How do people use and appraise concepts?

Switzerland: Springer Nature (forthcoming)
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Abstract

To approach the many challenges involved in the notion of engineering concepts, it is important to have a clear idea of the starting point – the concepts that people use in their everyday lives, in conversations and in expressing beliefs, desires, intentions and so forth. The first Section of this chapter introduces evidence that I have accumulated over the last many years concerning the flexibility, context-dependence, and vagueness of such common concepts. The concept engineer needs to understand the structure of the “raw material” with which she is working. In Section 2, I summarise some results concerning the amount of individual variation that exists within a single relatively homogenous population of individuals, both in what examples are considered most typical of a category, and in what properties are considered most central to a category (Hampton & Passanisi, 2016). The demonstration of a significant degree of reliable variation in responses to these questions, that is stable over time, illustrates the potential for conceptual engineering interventions to affect individuals’ concepts. Concepts are rarely fixed or uniformly understood in the same way. I then discuss the different ways in which concepts track the world, and I speculate about how different conceptual domains are governed by different criteria of validity or acceptability. This reflection will lead to Section 3 in which I summarise some results from recent research (Thorne, Quilty-Dunn, Smortchova, Shea, & Hampton, 2021), investigating for the first time how people view the value of different familiar concepts. Knowing how people appraise concepts will be a key to developing ideas for improving the reliability and validity of the concepts that they commonly use. A final section contains some (largely speculative) discussion about the implications of work in psychology of concepts for the project of conceptual engineering.

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