The Definingattribute View

In turning to consider theories of concepts, there is one initial theory that we have to consider, the classical defining-attribute theory, even though it will be apparent that it is immediately ruled out by the preceding evidence. The defining-attribute view is based on ideas developed in philosophy and logic. This view, elaborated by the logician Gottlob Frege (1952), maintains that a concept can be characterised by a set of defining attributes (or semantic features, see Chapter 9). Frege clarified the distinction between a concept's intension and its extension. The intension of a concept consists of the set of attributes that define what it is to be a member of the concept and the extension is the set of entities that are members of the concept. So, for example, the intension of the concept bachelor might be its set of defining attributes (male, single, adult), while the extension of the concept is the complete set of all the bachelors in the world (from the Pope to Mr Jones next door). Related ideas have appeared at various times in linguistics and psychology (see e.g., Glass & Holyoak, 1975; Katz & Fodor, 1963; Leech, 1974; Medin & Smith, 1984; Smith & Medin, 1981, for reviews).

The general characteristics of defining-attribute theories are summarised in Panel 10.1. It can be seen that the theory maintains that if defining attributes of the concept bachelor are male, single, adult, then for Mr Jones to be a bachelor it is necessary for him to have each attribute (i.e., male, single, and adult) and it is sufficient or enough for him to have all these three attributes together; that is, no other attributes enter into determining whether he is an instance of the concept. So, each of the attributes is singly necessary and all are jointly sufficient for determining whether Mr Jones is a member of the concept bachelor. This means that what is and is not a bachelor is very clear. If Mr O'Shea is an adult and male but is married then he cannot be considered to be a member of the category bachelor. This theory predicts that concepts should divide up individual objects in the world into distinct classes and that the boundaries between categories should be well defined and rigid. It also predicts that conceptual hierarchies should neatly subsume one another. So, if you have a concept sparrow (defined as feathered, animate, two-legged, small, brown) and its superordinate, bird (defined as feathered, animate, two-legged) then the subordinate concept sparrow will contain all the attributes of the superordinate, although it will also have many other attributes

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