persisted for so long unquestioned because it seemed intuitively correct and has great explanatory power. It can explain how concepts would be acquired, how we use them to categorize and how we use the structure of a concept to determine its referent class. [4] In fact, for many years it was one of the major activities in philosophyconcept analysis. [4] Concept analysis is the act of trying to articulate the necessary and sufficient conditions for the membership in the referent class of a concept.[ citation needed ] For example, Shoemaker's classic "Time Without Change" explored whether the concept of the flow of time can include flows where no changes take place, though change is usually taken as a definition of time.

Arguments against the classical theory

Given that most later theories of concepts were born out of the rejection of some or all of the classical theory, [8] it seems appropriate to give an account of what might be wrong with this theory. In the 20th century, philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Rosch argued against the classical theory. There are six primary arguments [8] summarized as follows:

  • It seems that there simply are no definitions – especially those based in sensory primitive concepts. [8]
  • It seems as though there can be cases where our ignorance or error about a class means that we either don't know the definition of a concept, or have incorrect notions about what a definition of a particular concept might entail. [8]
  • Quine's argument against analyticity in Two Dogmas of Empiricism also holds as an argument against definitions. [8]
  • Some concepts have fuzzy membership. There are items for which it is vague whether or not they fall into (or out of) a particular referent class. This is not possible in the classical theory as everything has equal and full membership. [8]
  • Rosch found typicality effects which cannot be explained by the classical theory of concepts, these sparked the prototype theory. [8] See below.
  • Psychological experiments show no evidence for our using concepts as strict definitions. [8]

Prototype theory

Prototype theory came out of problems with the classical view of conceptual structure. [4] Prototype theory says that concepts specify properties that members of a class tend to possess, rather than must possess. [8] Wittgenstein, Rosch, Mervis, Berlin, Anglin, and Posner are a few of the key proponents and creators of this theory. [8] [13] Wittgenstein describes the relationship between members of a class as family resemblances. There are not necessarily any necessary conditions for membership, a dog can still be a dog with only three legs. [10] This view is particularly supported by psychological experimental evidence for prototypicality effects. [10] Participants willingly and consistently rate objects in categories like 'vegetable' or 'furniture' as more or less typical of that class. [10] [13] It seems that our categories are fuzzy psychologically, and so this structure has explanatory power. [10] We can judge an item's membership to the referent class of a concept by comparing it to the typical member – the most central member of the concept. If it is similar enough in the relevant ways, it will be cognitively admitted as a member of the relevant class of entities. [10] Rosch suggests that every category is represented by a central exemplar which embodies all or the maximum possible number of features of a given category. [10] According to Lech, Gunturkun, and Suchan explain that categorization involves many areas of the brain, some of these are; visual association areas, prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and temporal lobe.

Theory-theory

Theory-theory is a reaction to the previous two theories and develops them further. [10] This theory postulates that categorization by concepts is something like scientific theorizing. [4] Concepts are not learned in isolation, but rather are learned as a part of our experiences with the world around us. [10] In this sense, concepts' structure relies on their relationships to other concepts as mandated by a particular mental theory about the state of the world. [8] How this is supposed to work is a little less clear than in the previous two theories, but is still a prominent and notable theory. [8] This is supposed to explain some of the issues of ignorance and error that come up in prototype and classical theories as concepts that are structured around each other seem to account for errors such as whale as a fish (this misconception came from an incorrect theory about what a whale is like, combining with our theory of what a fish is). [8] When we learn that a whale is not a fish, we are recognizing that whales don't in fact fit the theory we had about what makes something a fish. In this sense, the Theory–Theory of concepts is responding to some of the issues of prototype theory and classic theory. [8]

Ideasthesia

According to the theory of ideasthesia (or "sensing concepts"), activation of a concept may be the main mechanism responsible for creation of phenomenal experiences. Therefore, understanding how the brain processes concepts may be central to solving the mystery of how conscious experiences (or qualia) emerge within a physical system e.g., the sourness of the sour taste of lemon. [14] This question is also known as the hard problem of consciousness. [15] [16] Research on ideasthesia emerged from research on synesthesia where it was noted that a synesthetic experience requires first an activation of a concept of the inducer. [17] Later research expanded these results into everyday perception. [18]

There is a lot of discussion on the most effective theory in concepts. Another theory is semantic pointers, which use perceptual and motor representations and these representations are like symbols. [19]

Etymology

The term "concept" is traced back to 1554–60 (Latin conceptum – "something conceived"). [20]

See also

Related Research Articles

In philosophy, idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies that assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to materialism, idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.

Metaphysics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Philosophy of perception

The philosophy of perception is concerned with the nature of perceptual experience and the status of perceptual data, in particular how they relate to beliefs about, or knowledge of, the world. Any explicit account of perception requires a commitment to one of a variety of ontological or metaphysical views. Philosophers distinguish internalist accounts, which assume that perceptions of objects, and knowledge or beliefs about them, are aspects of an individual's mind, and externalist accounts, which state that they constitute real aspects of the world external to the individual. The position of naïve realism—the 'everyday' impression of physical objects constituting what is perceived—is to some extent contradicted by the occurrence of perceptual illusions and hallucinations and the relativity of perceptual experience as well as certain insights in science. Realist conceptions include phenomenalism and direct and indirect realism. Anti-realist conceptions include idealism and skepticism.

<i>Where Mathematics Comes From</i>

Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being is a book by George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, and Rafael E. Núñez, a psychologist. Published in 2000, WMCF seeks to found a cognitive science of mathematics, a theory of embodied mathematics based on conceptual metaphor.

<i>Critique of Pure Reason</i> 1781 book by Immanuel Kant

The Critique of Pure Reason is a book by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in which the author seeks to determine the limits and scope of metaphysics. Also referred to as Kant's "First Critique", it was followed by the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of Judgment (1790). In the preface to the first edition, Kant explains that by a "critique of pure reason" he means a critique "of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience" and that he aims to reach a decision about "the possibility or impossibility of metaphysics".

Abstract and concrete are classifications that denote whether the object that a term describes has physical referents. Abstract objects have no physical referents, whereas concrete objects do. They are most commonly used in philosophy and semantics. Abstract objects are sometimes called abstracta and concrete objects are sometimes called concreta. An abstract object is an object that does not exist at any particular time or place, but rather exists as a type of thing—i.e., an idea, or abstraction. The term abstract object is said to have been coined by Willard Van Orman Quine. The study of abstract objects is called abstract object theory.

The language of thought hypothesis (LOTH), sometimes known as thought ordered mental expression (TOME), is a view in linguistics, philosophy of mind and cognitive science, forwarded by American philosopher Jerry Fodor. It describes the nature of thought as possessing "language-like" or compositional structure. On this view, simple concepts combine in systematic ways to build thoughts. In its most basic form, the theory states that thought, like language, has syntax.

A conceptual system is a system that is composed of non-physical objects, i.e. ideas or concepts. In this context a system is taken to mean "an interrelated, interworking set of objects".

Ray Jackendoff

Ray Jackendoff is an American linguist. He is professor of philosophy, Seth Merrin Chair in the Humanities and, with Daniel Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He has always straddled the boundary between generative linguistics and cognitive linguistics, committed to both the existence of an innate universal grammar and to giving an account of language that is consistent with the current understanding of the human mind and cognition.

Prototype theory is a mode of graded categorization in cognitive science, where some members of a category are more central than others. For example, when asked to give an example of the concept furniture, chair is more frequently cited than, say, stool. Prototype theory has also been applied in linguistics, as part of the mapping from phonological structure to semantics.

Eleanor Rosch

Eleanor Rosch is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in cognitive psychology and primarily known for her work on categorization, in particular her prototype theory, which has profoundly influenced the field of cognitive psychology.

Neurophilosophy or philosophy of neuroscience is the interdisciplinary study of neuroscience and philosophy that explores the relevance of neuroscientific studies to the arguments traditionally categorized as philosophy of mind. The philosophy of neuroscience attempts to clarify neuroscientific methods and results using the conceptual rigor and methods of philosophy of science.

In philosophy, the computational theory of mind (CTM) refers to a family of views that hold that the human mind is an information processing system and that cognition and consciousness together are a form of computation. Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts (1943) were the first to suggest that neural activity is computational. They argued that neural computations explain cognition. The theory was proposed in its modern form by Hilary Putnam in 1967, and developed by his PhD student, philosopher and cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Despite being vigorously disputed in analytic philosophy in the 1990s due to work by Putnam himself, John Searle, and others, the view is common in modern cognitive psychology and is presumed by many theorists of evolutionary psychology. In the 2000s and 2010s the view has resurfaced in analytic philosophy.

Outline of thought Overview of and topical guide to thought

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to thought (thinking):

Conceptual change is the process whereby concepts and relationships between them change over the course of an individual person’s lifetime or over the course of history. Research in four different fields – cognitive psychology, cognitive developmental psychology, science education, and history and philosophy of science - has sought to understand this process. Indeed, the convergence of these four fields, in their effort to understand how concepts change in content and organization, has led to the emergence of an interdisciplinary sub-field in its own right. This sub-field is referred to as “conceptual change” research.

Embodied cognition is the theory that many features of cognition, whether human or otherwise, are shaped by aspects of the entire body of the organism. The features of cognition include high level mental constructs and performance on various cognitive tasks. The aspects of the body include the motor system, the perceptual system, bodily interactions with the environment (situatedness) and the assumptions about the world that are built into the structure of the organism.

Andrew Brook is a Canadian philosopher, author and academic particularly known for his writings on Immanuel Kant and the interplay between philosophy and cognitive science. Brook is Chancellor's Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Carleton University, President of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society, and former President of the Canadian Philosophical Association.

References

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Further reading