Essentialism as a Generative Theory of Classification

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Essentialism is the view that kinds are defined by underlying properties or characteristics (an essence) that is shared by all category members and by members of no other categories and that are presumed to generate, or cause, perceptual features. Although unobservable, essential features can nonetheless affect classification by changing the evidence that observable features provide for category membership. This chapter proposes treating essentialized categories as a generative causal model and provides evidence for four phenomena that follow from this view: (a) classification as diagnostic reasoning; (b) classification as prospective reasoning; (c) boundary intensification; and (d) the effect of coherence on classification. The chapter also characterizes the development of conceptual knowledge in terms of an evolving set of causal models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCausal Learning
Subtitle of host publicationPsychology, Philosophy, and Computation
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780199958511
ISBN (Print)9780195176803
StatePublished - Apr 1 2010


  • Concept representation
  • Conceptual development
  • Diagnostic reasoning
  • Essentialism
  • Generative models
  • classification

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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