Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lakoff: "Cognitive models and prototype theory" (1987)

Lakoff argues that the prototype effects exist because concepts are defined by several partly overlapping "cognitive models." A possible example of a mother might then fit some of the models (the "genetic mother") and not others ("the wife of the father"). This may lead to graded membership judgments.

Structure of the Paper

The paper is a little bit difficult to navigate in, as it contains a large number of sections which are all on the same level of organization.

The sections differ in content and length. Their headings are:
  1. Untitled introduction
  2. Interactional properties
  3. Cognitive models
  4. Graded models
  5. The idealized character of cognitive models
  6. Cognitive models versus feature bundles
  7. Mother
  8. Metonymic models
  9. Metonymic sources of prototype effects
  10. The housewife stereotype
  11. Working mothers
  12. Radial structures
  13. Some kinds of metonymic models
  14. Social stereotypes
  15. Typical examples
  16. Ideals
  17. Paragons
  18. Generators
  19. Submodels
  20. Salient Examples
  21. Radial categories
  22. Japanese hon
  23. Categories of mind, or mere words
  24. What is prototype theory
  25. The core + identification proposal
  26. Osherson and Smith
  27. Armstrong, Gleitman, and Gleitman
  28. Conclusion

Cognitive Clusters

His own theory on cognitive models is most clearly explained in section 6 and 7 (pp. 66-70). His idea is that concepts are defined in terms of a cluster of competing models -- for instance, a salient example, an idealized picture, and a positive paradigm.

The effect seems oddly close to the weighted lists of attributes used by, e.g., Linda Koleman and Paul Kay (1981). But he insists that bundles of cognitive models are empirically distinguishable from bundles of features. He refers to Eve Sweetser (1987) for support of this claim, but does not discuss the evidence.

Sections 14 through 20 (and perhaps section 21?) are intended to give examples of how "cognitive models" can look. They can look like a lot of different things, it appears.

An Alternative Theory

Sections 25, 26, and 27 criticize a "reactionary" counterproposal.

According to this theory, category judgments can be made in two ways, by deliberation or by quick-and-dirty heuristics. Prototype effects are then, as far as I understand, only present when the heuristic method is used.

Lakoff identifies a comment from his own 1972 paper on hedges (journal version, 1973) as the inspiration for this new theory. He finds this "ironic."

The arguments he proposes against this two-method theory oddly resembles arguments in favor of it (e.g., p. 92). His main concern, if I understand it correctly, is the metaphysical assumptions of the theory rather than any specific empirical problem.

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