Protoplasmic Structure Theories See Life Theories Of


PROTOTYPE THEORY. The prototype theory of concepts and concept formation was developed by the American psychologist Eleanor Rosch/Heider (1938- ) in 1973, challenging the classical componential theory (also called definitional theory and feature-list theory) of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle who maintained that concepts are stored in the mind as logical lists of sufficient and necessary conditions defining membership ("defining properties") of a given category. Prototype theory rejects this older notion that every concept has a defining attribute or essence that determines its identity, and suggests that most everyday concepts have a graded internal structure that is characterized by a "prototype" (i.e., a "reference point" or an "optimal example") at their core and "fuzzy boundaries" (i.e., loose lines of differentiation between positive and negative instances) at their periphery. In a manner suggestive of the Austrian-born British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) - who proposed, in one case, that although a rope consists of many strands, no single strand runs the entire length of the rope - Rosch notes that concept-defining attributes do not need to be shared by all instances of a given concept. Rather, all members of a mental category may be shown to have a "family resemblance" to each other, and such resemblance may be recognized perceptually instead of being defined logically (e.g., not all "cups" have handles or are used for the purpose of drinking).

Prototype theory indicates that the meaning of many everyday concepts, or "natural categories," is derived not from their defining characteristics but from the features that describe their most typical member. Thus, a prototype is the member of a category that shares a maximum of attributes with other members and a minimum of attributes with members of different categories. The theory suggests that people decide whether or not an item/object belongs to a specific category by comparing the item with the prototype of that category. According to this approach, an item/object will be classified as an instance of a category if it is "similar" to the prototypical member of that category, but some researchers question how "similarity" is assessed. Prototype theory is somewhat vague on this issue (as well as on the issue of the degree to which our conceptual structures are culture-bound), and some investigators suggest that one use several "exemplars," rather than a single prototype, to establish "similarity." However, the value of prototype theory resides in its attempts to explain how people can form concepts of groups that consist of rather loosely-structured items or objects. See also CONCEPT LEARNING AND CONCEPT FORMATION, THEORIES OF; FUZ-ZY SET THEORY.

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