Arguments from developmental order

Dr. Richard Stöckle-Schobel- Postdoctoral Fellow in the Mercator Research Group “Structure of Memory” at the chair for philo­sophy of lan­guage and cog­ni­tion, Ruhr-University Bochum

One top­ic that I have thought about ever since writ­ing my PhD thes­is on concept learn­ing is the role of devel­op­ment­al order in arguing for or against a giv­en psy­cho­lo­gic­al (or philo­soph­ic­al, for that mat­ter) claim. In this blog post, I will explain the prob­lem of devel­op­ment­al order and I will intro­duce the two main pos­i­tions one can adopt in response. I don’t have a clear pos­i­tion on the mat­ter, but I hope to pro­voke some thoughts and a dis­cus­sion about the issue in what follows.

Consider any giv­en men­tal capa­city M that has a devel­op­ment­al tra­ject­ory: the ways in which humans use M changes over their lifespan. At a giv­en point in early child­hood, the con­sensus is that chil­dren use pro­cess P1 to per­form that spe­cif­ic task. Over the course of devel­op­ment, P1 gets replaced, or sup­por­ted by, fur­ther pro­cesses P2, P3, and P4. The typ­ic­al adult will use a giv­en set of men­tal capa­cit­ies, that might con­tain P3 and P4, or evolved forms of P1 and P4, just P4, or any giv­en com­bin­a­tion of these processes.

So, for the cog­nit­ive sci­ent­ist, the ques­tion is: Which men­tal pro­cess is fun­da­ment­al for under­stand­ing human cog­ni­tion with regard to M? As an example domain, con­sider the struc­ture of human con­cepts – so, M stands for con­cep­tu­al think­ing. I had dis­cussed the issue with Edouard Machery dur­ing his 2012 vis­it to Edinburgh, where we held a Q&A on Machery’s book “Doing without con­cepts” (Machery 2009). One of the main claims Machery makes in his book is the Heterogeneity Hypothesis: there are mul­tiple kinds of con­cepts – at least, pro­to­types, exem­plars, and the­or­ies – inde­pend­ently at work in human cog­ni­tion, and there are no good reas­ons to priv­ilege any of them more than the oth­ers (i.e., there are no reas­ons to regard any one of them as more fun­da­ment­al than the others).

There are two dir­ec­tions to argue in here: One could, first, argue that the devel­op­ment­ally early pro­cess P1 is indic­at­ive of how the mind works with regard to M. Theoretical accounts of M should, on that view, keep the ini­tial state and the first pro­cesses for M at the centre of their mod­els. Later devel­op­ments do not replace these ini­tial pro­cesses, one might say, because they might only be more elab­or­ate ver­sions of P1, or that P1 would be suf­fi­cient to per­form the key role that P4 has in adult cog­ni­tion. Without this start­ing point, the whole devel­op­ment of M might nev­er have got­ten off the ground, or it might have evolved into a very dif­fer­ent men­tal capacity.

In our example, one might say: Developmental research can show us that one type of concept is the first one used in infancy. The ini­tial stock of con­cepts an infant forms takes the form of pro­to­types, or exem­plars, or maybe the­or­ies. All oth­er kinds of con­cepts are later devel­op­ments and thus can­not be part of the found­a­tions of con­cep­tu­al thinking.

One could, second, also argue that the devel­op­ment­ally late pro­cess P4 is fun­da­ment­al for explain­ing MP4 is the cor­rect anchor for a the­ory of M. After all, it is the mature form of the pro­cess. It might have many advant­ages, such as a bet­ter integ­ra­tion with oth­er men­tal pro­cesses; P1 could be a very simple form of asso­ci­at­ive thought, for instance, and P4 could be a reas­on­ing heur­ist­ic that is integ­rated with a large store of back­ground know­ledge. Also, P4 appears to have the “norm­at­ive force” on its side: It appears that this is how M is done right, i.e., it’s the best that human cog­ni­tion has come up with to solve the giv­en prob­lem, or per­form the giv­en task, and it should there­fore be con­sidered fun­da­ment­al or central.

To return to the example of con­cepts: One can argue that devel­op­ment­al pri­or­ity by itself would­n’t be a good reas­on to priv­ilege one type of concept over oth­ers, as the cog­nit­ive power that comes from hav­ing the diverse kinds of con­cepts at one’s dis­pos­al is a stronger reas­on for deny­ing any one of them such priority.

In my own past and cur­rent research, I have been drawn to both ver­sions of the argu­ment, and I think there is an issue of meth­od­o­lo­gic­al interest con­nec­ted to it. Indeed, sim­il­ar issues have been in the spot­light of devel­op­ment­al research for quite some time; one example is the ques­tion of the (dis)continuity in con­cep­tu­al change (cf. Carey 2009 for a pro­ponent of the dis­con­tinu­ity view, i.e., that many con­cepts are rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent in mean­ing before and after an import­ant step in con­cep­tu­al devel­op­ment). Another related issue is wheth­er giv­ing an explan­a­tion of the devel­op­ment­al tra­ject­ory of a cog­nit­ive pro­cess is a spe­cial (or espe­cially import­ant) vir­tue of a the­ory. These are import­ant ques­tions at the inter­sec­tion of psy­cho­logy, philo­sophy of sci­ence, and philo­sophy of mind in gen­er­al that could feed into a “philo­sophy of devel­op­ment” more gen­er­ally. I would be very inter­ested in dis­cuss­ing the issues I intro­duced above fur­ther, and to hear oth­er examples and considerations.


Carey, S. (2009). The ori­gin of con­cepts. Oxford University Press.

Machery, E. (2009). Doing without Concepts. Oxford University Press.