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The Big Book of ConceptsReview - The Big Book of Concepts
by Gregory L. Murphy
MIT Press, 2002
Review by James Beebe, Ph.D.
Apr 10th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 15)

Gregory Murphy’s The Big Book of Concepts is large not only in size and scope but also in significance.  Murphy provides a much-needed overview of important developments in the psychological research on concepts during the last two decades.  An enormous number of experiments related to concepts have been performed in areas such as category learning, word meaning, conceptual development in infants, the basic level of categorization, typicality effects, and exemplar effects.  Murphy brilliantly weaves together a staggering quantity of experimental results and theoretical explanations into a unified and enlightening survey of this exciting area of research.

Murphy’s engaging and easy-to-read writing style makes his densely packed book very enjoyable to read.  An impenetrable writing style would have made a book of this size intolerably tedious.  Murphy’s uses of non-technical language means that any educated person can understand and benefit from reading this book. 

Although The Big Book of Concepts is quite accessible, it also has plenty to offer the serious student or scholar interested in doing research on concepts.  In addition to being packed with information, Murphy makes suggestions regarding promising avenues for future research in every chapter.  For example, he notes that most experimental work on concepts has subjects go through series or lists of items until they can categorize them correctly.  The experimenter is always the one to decide which items go in which category.  In ordinary life, however, subjects experience new objects and events on their own and must create new categories in which to place them.  This activity of ‘category construction’ has not, in Murphy’s opinion, been adequately studied in the research on concepts.  Another research suggestion of Murphy’s concerns ‘concept use.’  Ordinary subjects do not—as they are forced to do in psychological experiments—simply memorize which categories several items fit into.  Instead, they interact with these items and use the concepts they acquire to solve a variety of practical problems.  Research has shown that concept use affects categorization, but the major theories of concepts have not taken this fact into account.  Murphy’s insightful suggestions will be a valuable resource to graduate students and other interested researchers looking for projects to pursue. 

Murphy begins his book by describing the demise of the so-called ‘classical theory of concepts,’ which traces its roots all the way back to Socrates.  According to the classical theory, concepts are represented in the mind as definitions—or, as philosophers like to say, as sets of necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of those concepts.  Murphy provides a very readable account of how the important discoveries of typicality effects made by Eleanor Rosch and her colleagues helped to bring about the demise of the classical theory. 

Rosch found that subjects agree to a surprising extent about whether an example of a category counts as a good member of that category.  Robins, for example, but not ostriches are always rated as typical or exemplary members of the category ‘bird.’  Items are rated as typical if they have features that are common to their category and do not have features that are common to other categories.  Rosch also discovered that subjects make judgments about category membership with greater ease when the given instances are typical.  When faced with sentences containing atypical instances, subjects take longer to read those sentences and are more likely to make errors on categorization tasks concerning them.  The classical theory did not predict these results and has difficulty handling other associated phenomena, such as borderline cases of category membership and distinctions between typical and atypical members of a category.  The discoveries of Rosch and her colleagues not only undermined the classical theory of concepts; they also revolutionized and invigorated the psychological study of concepts. 

The two dominant theories that have arisen in the wake of Rosch’s findings since the 1970s are the prototype theory and the exemplar theory.  The prototype theory maintains that concepts are represented in long-term memory by their best or most typical instances.  For example, my concept ‘dog’ would be represented as an image of an average-sized dog with average ears and hair length and an average body shape.  On the prototype theory, categorization involves comparing an observed item to stored prototypes and seeing which prototype it is most similar to.

The exemplar view maintains that subjects store information about many or all instances of a category rather than merely a summary or generalized representation of that category.  So, my concept of ‘dog’ would consist in the set of memories of particular dogs that I have seen—everything from bulldogs to dachsunds to golden retrievers.  Categorization, according to the exemplar theory, involves comparing an item to all the stored exemplars of a particular category and determining the number of exemplars to which the target is similar and the degree of similarity it bears to those exemplars. 

Murphy provides a helpful summary of experiments that have compared the prototype and exemplar theories in the attempt to demonstrate the superiority of one theory over the other.  He strives to be balanced and fair in his assessment of these experiments, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of both theories.  According to Murphy, the exemplar theory comes out ahead in most experiments that directly compare the two theories.  However, he suspects that this apparent fact may be an artifact caused by the kinds of experiments that are normally chosen to distinguish the two. These experiments typically 1) involve artificial categories that contain only a few exemplars, 2) have a simple or weak category structure and 3) are rather difficult for subjects to learn. By contrast, ordinary categories experienced in common life 1) contain many instances, 2) have a robust and rich structure and 3) are easier to learn than the contrived categories typically used in psychological experiments.  Consequently, it is not clear what can be inferred from these experiments about the structure of ordinary concepts.  Murphy also believes that the exemplar theory is less able to explain many phenomena that are found in experiments that do not directly compare the prototype and exemplar theories—e.g., discoveries about the basic level of categorization, induction, and concept learning in infants.

Throughout the book Murphy does a fine job of separating important data from theoretical explanations of those data.  For example, there are prototype phenomena, and then there is the prototype theory of concepts.  Prototype phenomena are simply data showing that the typicality of an item affects subjects’ performance on various learning, recognition and categorization tasks.  In contrast, the prototype theory of concepts is an account of how concepts are represented in the mind.  Murphy also clearly distinguishes exemplar effects and the exemplar theory of concepts.  Exemplar effects are experimental findings showing that subjects sometimes rely upon particular instances of a category that are stored in memory while performing various cognitive tasks.  Again, the exemplar theory, as a theory of conceptual structure, is something else altogether. 

Murphy also discusses the effects of background knowledge on concept learning and use.  He notes that studies of concepts have traditionally tried to separate as much as possible the tasks subjects perform from any background knowledge those subjects may have.  Subjects are typically asked to learn artifical categories composed of certain geometric shapes, alphanumeric strings, patches of color, and dot patterns.  However, Murphy argues that it is also important to study how subjects construct categories and make categorization judgments in cases where their background knowledge may be relevant.  Stimuli that subjects receive in real world settings are typically richly structured and connected to categories and objects subjects know a lot about.  Exemplar and prototype theories of concepts have typically neglected the role of knowledge in concept learning and use.  Knowledge-based theories (or theory theories, as they are often called) are sometimes put forward as promising successors to the exemplar and prototype theories because they can handle knowledge effects.  However, those theories cannot handle the typicality and exemplar effects the way the other two theories can.  So, Murphy thinks the abandonment of the prototype and exemplar theories in favor of knowledge-based theories would be premature. 

Murphy explains the rather clever methodologies that have been developed in recent years to study the concepts of infants and the significant—and often surprising—results they have yielded.  He spends more time discussing developmental issues in the study of concepts than is typical for a review of the concepts literature.  The last two decades of developmental research have overturned earlier conceptions of infants as lacking the same sort of concepts adults have.  Very young infants reveal prototype effects, knowledge effects, and a preference for basic-level categorization—just like adults.  Whatever differences there are between concept-learning in young children and concept-learning in adults, Murphy claims, can be chalked up to differences in life experience, knowledge about specific domains, and processing capacity. 

Murphy discusses many other topics, including the relationship between word meanings and concepts, the use of category knowledge in induction, and conceptual combination.  If you can make it all the way through this very big and splendid book on concepts, you will receive a first-class introduction to the psychology of concepts.  I highly recommend this book to students and scholars who wish to know more about this exciting area of psychological research. 

 

© 2003 James R. Beebe

 

 

James Beebe, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at Louisiana State University.  His research and teaching interests lie primarily in epistemology and the philosophy of cognitive science.


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