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Semantic Competence from the Inside: Conceptual Architecture and Composition

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Concepts are essential constituents of thought: they are the instruments we use to categorize our experience, i.e. to classify things and group them together in homogeneous sets. Here we define concepts as the internal mental information (representations) that allows us, among other things, to master words in natural language. By analyzing the way in which individuals master word meanings we explore a number of hypotheses regarding the nature of concepts. Following Diego Marconi’s research, we differentiate between two kind of abilities that underpin lexical competence—so-called ‘referential’ and ‘inferential competence’—and we suggest that, in order to support these abilities, concepts must also include two corresponding kinds of information, i.e. inferential and referential information. We point out that the most widely used and acknowledged theories of concepts do not make this distinction, instead broadly characterizing the information used for categorization in terms of propositionally described feature lists. However, we show that while feature lists can explain inferential competence, they do not account for referential competence. To address the issue of referential competence we examine Ray Jackendoff’s hypothesis that to account for the possibility of linking perceptual and conceptual information we need to assume the existence of a (visual) representation that encodes the geometric and topological properties of objects and bridges the gap between the percept and the concept. Furthermore, we analyze the extension of this work by Jesse Prinz who introduced the notion of a proxytype, a perceptual representation of a class of objects that incorporates structural and parametric information related to their appearance. However, as we point out, proxytypes can only explain the relationship between perception and concepts with respect to instances that can be perceived through the senses and that belong to the same class by virtue of their physical similarity. We suggest that this notion be extended to include larger conceptual classes. To accomplish this, we further develop Mark Johnson, George Lakoff and Jean Mandler’s idea of a schematic image and argue that conceptual representations include a perceptual schema. Perceptual schemata are non-linguistic, structured experiential gestalts (patterns or maps) that make use of information taken from all sensory modalities, including body perception. They accomplish a quasi-conceptual function: they allow us to recognize and to classify different instances. In this work, we hypothesize that perceptual schemata are an essential component of concepts, but not identical to them. Instead, we suggest that concepts include both perceptual and propositional information with perceptual schemata providing the ‘perceptual core concept’ that grounds related propositional information.




Dellantonio, S., & Pastore, L. (2017). Semantic Competence from the Inside: Conceptual Architecture and Composition. In Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics (Vol. 40, pp. 99–148). Springer International Publishing.

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