The goal of this project is to develop a general theory of concepts and apply it to two types of studies: 1) eases of conceptual change from the history of science; and 2) analyses of two concepts that are central to philosophy of science, causality and truth. The guiding theme of the project is that conceptual analyses and studies of conceptual change must be carried out on the basis of an explicit theory of concepts. The developed theory will provide accounts of the different types of concepts, explain how the content of these concepts is determined, provide criteria for an adequate conceptual analysis, yield a framework for comparing concepts from different scientific theories and historical periods, and provide a basis for understanding how new concepts are introduced.

The methodology of this study combines philosophical analysis of concepts, metaphilosophical theory construction, and case studies of conceptual change from the history of science. The starting point for the project is an exposition and critical analysis of Wilfrid Sellars' theory of concepts, followed by the construction of an improved Sellarsian theory. The critical analysis will be based on three considerations: the internal logic of Sellars' position, comparisons with alternative views in the literature, and the ability of the theory to provide an understanding of examples of conceptual development and conceptual innovation in science. Concepts may be viewed from two complementary points of view: On one hand, concepts are psychological entities-cognitive tools that people use to think about specific topics. On the other hand, concepts can be studied as abstract structures independent of their implementation in individuals. This project will be concerned with concepts from the abstract point of view. The requirement that human concepts must be implementable in human minds provides a constraint on the acceptability of any theory of concepts, although this constraint will not be considered in the present project.

The resulting theory of concepts will be applied to several studies of conceptual development from seventeenth-century and twentieth-century science; these studies will concern examples that were not used in developing the theory. Cases to be studied will include the development of concepts of dynamics from Galileo, through Descartes, to Newton; the introduction of the concept of an isotope; and developments in the concept of force in twentieth-century physics. It will be argued that one major advantage of the Sellarsian approach is its ability to provide a systematic basis for comparing concepts from competing theories, and for understanding how new concepts can be introduced by systematic alteration of existing concepts.

The theory will also be applied to analyses of the concepts of causality and truth. In the case of causality, the theory will provide the basis for a detailed argument that philosophers defending different analyses of this concept are actually discussing different, but analogous, concepts. This result will lead to the proposal that debate on this concept should be refocused. Rather than seeking a single analysis of a presumed universal causal concept, philosophers should provide accounts of a variety of causal concepts as a basis for exploring which, if any, are instantiated in the world and found in various forms of discourse. The account of truth will develop a form of correspondence theory in which the notion of correspondence is introduced as a fruitful analogy, not a definition

There will be two major outcomes of this project. The first will be a theory of concepts that can provide a richer basis for conceptual analyses and for studies of conceptual change in science than is provided by available competitors. The second will be a set of conceptual analyses and historical cases studies that are of interest in their own right, and which also provide evidence of the power of the new theory.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Bruce E. Seely
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Northern Illinois University
De Kalb
United States
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