Conceptual Development: The Case of Essentialism

Susan A. Gelman and Elizabeth A. Ware

in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Cognitive Science

Published in print January 2012 | ISBN: 9780195309799
Published online May 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Conceptual Development: The Case of Essentialism


The article focuses on conceptual development in children. There are two primary components to psychological essentialism, which include the belief that certain categories are natural kinds and the belief that there is some unobservable property. Psychologists examine the psychological representations of concepts whereas philosophers have examined essentialism with the goal of addressing a range of issues such as psychological, semantic, and metaphysical. The study of essentialism in children provides insights into children's cognition and information regarding the roots of human concepts. Essentialism includes several component beliefs, including that categories have sharp, immutable boundaries, that category members share deep, nonobvious commonalities, and that category membership has an innate, genetic, or biological basis. Kamp and Partee suggest that categories are seen with absolutely sharp boundaries only in abstract domains. Essentialism does not require that categories be treated as absolute but essentialism is the claim that category boundaries are intensified. Essentialism emerges early and consistently, does not require formal schooling, and if anything may be even stronger in early childhood than later. The detailed studies of parental input to children about categories also suggest that parents do not provide explicit instruction about essentialist beliefs.

Keywords: conceptual development; psychological essentialism; attentional learning account; conceptual change

Article.  11914 words. 

Subjects: Philosophy ; Philosophy of Mind

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribeRecommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »