Four New Articles on Conceptual Processing

If you follow research on conceptual processing from the grounded perspective, four recent articles in press might be of interest.  The first article addresses the debate between grounded and amodal theories, concluding that a successful theory of concepts will include grounding, abstraction, and context-dependent flexibility, while explaining classic conceptual phenomena and making contact with real-world situations.  The second article asks whether human cognition can be reduced to action, and concludes that it can’t, because  diverse representational and other internal processes mediate perception and action, making the impressive range of human actions possible.  The third article presents a theory of situated conceptual processing and demonstrates its broad applicability to cognitive, social, affective, and appetitive behaviors.  The fourth article raises issues for theories of concept composition, arguing that if these theories aspire to psychological plausibility,  they will have to address the content variability, multiple representational forms, and pragmatic  constraint that characterize human conceptual processing.  If you’re interested in exploring any of these articles further,  the references,  abstracts, and links to them follow.

Barsalou, L.W. (2016). On staying grounded and avoiding Quixotic dead ends. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 23, 1122-1142.

The fifteen articles in this special issue on The Representation of Concepts illustrate the rich variety of theoretical positions and supporting research that characterize the area.  Although much agreement exists among contributors, much disagreement exists as well, especially about the roles of grounding and abstraction in conceptual processing.  I first review theoretical approaches raised in these articles that I believe are Quixotic dead ends, namely, approaches that are principled and inspired but likely to fail.  In the process, I review various theories of amodal symbols, their distortions of grounded theories, and fallacies in the evidence used to support them.  Incorporating further contributions across articles, I then sketch a theoretical approach that I believe is likely to be successful, which includes grounding, abstraction, flexibility, explaining classic conceptual phenomena, and making contact with real-world situations.  This account further proposes that (1) a key element of grounding is neural reuse, (2) abstraction takes the forms of multimodal compression, distilled abstraction, and distributed linguistic representation (but not amodal symbols), and (3) flexible context-dependent representations are a hallmark of conceptual processing.

Barsalou, L.W. (2016). Can cognition be reduced to action? Processes that mediate stimuli and responses make human action possible. In A. K. Engel, K. J. Friston, & D. Kragic (Eds.), Where’s the action? The pragmatic turn in cognitive science (Strüngmann Forum Reports, Vol. 18, pp. 81-96, J. Lupp, Series Ed.). Cambridge, MA. MIT Press.

After treating action as peripheral for decades, cognitive scientists increasingly appreciate the fundamental roles it plays throughout cognition.  Because action shapes cognitive processes pervasively, some theorists propose that cognition can be reduced to action.  I propose that the central roles of action in human cognition depend on important processes that mediate between stimuli and responses.  From this perspective, the unique features of human cognition do not simply reflect a remarkable potential for action, but also powerful abilities that mediate action in response to the environment.  Sophisticated action results from sophisticated mediation, in particular, from mediating processes associated with representation, conceptualization, internal state attribution, affect, and self-regulation.  Integrated with action systems, these mediating processes endow humans with unusually flexible and powerful means of shaping their physical and social environments.  Without taking these mediating processes into account, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to explain human action.  It may also be difficult to explain basic cognitive phenomena associated with memory, concepts, categorization, symbolic operations, language, problem solving, decision making, motivation, emotion, reward, self, mentalizing, and social cognition.  Instead of reducing cognition to action, an alternative project is to develop a viable theory that does justice to the importance of action in cognition, while integrating mediating processes that complement it.

Barsalou, L.W. (2016). Situated conceptualization: Theory and applications. In Y. Coello & M. H. Fischer (Eds.), Foundations of embodied cognition, Volume 1: Perceptual and emotional embodiment (pp. 11-37). East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.

This chapter develops the construct of situated conceptualization beyond earlier treatments.  After assumptions about conceptual processing and grounded cognition are addressed, a theoretical framework for situated conceptualization is presented that incorporates simulation, situatedness, local vs. global conceptualization, exemplars vs. abstraction, emergence, pattern completion inferences, and subjective realism.  The broad applicability of this framework is then illustrated using examples of relevant phenomena from the domains of perception, action, cognition, social cognition, affective processing, and appetitive processing.  As these examples illustrate, the processes of constructing situated conceptualizations, storing them, and applying them in new situations appear to be ubiquitous across domains.  These processes offer a natural means of explaining individual differences across domains as well.

Barsalou, L.W. (in press). Cognitively plausible theories of concept composition. In Y. Winter & J. A. Hampton (Eds.), Compositionality and concepts in linguistics and psychology. London: Springer Publishing.

If a theory of conceptual combination aspires to psychological plausibility, it may first need to address several preliminary issues, all of them relatively daunting.  One issue concerns the considerable variability in a concept’s content.  Increasing research suggests that many, if not most, concepts do not have stable cores that remain invariant across situations.  Instead, concepts generally appear to take different forms across situations, sampling dynamically from diverse sources of information.  Across these different forms, no single prototype (much less a rule) may represent a concept.  Instead, many different situation-specific prototypes or exemplars may represent the concept, with important conceptual content distributed across all these representations in the aggregate.  A second issue concerns the form of a concept’s representation.  Although amodal symbols have traditionally been assumed to represent concepts, their plausibility has been increasingly called into question, with challenges from neural nets, grounded cognition, and latent semantic analysis.  Whereas some researchers argue that simulations in the brain’s modal systems represent concepts, others argue that clouds of linguistic forms play this role.  It would not be surprising if all these accounts are correct to some extent, with concepts being represented in multiple forms, each playing important roles.  A final issue concerns relations between concepts and the world.  As concepts become mapped to their instantiations in the environment, they appear to change and evolve with the extensional feedback that results.  Similarly, as concepts operate in the context of situated action, they acquire goal-relevant properties that support effective goal achievement.  Concepts appear to reflect pragmatic constraints as much as they do semantic and logical ones.  These three issues—content variability, multiple representational forms, and pragmatic constraint—appear central to naturally occurring human concepts.  Not only does each issue constitute a significant challenge for explaining individual concepts, together they pose an even more significant challenge for theories of conceptual combination.  How do concepts combine as their content changes, as different representational forms become active, and as pragmatic constraints shape processing?  Arguably, concepts are most ubiquitous and important in combination, relative to isolation.  Indeed, entering into combinations may play central roles in producing the changes in content, form, and pragmatic relevance observed for individual concepts.  Developing a theory of conceptual combination that embraces and illuminates these issues would not only constitute a significant contribution to the study of concepts, it would also provide insight into the nature of human cognition.