On September 17, 2015, Dr. Susan Carey, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, presented her engaging talk ‘Concept Acquisition: Beyond Logical Construction and the Building Blocks Model’. Dr. Carey’s lecture video, full abstract and biography is below.


Only humans ponder the causes and cures of global warming and of cancer, seek to understand the origins of the universe and seek to distinguish different orders of infinity. Explaining the human conceptual repertoire poses a formidable challenge to the cognitive sciences. I will characterize, and challenge, the dominant “broad stroke” consensus within cognitive science concerning what a theory of conceptual development has to look like. The consensus: a theory of conceptual development will consist of a specification the innate representational primitives and the combinatorial processes through which new concepts are built from those primitives. This consensus has the consequence that there can be no increase in expressive power of the conceptual system as a whole as a result of conceptual development, and leads, with few additional assumptions, to Fodor’s radical concept nativism. In challenging this consensus, I show many ways in which the expressive power of the human conceptual system is increased though learning, and I show that the key to understanding how this is possible is that new representational primitives can be learned. I specify two different types of learning mechanisms that yield new representational primitives, illustrating with examples attested from the literatures of ethology and developmental psychology.


Susan Carey is a Harvard psychologist whose work has explored fundamental issues surrounding the nature of the human mind. Carey is the Henry A. Morss, Jr. and Elisabeth W. Morss Professor of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and is the first woman to receive the Rumelhart Prize. Additionally, Carey is the first recipient awarded the prize for her theoretical contributions to the study of human development. Carey received her B.A. from Radcliffe in 1964, and she received a Fullbright Fellowship to London University in 1965. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971. Carey is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and the British Academy. She has been a member of the Harvard faculty since 2001, and previously taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at New York University.