The ‘proprioceptive’ component of abstract concepts

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In this chapter, we address the issue of whether the mastery of abstract words requires only inferential knowledge and thus, if the concepts that support the mastery of abstract words include only linguistic information. We start by differentiating the notions of ‘abstract’ and ‘general’ which are often erroneously confused. We then identify a strict definition of abstract, as contrasted with ‘concrete’, that applies to words or concepts whose referent cannot be experienced by the senses. We argue that abstract words/concepts would be better described as theoretical, because they are usually conceived as structured sets of inferential knowledge expressed linguistically; that is, as small theories. Pointing out parallels with Carnap’s analysis of this issue in philosophy of science, we hypothesize that words/concepts denoting non-observable entities are not all ‘equally theoretical’, because their link to sensory experience can be stronger or weaker. We revive the distinction, inspired by Quine, between theoretical and intertheoretical concepts/words. This distinction relies on the fact that the former—unlike the latter—retains a strong, although indirect, connection with perception. In Quine’s discussion, perception is understood uniquely in terms of observability, i.e. of external sensory experience. Here we argue, however, that bodily, ‘proprioceptive’ (i.e. propriosensitive) experience can also serve to referentially ground theoretical (i.e. abstract) concepts/words. We frame this issue using the example of the theoretical concept ‘freedom’ and Lakoff’s hypothesis that this concept is developed on the basis of bodily information. We contrast this with the example of ‘democracy’ which more closely resembles an intertheoretical concept/word. Furthermore, we show that one of the classical views put forward in psycholinguistic research to explain how abstract concepts are mentally represented—i.e. Paivio’s Dual Coding Theory—points in the same direction as our analysis. The same is true of Barsalou’s work suggesting that we use internal information to understand at least some abstract words. To sustain this position, we put forward two lines of evidence: the first comes from psycholinguistic studies while the second examines deficits of semantic competence exhibited by people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. On the basis of our analysis, we put forward a classification that distinguishes between different kinds of concreteness and different degrees of abstraction: concepts/words referring to body experiences and basic emotions are described as analogous to concrete concepts/words because they are grounded in perceptual (i.e. propriosensitive) experience, while abstract concepts/words are considered more or less abstract depending on whether they are intratheoretical (and rely entirely on inferential information) or theoretical (and are partially grounded in perceptual—or more often in propriosensitive perceptual—information). In the last section of the chapter we consider two scales that have been used in psycholinguistic research to measure the degree of concreteness versus abstractness of words and we show that—used conjointly—they can provide a measure of the internal versus external grounding of specific words.




Dellantonio, S., & Pastore, L. (2017). The ‘proprioceptive’ component of abstract concepts. In Studies in Applied Philosophy, Epistemology and Rational Ethics (Vol. 40, pp. 297–357). Springer International Publishing.

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