Volume 30, 2013
Concepts - Contemporary and Historical Perspectives
Joseph B. McCaffrey
Concepts in the Brain
Neuroscience, Embodiment, and Categorization
What does cognitive neuroscience contribute to our philosophical understanding of concepts? Over the past several decades, brain researchers have employed the tools of cognitive neuroscience (e.g. neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI) and neuropsychology (i.e. studying patterns of cognitive deficits resulting from brain injury) to probe the structure and function of the conceptual system. The results of this effort, which are often extremely surprising, raise more questions than they resolve. Brain research has invigorated age-old philosophical debates about the nature of concepts—such as whether concepts are perceptual representations—and generated new controversies about how conceptual knowledge is organized. In this essay, I examine three debates in the neuroscience of conceptual knowledge: whether concepts are embodied or couched in amodal representations, whether conceptual knowledge is organized according to evolved categories, and whether the brain has multiple conceptual systems. My purpose is not to resolve these debates—rather, I intend to show how many of the proposed solutions fail to accommodate the diverse range of data emerging from cognitive neuroscience. I am therefore skeptical that brain data alone will resolve these issues, but remain optimistic that neuroscience has much to contribute to philosophical accounts of concepts.