In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Concepts

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works and Anthologies
  • Philosophical Antecedents
  • The Basic Ontology of Concepts
  • Kinds of Concepts
  • Psychological Essentialism
  • Nativism and Acquisition
  • Analyticity
  • Heterogeneity

Philosophy Concepts
Kevan Edwards
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0220


Debates about the nature of concepts are sufficiently fraught that it is difficult to give an uncontroversial characterization of the basic subject matter. One typical starting point treats concepts as something like the basic building blocks of cognitive states. A different starting point emphasizes the importance of perceptual/cognitive/behavioral abilities and identifies concepts with structures and processes claimed to underlie such abilities—if not with the abilities themselves. A yet different starting point prescinds from psychological phenomena and treats concepts as abstracta, for example as the basic constituents of propositions (themselves construed as abstract objects). In spite of a lack of agreement about a basic starting point, most contemporary theories of concepts can be categorized according to the structure they attribute to concepts: (1) the so-called “classical” structure of definitions, (2) structure that encodes statistical information about the relevant category, (3) constitutive relations to perceptual systems, (4) constitutive relations to bodies of beliefs or theories, (5) no structure at all. Given the breadth of the role concepts play in philosophy and psychology, it is no surprise that a variety of issues have arisen that either cut across the taxonomy of theories mentioned above or that stem from relations that the notion of a concept bears to other issues. These include questions about the nature of the structure to which various approaches appeal, whether various theories of concepts can (or need to) ground a notion of analytic truth, and even whether the notion of a concept has a place in a serious science of cognition.

Introductory Works and Anthologies

Margolis and Laurence 1999 continues to be widely recognized as the canonical collection of papers on concepts. The first chapter, written by the editors specifically for the volume, is a comprehensive introduction to many of the standard views about concepts in both philosophy and cognitive psychology. Laurence and Margolis are also the authors of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry on concepts, Margolis and Laurence 2012, the content of which overlaps substantially with that of Margolis and Laurence 1999. Although the former is more comprehensive than the latter, a recent update to the latter adds some new content. One or the other of the aforementioned works is arguably a must-read for newcomers to the topic. Many of the other standard points of entry into the topic are books that are partly an introduction to the subject matter but also defend a particular view, or at least emphasize a class of views. Komatsu 1992, Murphy 2002, and Smith and Medin 1981 all fall into this category. It is worth noting that Margolis and Laurence are first and foremost philosophers, although they are well acquainted with relevant work in cognitive and developmental psychology; Komatsu, Murphy, Medin, and Smith are psychologists and their work shows a typical emphasis on cognitive abilities and the structures/processes that underlie them.

  • Komatsu, Lloyd K. “Recent Views of Conceptual Structure.” Psychological Bulletin 112.3 (1992): 500–526.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.112.3.500

    Detailed introduction to work on concepts in psychology advanced prior to the publication of the paper (1992), focusing on the difference between “similarity-based” views (prototypes, exemplars, etc.) and “explanation-based” views (theory-theory or knowledge-based approaches). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Margolis, Eric, and Stephen Laurence, eds. Concepts: Core Readings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

    An anthology of important papers by both philosophers and psychologists on topics pertaining to concepts. Includes a lengthy and comprehensive introductory essay by the editors. The introductory essay lays out the standard views of concepts as well as discussing various arguments pro and con each approach.

  • Margolis, Eric, and Stephen Laurence. “Concepts.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2012.

    An accessible and freely available introduction to the topic and discussion of many key issues.

  • Murphy, Gregory L. The Big Book of Concepts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

    A sophisticated introduction organized around issues rather than theories of concepts. Has an obvious focus on the kinds of issues that have motivated prototype, exemplar, and theory-theory approaches to concepts.

  • Smith, Edward E., and Douglas L. Medin. Categories and Concepts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

    In part an overview of theories of concepts, emphasizing theories in the psychological literature—but also defends the prototype approach.

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