The Making of Human Concepts

Front Cover
Denis Mareschal, Paul C. Quinn, S. E. G. Lea
Oxford University Press, 2010 - Psychology - 400 pages
Human adults appear different from other animals in their ability to form abstract mental representations that go beyond perceptual similarity. In short, they can conceptualize the world. This apparent uniqueness leads to an immediate puzzle: WHEN and HOW does this abstract system come into being? To answer this question we need to explore the origins of adult concepts, both developmentally and phylogenetically; When does the developing child acquire the ability to use abstract concepts?; does the transition occur around 2 years, with the onset of symbolic representation and language? Or, is it independent of the emergence of language?; when in evolutionary history did an abstract representational system emerge?; is there something unique about the human brain? How would a computational system operating on the basis of perceptual associations develop into a system operating on the basis of abstract relations?; is this ability present in other species, but masked by their inability to verbalise abstractions? Perhaps the very notion of concepts is empty and should be done away with altogether.

This book tackles the age-old puzzle of what might be unique about human concepts. Intuitively, we have a sense that our thoughts are somehow different from those of animals and young children such as infants. Yet, if true, this raises the question of where and how this uniqueness arises. What are the factors that have played out during the life course of the individual and over the evolution of humans that have contributed to the emergence of this apparently unique ability? This volume brings together a collection of world specialists who have grappled with these questions from different perspectives to try to resolve the issue. It includes contributions from leading psychologists, neuroscientists, child and infant specialists, and animal cognition specialists. Taken together, this story leads to the idea that there is no unique ingredient in the emergence of human concepts, but rather a powerful and potentially unique mix of biological abilities and personal and social history that has led to where the human mind now stands.

A 'must-read' for students and researchers in the cognitive sciences.

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Part 2 Concept learning across species
Part 3 The making of uniquely human concepts
Part 4 Conclusions

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About the author (2010)

Denis Mareschal obtained his first degree from King's College Cambridge in Natural Science with a specialisation in physics and theoretical physics. He then went on to obtain a Masters in psychology from McGill University with a thesis on the computational modelling of cognitive development. Finally, he obtained a DPhil in Psychology from the University of Oxford for a thesis combining neural network modelling and the experimental testing of infant-object interactions. He took up an initial lecturing position at the University of Exeter (UK) in 1995 and moved to Birkbeck College University of London in 1998 where he has been ever since. He was awarded the Marr Prize in 1995 by the Cognitive Science Society (USA), the Young Investigator Award in 2000 by the International Society on Infant Studies (USA), and the Margaret Donaldson Prize in 2006 by the Developmental Section of the British Psychological Society. He was made professor in 2006.

Paul C. Quinn earned an ScB degree in Psychology with Honors and graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Brown University in 1981. He also received a PhD in Psychology from Brown in 1986. Quinn taught previously at the University of Iowa (1986-88) and at Washington & Jefferson College (1988-2003) before moving to the University of Delaware as Professor of Psychology in 2003. Quinn has been named a Fellow by the American Psychological Association (2004) and Association for Psychological Science (2007). He is interested in understanding the developmental emergence of synthetic cognitive abilities with a particular focus on the mechanisms by which human infants group (1) elements to form perceptual wholes, (2) objects into category representations, and (3) relations among objects into concepts. Quinn's research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, and has resulted in over 120 journal and book chapter publications.

Stephen E. G. Lea holds MA and PhD degrees from the University of Cambridge, and has worked at the University of Exeter since 1976, being promoted to full professor in 1990. His PhD work was on decision-making in rats, and he was an early contributor to the field of animal cognition, which was then just beginning to emerge. Within that field, he is well known for his work on concept learning in birds, but he has also published on a range of topics in behavioural ecology, on subjects ranging from laboratory studies of hoarding in hamsters to field studies of diving in cormorants. In addition he was one of the founders of the modern movement in economic psychology, and is well known for his work on the psychology of money and debt. He has long experience of voluntary work with children and young people, and is a local (lay) preacher for the Methodist Church

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