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Essentialism, word use, and concepts

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The essentialist approach to word meaning has been used to undermine the fundamental assumptions of the cognitive psychology of concepts. Essentialism assumes that a word refers to a natural kind category in virtue of category members possessing essential properties. In support of this thesis, Kripke and Putnam deploy various intuitions concerning word use under circumstances in which discoveries about natural kinds are made. Although some studies employing counterfactual discoveries and related transformations appear to vindicate essentialism, we argue that the intuitions have not been investigated exhaustively. In particular, we argue that discoveries concerning the essential properties of whole categories (rather than simply of particular category members) are critical to the essentialist intuitions. The studies reported here examine such discovery contexts, and demonstrate that words and concepts are not used in accordance with essentialism. The results are, however, consistent with “representational change” views of concepts, which are broadly Fregean in their motivation. We conclude that since essentialism is not vindicated by ordinary word use, it fails to undermine the cognitive psychology of concepts.

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