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From “ecological theory of concepts”

January 8, 2010

I was reading: Gabora, L., Rosch, E., & Aerts, D. (2008). Toward an ecological theory of concepts. Ecological Psychology, 20 (1), 84-116.

Here is what i find interesting and related with my own ecological thinking.

Traditionally concepts have been viewed as internal structures that represent a class of entities in the world. However, increasingly they are thought to have no fixed representational structure, their structure being dynamically influenced by the contexts in which they arise (Riegler, Peschl & von Stein, 1999).

A concept is defined not just in terms of exemplary states and their features or properties, but also by the relational structures of these properties, and their susceptibility to change under different contexts.

We view concepts not as fixed representations or identifiers, but rather as bridges between mind and world that participate in the generation of meaning.

The approach implies a view of mind in which the union of perception and environment drives conceptualization, forging a web of conceptual relations or ‘ecology of mind’.

Rosch’s theory of graded structure categorization (1973): An extensive program of research has demonstrated that the same form of graded structure applies to categories of the most diverse kinds: perceptual categories such as colours and forms; semantic categories such as FURNITURE, biological categories such as a WOMAN, social categories such as OCCUPATION, political categories such as DEMOCRACY, formal categories that have classical definitions such as ODD NUMBER, and ad hoc goal derived categories such as THINGS TO TAKE OUT OF THE HOUSE IN A FIRE.

Categories form around and/or are mentally represented by salient, information rich, often imageable stimuli that become “prototypes” for the category.

Gärdenfors (2000a, b) has introduced a provocative geometrical approach to concepts. He considers not just binary features or properties, but dimensions (e.g. color, pitch, temperature, weight). He defines domain as a set of integrable dimensions that are separate from all other dimensions. The property ‘red’ is a convex domain in a region defined by the integrable dimensions hue, saturation, and brightness.

State Context Property (SCOP) formalism
Using the SCOP formalism, a description of a concept consists of the five elements:
• A set S = {p, q, …} of states the concept can assume.
• A set M = {e, f, …} of relevant contexts.
• A set L = {a, b, …} of relevant properties or features. (Note that contexts can be concepts, as can features.)
• A function v that describes the applicability or weight of a certain feature given a specific state and context. For example, v(p, e, a) is the weight of feature a for the concept in state p under context e.
A function m that describes the transition probability from one state to another under the influence of a particular context. For example, m(f, q, e, p) is the probability that state p under influence of context e changes to the state q, giving rise to the new context f.

In the SCOP approach to concepts we have introduced the notion ‘state of a concept’. For any concept there exists an infinite number of possible states it can be in. An important notion introduced in the SCOP approach is the ground state of a concept. This is the ‘undisturbed’ state of a concept; the state it is in when it is not being evoked or thought about, not participating in the structuring of a conscious experience.

We say that a context e evokes a change of state in the concept, from a state p to a state q. Borrowing terminology from quantum mechanics we refer to this change of state as collapse. A change of state of a concept that occurs during collapse may in turn change the context.

When a concept interacts with a specific context, it is immediately projected out of the ground state to another state. This means that the ground state is a theoretical construct, such as for example the state of a physical system in empty space. Indeed, one never experiences a concept in its ground state, since always there is
some context present. It is similar to the fact that a physical system is never in empty space. The properties that are actual in the ground state are the characteristic properties of the concept. The influence of context on the state of a concept can be such that even characteristic properties of a concept disappear if the concept is transformed into a new state under the influence of a context.

Each concept (or constellation of concepts) can be considered a context (however unlikely) of another, and highly probable states of one concept can become included as improbable states of another.

Rosch, E. (1973). Natural Categories, Cognitive Psychology, 4, 328-350.
Gärdenfors, P. (2000a). Concept combination: A geometric model. In Blackburn, Braisby, & Shimojima (Eds.) Logic, Language and Computation: Volume 3 (pp. 129-146), CSLI Publications.
Gärdenfors, P. (2000b). Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Riegler, A. Peschl, M. & von Stein, A. (1999). Understanding representation in the cognitive sciences. Dordrecht Holland: Kluwer Academic.

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