The use of concepts in the process of cognition in materialist dialectics has been defined by Lenin in his Philosophical Notebooks as “human concepts which must likewise be hewn, treated, flexible, mobile, relative, mutually connected, united in opposites, in order to embrace the world”.
Concepts are reflections of categories in the world and are created through experience with the world. Concepts provide a way of organizing experience into meaningful units. The ability to store and access conceptual information is vital to cognition because many tasks that people perform on a daily basis require them to apply existing knowledge to new situations.
To illustrate, if someone sees a new animal, he/she can use conceptual knowledge of animals to classify it as a bear even though he/she has not previously encountered this particular bear. In addition, concepts allow people to make predictions. For example, identifying an animal as a bear allows a person to predict that it might be dangerous and act accordingly. Given the central importance of conceptual information in cognition, concepts are often referred to as the building blocks of cognition.
Our understanding of the social world is influenced by our concepts, beliefs, implicit theories, goals, and our memories and attention. Our basic cognitive processes such as attention and memory are affected by social factors such as our stereotypes, our expectancies, what others tell us especially when we try to make sense of our social world such as when evaluating other people and self.
Certain pivotal roles that concepts perform in our everyday life are as follows:
Classification: We recognize certain exemplars of a social category as members of a certain concept
– an offer to carry an old person’s grocery can be recognized as help
Inferring additional attributes: Once we have classified an instance as belonging to a concept, we can use this concept to go beyond the information given about that particular instance on that particular occasion
– a person classified as clinically depressed can also be thought to be suicide-prone
Guiding attention and interpretation: Concepts provide a framework for making sense of incoming information
– when we observe a woman crying at a funeral, we will see this as an expression of sadness; the same behavior can be interpreted as an expression of joy when observed in a wedding (Trope, 1986)
Communication: Concepts ensure effective communication because they allow the speaker to omit many details under the assumption that the listener already knows them or can infer them
– A: why were you running?
– B: I saw a rattlesnake
Some of the important characteristics of cognition are that objects, entities and events, are treated in thought and language as members of conceptual categories. Concepts or conceptual categories, are mental representations of objects, entities or events, sorted in memory. Thus the ability to place objects in conceptual categories is a fundamental property of perception. Without conceptual categories, it would be extremely difficult to communicate about objects.
The relationship between conceptual categorization and language is a complex one. By treating objects, entities and events as members of conceptual categories, we are mentally dividing the world into distinct chunks. This way we impose a structure on the world. In short there are natural correlations among the properties of things in our world such that they frequently, though invariably go together. The structure of our mental representations comes both from these correlations of properties, and also from the machinery with which we perceive them.
Our modern world, where global communication is extremely facile, provides us with a standard view of the universe, also supported by the technological progress yielded by this view. However, it is possible to organize the same environment, the same sense data, in different conceptual ways. Even what we consider as the most fundamental concepts can be different in different cultures and can lead to radically different world views.
An example could be given by the study of B. L. Whorf (Whorf 1950) on the Hopis. In the Hopi language, there is no concept of time. Instead, they divide their world into two grand concepts: ‘manifested’ and ‘unmanifest’. The ‘manifested’ category corresponds to whatever is or was accessible to the senses. The mountain I am looking at now, and my recollection of the snowstorm I saw yesterday would both fit into this category. The ‘unmanifest’ category includes everything else, Thus, anything that has not happened (my plans for what I will do tomorrow), plus everything that is imagined (what might be happening somewhere else) would fall into this category. In spite of this different conceptual organization, Whorf argued that the Hopis ‘are capable of accounting for and describing correctly, in a pragmatic or operational sense, all observable phenomena of the universe’. .
Another example in the same vein is given by the unsuccessful attempts of finding the neurophysiological basis of the ‘universals’ in naming color categories. While these examples may give the impression that world views different from those of modern western culture have setbacks inherent to primitivism, that cultural evolution is necessarily ascendent and gives more accurate world views, we must not forget that people from Eskimo tribes can distinguish between dozens of types of snow.
Scientists like Rosch say that the role of the human category system is to reflect perceived world structure in a set of categories which provide maximum information with minimum effort. The categories we form are designed to minimize cognitive effort by taking advantage of perceived world structure and representing it in the most ‘economical’ way. Generally speaking, what may be an economical distinction for a set of individuals in one culture or subculture may not satisfy the requirements of others. In this way culture factors play a part in determining what categories are developed by different individuals, social groups or societies.
The real problem, then, is to determine how cultural forces interact with the structured nature of objects and events in the world, and the processing that takes place by the perceiver. An important consideration (Freyd, 1983) is that the categories formed by a particular social group must be capable of being shared by all members of that group. Hence the potential structuring capacity of the mind will be constrained by the requirement that categories are shareable, i.e. make sense to more than one individual.
Clearly there is something fuzzy about the concept ‘chair’ if a particular object is included under some circumstances and excluded under others. The conceptual categories which we form for different classes of objects or entities may be of different kinds. At least theoretically, geometric figures can be represented in terms of categories which are clear-cut and well-defined by a small number of necessary and sufficient properties. It is sometimes claimed that concepts in technical domains (e.g. science, law, mathematics) tend to be of the first well-defined kind, whereas our concepts of the objects and the entities we encounter in everyday life (furniture, vehicles, clothing, etc.) are of the second fuzzy variety.
Another question, not yet touched upon, is how we decide to what category a particular item belongs. We might ask how conceptual categories are acquired in the first place. Any of you who are familiar with children will have observed the gradual process by which they come to use terms such as ‘chair’ appropriately. Initially a child may use the term for several items of furniture and only gradually narrow it down to apply to that group of objects which we, as adults, classify as chairs. But concept acquisition is not only a phenomenon of childhood but it continues throughout adult life. Think of the new concepts which one acquires as one gets older: they range from concrete concepts such as the parts of a car or the ingredients of a dish to highly abstract concepts such as socialism or fashion. So concept acquisition is a central facet of both child development and adult cognition.
To summarize, an understanding of how we categorize focuses upon three main issues:
1. Representations: How are conceptual categories mentally represented?
2. Processes: How are particular items assigned to these categories?
3. Acquisition strategies: How are these categories acquired?
Another scientist Bruner gave his own view about how concepts are mentally represented. According to him concepts are represented as lists of properties or features, these feature lists being necessary and sufficient for the concepts in question. In fact Bruner’s model is sometimes described as a feature model. The problem with these assumptions is that though they were true, by definition, of Bruner’s artificial concepts, he made no effort to test their validity for more realistic concepts. There are problems in generalizing the notion of necessary and sufficient defining features to everyday concepts such as ‘chair’, or even biological concepts such as ‘dog’.
These criticisms show how a particular methodology may place constraints upon theory. For instance, ‘a robin is a bird’ might be more rapidly realized than ‘a parrot is a bird’. This led psychologists to question whether all the instances within a given category really do have equal status. This would be expected if they are the clearly defined categories which Collins and Quillian imply. What they found was that, in experimental tasks, certain items are judged more typical of a conceptual category than others. Thus subjects in such experiments think of ‘robin’ as a more typical instance of ‘bird’ than ‘parrot’. This single insight was what most influenced psychologists to rethink traditional views of representation.
Both Bruner and Collins and Quillian assumed that individual concepts are represented by lists of properties or features, and that these properties define the concepts. They are by no means the first to have put forward this view.
Some of the most persuasive empirical evidence against the traditional view of conceptual structure consists of typicality effects. Eleanor Rosch and others have shown that many categories of everyday objects appear to have internal structure. The members of a category such as ‘furniture’ are not thought of as being equal in terms in status. Some members (e.g. chair) are thought of as more typical than others (e.g. wardrobe), thus imparting structure to the category. More persuasive is the fact that typically affects people’s performance in various cognitive tasks. This does suggest that typicality plays a part in the way people organize conceptual knowledge.
Concepts embody our knowledge of the kinds of things there are in the world. Tying our past experiences to our present interactions with the environment, they enable us to recognize and understand new objects and events. Concepts are also relevant to understanding domains such as social situations, personality types, and even artistic styles. Yet like other phenomenologically simple cognitive processes such as walking or understanding speech, concept formation and use are maddeningly complex.