Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Précis of The Origin of Concepts

Susan Careya1

a1 Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138


A theory of conceptual development must specify the innate representational primitives, must characterize the ways in which the initial state differs from the adult state, and must characterize the processes through which one is transformed into the other. The Origin of Concepts (henceforth TOOC) defends three theses. With respect to the initial state, the innate stock of primitives is not limited to sensory, perceptual, or sensorimotor representations; rather, there are also innate conceptual representations. With respect to developmental change, conceptual development consists of episodes of 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. TOOC concludes with a discussion of how an understanding of conceptual development constrains a theory of concepts.

(Online publication May 19 2011)

Susan Carey, Henry A. Morss, Jr., and Elizabeth W. Morss Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, has written extensively on conceptual development, with case studies of number representations, intuitive physics, and intuitive biology. Her work was recognized by election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2002 and the David E. Rumelhart Prize in 2009.