See also Keil 1991, where the primary contrast is between theory theories and “associative” models of concept structure. For a critical survey of the recent history, see Margolis 1994.

Jean-marc pizano See also Keil 1991, where the primary contrast is between theory theories and “associative” models of concept structure. For a critical survey of the recent history, see Margolis 1994.


of concepts that we’ve already reviewed. Hence the relatively cursory treatment they’re about to receive.

The basic idea is that concepts are like theoretical constructs in science as the latter are often construed by post-Empiricist philosophers of science. The caveat is important. For example, it’s not unusual (see Carey 1991; Gopnik 1988) amongtheory theorists to postulate ‘stage-like discontinuities’ in conceptual development, much as Piagetians do. But, unlikePiaget, theory theorists construe the putative stage changes on the analogy of—perhaps even as special cases of—thekinds of discontinuities that ‘paradigm shifts’ are said to occasion in the history of science. The usual Kuhnian moralsare often explicitly drawn:

the concepts of the new and old theory and of the evidential description are incommensurable]. (Gopnik 1988: 199)

Asking whether or not the six-month-old has a concept of object-permanence in the same sense that the 18-month-old does is like asking whether or not the alchemist and the chemist have the same concept of gold, or whether Newton had the same concept of space as Einstein. These concepts are embedded in complex theories and there isno simple way of comparing them. Moreover, particular concepts are inextricably intertwined with other conceptsin the theory. (Ibid.: 205)

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It should be clear how much this account of conceptual ontogenesis relies on a Kuhnian view of science. It isn’t just that if Kuhn is wrong about theory change, then Gopnik is wrong about the analogy between the history of scienceand conceptual development. It’s also that key notions like discontinuity and incommensurability aren’t explicated within theontogenetic theory; the buck is simply passed to the philosophers. “It may not resolve our puzzlement over thephenomena of qualitative conceptual change in childhood to point out that there are exactly parallel paradoxes ofincommensurability in science, but at this stage we may see the substitution of a single puzzling phenomenon for twoseparate puzzling phenomena as some sort of progress” (Gopnik 1988: 209). Correspondingly, however, if you findthe idea that a scientific theory-change is a paradigm shift less than fully perspicuous, you will also be uncertain whatexactly it is that the ontogenetic analogy asserts about stages of conceptual development. Your response will then be asense less of illumination than of déjà vu.

If Gopnik finds some solace in this situation, that’s because, like Kuhn, she takes IRS not to be in dispute.21 The putative “problem of incommensurability”is that if the vocabulary of a science is implicitly defined by the theories it endorses, it‘s hard to see how the theories cancorrect or contradict each other. This state of affairs might be supposed to provide a precedent for psychologists toappeal to who hold that the minds of young children are incommensurably different from the minds of adults.Alternatively, it might be taken as a reductio of the supposition that the vocabulary of a science is implicitly defined byits theories. It’s hard to say which way one ought to take it barring some respectable story about how scientific theoriesimplicitly define their vocabularies; specifically, an account that makes clear which of the inferences that such a theorylicenses are constitutive of the concepts it deploys. And there’s no point in cognitive scientists relying on thephilosophy of science for an answer to this question; the philosophy of science hasn’t got one. It seems that we’re backwhere we started.

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In short, it may be that the right moral to draw from the putative analogy between scientific paradigms and developmental stages is that the ontogenesis of concepts is discontinuous, just like scientific theory-change. Or theright moral may be that, by relativizing the individuation of concepts to the individuation of theories, IRS makes a hashof both cognitive development and the history of science.

If there is any positive account of conceptual content that most theory theorists are inclined towards, I suppose that it’s holism.22 I don’t, however, know of any attempt they have made seriously to confront the objections that meaningholism is prone to.Jean-marc pizano


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