Concepts as Correlates of Lexical Labels

A Cognitivist Perspective

by Slawomir Wacewicz (Author)
©2015 Monographs 236 Pages
Series: Dis/Continuities, Volume 9


The study of language becomes particularly attractive when it is not practised as an isolated descriptive enterprise, but when it has wide-ranging implications for the study of the human mind. Such is the spirit of this book. While categorisation may be the single most basic cognitive process in organisms, and as an area of inquiry, it is fundamental to Cognitive Science as a whole, at the other end of the spectrum, high-level cognition is organised and permeated by language, giving rise to categories that count and function as concepts. Working from considering the philosophical assumptions of the cognitivist perspective, this study offers an argument for a very productive understanding of the relation between concepts, categories, and their theoretical models.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I Internalistic Perspective On Language In Cognitive Science
  • Preliminary remarks
  • 1. History and profile of Cognitive Science
  • 1.1 Introduction
  • 1.2 Cognitive Science: definitions and basic assumptions
  • 1.3 Basic tenets of Cognitive Science
  • 1.3.1 Cognition
  • 1.3.2 Representationism and presentationism
  • 1.3.3 Naturalism and physical character of mind
  • 1.3.4 Levels of description
  • 1.3.5 Internalism (Individualism)
  • 1.4 History
  • 1.4.1 Prehistory
  • 1.4.2 Germination
  • 1.4.3 Beginnings
  • 1.4.4 Early and classical Cognitive Science
  • 1.4.5 Contemporary Cognitive Science
  • 1.4.6 Interdisciplinarity: methodological notes
  • 1.5 Summary
  • 2. Intrasystemic and extrasystemic principles of concept individuation
  • 2.1 Existential status of concepts
  • 2.1.1 I-language and E-language
  • 2.1.2 I-concepts and E-concepts
  • 2.1.3 Gottlob Frege: metaphysical views and their influence
  • 2.2 Internalist and externalist principles of content-individuation
  • 2.2.1 Externalism: arguments by H. Putnam
  • 2.2.2 Common misunderstandings concerning internalism and externalism about content
  • 2.2.3 Case against externalism
  • 2.3 Summary and conclusion
  • Part II The Theoretical Foundations of The Study of Concepts
  • Introduction and notation
  • 3. Concepts, categorisation, mental representation. Preliminary definitions and discussion. Historical background
  • Introduction and caveats
  • 3.1 Concepts
  • 3.1.1 Preliminary definitions
  • 3.1.2 Historical note
  • 3.1.3 Discussion
  • 3.2 Categories, categorisation
  • 3.2.1 Preliminary definition
  • 3.2.2 Categories
  • 3.2.3 Categorisation
  • 3.3 Mental representation
  • 3.4 Summary
  • 4. Concepts in Cognitive Science
  • 4.1 Scope of study
  • 4.2 Concepts in Cognitive Science. Concepts as lexical categories
  • 4.2.1 Introductory remarks
  • 4.2.2 What is ‘a concept’? Conditions on theories of concepts
  • 4.2.3 Concepts are mental representations
  • 4.2.4 Concepts are categories
  • 4.2.5 Concepts have lexical correlates
  • 4.2.6 Concepts are shareable/concepts subserve communication
  • 4.3 Conclusion
  • Part III Contemporary Approaches To Categorisation And Conceptual Structure
  • 5. Classical approach to categorisation and conceptual structure
  • 5.1 Theories of categorisation or theories of concepts? Review of terminological problems
  • 5.1.2 Mentalism, psychological reality, and theoretical goals
  • 5.2 Classical approach
  • 5.2.1 Exposition
  • 5.2.2 History
  • 5.2.3. Criticism
  • 5.2.4 Evaluation
  • 5.2.5 Specific problem: feature format
  • 5.2.6 Natural Semantic Metalanguage
  • 5.3 Summary and conclusion
  • 6. Conceptual atomism and its refutation
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Jerry Fodor’s theory of concepts
  • 6.2.1 Naturalism
  • 6.2.2 Folk psychology
  • 6.2.3 Systematic nature of human thought (compositionality)
  • 6.2.4 Consequences
  • 6.2.5 Fodor’s conceptual atomism and informational semantic
  • 6.3 Criticism of Fodor’s conceptual atomism
  • 6.3.1 Radical concept nativism
  • 6.3.2 Problem of elimination of epistemic factors
  • 6.4 Recapitulation
  • 7. From prototype to exemplar models in nonlexical and lexical categorisation
  • 7.1 Preliminary remarks
  • 7.2 Similarity as theoretical notion
  • 7.2.1 Problems with similarity
  • 7.2.2 Ways of constraining similarity
  • 7.3 Prototype and exemplar models of categorisation
  • 7.3.1 What is ‘a prototype’?
  • 7.3.2 Categorisation by prototype
  • 7.3.3 What is ‘an exemplar’?
  • 7.3.4 Categorisation by exemplars
  • 7.4 From prototype to exemplar models in lexical categorisation
  • 7.4.1 Distinguishing exemplar from prototype models
  • 7.4.2 Distinctiveness and advantages of exemplar models
  • 7.5 Summary
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Glossary of central terms


Objectives and Methods

The primary objective of this work consists in providing a typology and a critical examination of the key contemporary approaches to the topic of concepts and conceptual structure in its relation to categorisation. In the course of the text, I advance and defend two specific main theses. Firstly, concepts – at least for the purposes relevant to cognitive scientific research – are most fruitfully understood as ‘lexical categories’, in the sense of mental representations with lexical correlates. Secondly, concepts, so conceived, have internal structures, contrary to the influential proposal put forward by conceptual atomists. By way of conclusion, I suggest that quantitative categorisation models from other content domains (e.g. perceptual categorisation), such as exemplar models, may be the best suited to revealing the internal structures of concepts.

The other major goal, which can be considered auxiliary, consists in a comprehensive and epistemologically informed discussion of the cognitive perspective on the study of language, its utility and validity. What is worth stressing is the broad construal of ‘the cognitive perspective’, which embraces but also largely transcends cognitive linguistics. In accordance with the spirit of Cognitive Science, it extends to cover all research that is both founded on strong mentalistic and representational assumptions and relevant to understanding human language processing – thus being open to insights from experimental psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, neurolinguistics, philosophy of language and mind, as well as a number of related fields.

The character of the present book is theoretical. In view of the breadth of the thematic scope of this work, I pursue the two major goals presented above mostly by way of surveying and synthesising contemporary research in the cognitivist tradition. However, contemporary and historic research from other traditions is presented as well, not just to seek the due theoretical distance that is necessary for this type of academic work, but also in order to provide a proper background. Despite the theoretical character, in the course of the text I devote substantial effort to grounding the theorising in available empirical findings, whenever such results come as relevant. This work is based (largely but not exclusively) on a review and analysis of literature in the English language that dominates contemporary international research on the topic of categorisation and concepts. Philosophically, it builds to a substantial degree on the theoretical achievements ← 9 | 10 → of the Anglo-Saxon analytic tradition (but again, not to the exclusion of other relevant approaches).

At various points in the course of this dissertation, I stop to discuss and clarify matters of terminology. The definitions of several key terms assumed in this work, such as category, concept, and mental representation, are concisely stated in the glossary at the end of this text.

Profile and Scope

This thesis can be classified as having a historical-systematising profile. I put the views of particular influential authors, as well as larger intellectual approaches, into perspective and broken down into components, with the exposition of underlying philosophical commitments. The survey and analysis of contemporary research into the issue of concepts and categorisation are set in the appropriate historical context. This context, however, is necessarily overall rather than exhaustive, for reasons related to the breadth of the issue under consideration: in practice, most large-scale theoretical problems in the history of Western thought can be claimed to have relevance to the question of concepts. I have chosen to give priority to those thinkers whose contributions can be seen as foundational for occidental epistemology or inspirational for later analytic philosophy of mind and language, including Plato and Aristotle, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Gottlob Frege.

As for the current intellectual background, the thesis follows closely Noam Avram Chomsky’s general philosophical assumptions regarding the nature of language, i.e. strong mentalism, as well as the crucial methodological postulate of psychological reality1. Indeed, spelling out the consequences of the conflict between the mentalistic (internalist) and the non-mentalistic (externalist) perspectives becomes a central motif of this dissertation, discussed in detail in a separate chapter but recurring throughout the text. The views of Ray S. Jackendoff, a linguist with both generative and cognitivist inclinations, are also often referred to in a similar context. Among the key philosophical issues considered in this work that have been developed by contemporary analytic philosophy are those related to the ontological status of conceptual contents – a question which leads to a polemical discussion with the argumentation advanced by Hilary W. Putnam. Finally, the scrutiny of the current empirical research regarding categorisation focuses on the experimental findings from cognitive psychology, most ← 10 | 11 → prominently those by Eleanor Rosch (formerly Heider) and her collaborators and continuators, as well as the group of researchers associated with Douglas L. Medin.

Perhaps the most central researcher in the context of this dissertation is the linguist and philosopher Jerry Alan Fodor, for the past two and a half decades affiliated with Rutgers University. This prominence results from both the personal importance of Fodor as a leading cognitive scientist and philosopher of Cognitive Science, and from the relevance of multiple threads of his research. Fodor’s views are quoted and discussed regarding several main issues of this work, such as the internalistic perspective in the study of language, the methodological soundness of interdisciplinarity, the ontology of concepts, and the requirements on a theory of concepts. What is more, Fodor’s atomistic theory of conceptual content, often seen as a major contender, is reported and then critically addressed in a separate chapter.


This thesis assumes a three-part organisation, with the parts devoted, respectively, to the perspective of study, the object of study, and the analysis of the relevant theoretical approaches to the issue of conceptual structure and categorisation.

Part I – Research Perspective

The first part of this work aims at the presentation of the research perspective as well as a distanced discussion by way of contrasting it with viewpoints external to it. The initial chapter has a preparatory character, having as its objective an introduction of Cognitive Science; most importantly, in the historical aspect of its development over the past several decades, as well as more contemporarily, in the aspect of its relation to the cognitive study of language. It also sets up and critically examines the representational and interdisciplinary context relevant to the remaining part of this work.

I trace back the history of Cognitive Science to its birth from the research on Artificial Intelligence (Alan M. Turing and others) and memory (George A. Miller), and most importantly, the linguistic as well as philosophical contributions of Noam A. Chomsky. Two ways of understanding Cognitive Science are presented, with the first one, concentrated on the study and simulation of symbolic, computationally explicit processes, being now complemented with – and to an extent replaced by – a different approach, stressing the importance of a bodily and environmental context of cognition, as well as the role of nonsymbolic ← 11 | 12 → representational format. There follows a diagnosis of the present status of Cognitive Science, and in particular of the question of its interdisciplinarity, leading to a suggestion that the canonical descriptions of Cognitive Science in terms of its member disciplines fail to do justice to its present nature.

The issue of interdisciplinarity is explored in more detail, with focus placed on the methodological reservations often raised against it. After acknowledging some of the risks associated with it, I defend the idea of interdisciplinary cooperation, both in general and specifically in the context of the study of the mind. Crucially, I intend the section on the strengths of interdisciplinarity to highlight the mutual relevance of cognitive linguistics (narrowly construed) and Cognitive Science: especially, how data from widely different disciplines of Cognitive Science can enrich, complement and validate purely linguistic data. An important role in this context is played by the examples of actual research; in particular, the examples inspired by George P. Lakoff’s study of conceptual metaphor are backed up by several layers of converging empirical nonlinguistic evidence from a range of disciplines.

Chapter Two of the present dissertation seeks to substantiate, on independent grounds, a crucial research decision, that is the assumption of the intrasystemic understanding of concepts and categories. The intrasystemic perspective is evaluated as an alternative to the more routinely taken externalistic perspective. The guiding motivation behind this thread is the avoidance of the petitio principii fallacy, i.e. the validation of the intrasystemic standpoint merely on the basis of its being a necessary consequence of the presupposed cognitivist commitments.

I formulate this theoretical problem referring mainly to the framework set up by Noam Chomsky. The rivalling, externalistic perspective is then introduced, leading to the discussion of the reasons for the understanding of concepts as nonmental, abstract beings existing independently of individual minds. Gottlob Frege’s influential account is presented in order. I explain the motivations behind his antipsychologism but resist the construal, common in the literature on concepts, of concepts as entities ontologically corresponding to Fregean senses.

The next step in the discussion of the perspective of study consists in the exposition of the overarching debate between externalism and internalism of conceptual content. Particular attention is devoted to a meticulous treatment of terminological distinctions, with a view to avoiding frequent misunderstandings resulting from the terminological intricacies in this area. The presentation of the content of the externalistic doctrine is based on the central example of Hilary Putnam’s “Twin Earth” thought-experiment. The rest of the chapter serves to spell out the consequences of such a position: extant and novel arguments ← 12 | 13 → against it are combined, ultimately leading to the rejection of this view, and thus reinforcing the internalistic position.

Part II – Object of Study

The second part of the thesis is concerned with the object of study, that is the topic of concepts and categorisation. These are introduced and depicted in a possibly general and theory-neutral way before being approached specifically from the cognitivist and mentalistic point of view adopted in this work. Terminology, again, plays a central role, and terminological decisions are carefully justified.

Chapter Three deals with the key notions of the thesis: concept, categorisation, mental representation. A maximally broad construal of the notion of concept is offered as a starting point, with an extensive list of conditions of ‘concepthood’ imposed by different theoretical outlooks; it serves as a broad background for the subsequent delimitation of the scope of study in Chapter Four. An important interim conclusion of this part of the work is that at least some of the criteria of concepthood might be impossible to reconcile within a single research perspective.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Cognitive Science study of the human mind Categorization
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 236 pp., 8 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Slawomir Wacewicz (Author)

Sławomir Wacewicz is an Assistant Professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. He holds a PhD in Linguistics. His research interest focuses on the evolution of language, evolution of cognition, and the philosophy of language and mind.


Title: Concepts as Correlates of Lexical Labels
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
238 pages