Andrew Brook Distinguised Lecture: Dr. Susan Carey, Havard University

January 09, 2014, 1:00 – 2:30 PM
2203 Dunton Tower
A reception will be held for Dr. Carey immediately after the talk.

Title: The Origin of Concepts


Alone among animals, humans can ponder the causes and cures of pancreatic cancer or global warming. How are we to account for the human capacity to create concepts such as electron, cancer, infinity, galaxy, and democracy?

A theory of conceptual development must have three components. First, it must characterize the innate representational repertoire—that is, the representations that subsequent learning processes utilize. Second, it must describe how the initial stock of representations differs from the adult conceptual system. Third, it must characterize the learning mechanisms that achieve the transformation of the initial into the final state. I defend three theses. With respect to the initial state, contrary to historically important thinkers such as the British empiricists, Quine, and Piaget, as well as many contemporary scientists, the innate stock of primitives is not limited to sensory, perceptual or sensory-motor representations; rather, there are also innate conceptual representations. With respect to developmental change, contrary to “continuity theorists” such as Fodor, Pinker, Macnamara and others, conceptual development involves qualitative change, resulting in systems of representation that are more powerful than and sometimes incommensurable with those from which they are built. With respect to a learning mechanism that achieves conceptual discontinuity, I offer Quinian bootstrapping.

I take on two of Fodor’s challenges to cognitive science: 1) to show how (and in what ways) learning can lead to increases in expressive power and 2) to defeat mad dog nativism–the claim that all concepts lexicalized by mono morphemic words are innate. The key to answering both of these challenges is to show that and how computational primitives can be learned.

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