The Role of Function in Categories

Sergio E. Chaigneau, Lawrence W. Barsalou



In the psychological literatures on function, four issues have been important: (1) whether function can be a core property of the concepts that represent categories, (2) whether categories based primarily on function provide support for inductive inference, (3) whether functions guide object naming in children, (4) whether function is best understood as affordances or as design history. In these debates, function is often viewed as an independent unitary property that can exist independently of an object’s physical structure. We propose instead that function is a complex relational system that links physical structure, settings, action, and design history. Furthermore we show that viewing function this way resolves discrepancies in the empirical literatures that address it. In particular we find that function achieves its greatest importance when subjects understand the complex relational systems that underlie it. When subjects do not understand these systems, function’s role in classification, inductive inference, and naming decreases. Viewing function as a complex relational system highlights the need for future explorations into its conceptual structure.


concepts; functions; theories of functions; inductive inferences; object naming

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