The myth of open concepts: Meehl's analysis of construct meaning versus black box essentialism

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


Two views of theoretical concepts in psychology are compared. Meehl's "open concept" account holds that theoretical concepts are implicitly defined by theories but that empirical criteria can be changed over time (e.g., added or dropped, weightings changed, exchanged for theoretical reductions). This account confuses concepts and theories, does not reflect how diagnostic concepts actually work in medicine and psychology, leads to theory incommensurability, and is unclear about when concepts are the same or different. I propose that an alternative "black box essentialist" account of theoretical concepts, drawn from recent philosophical work on natural kind concepts, better explains how we manage to refer to the same construct even as our theories and criteria change. One implication is that Meehl is incorrect to claim that a reason for psychology's lack of progress is that its concepts are inherently different from those in the hard sciences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-82
Number of pages6
JournalApplied and Preventive Psychology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 2004


  • Concepts
  • Diagnosis
  • Diagnostic criteria
  • Essentialism
  • Operational definition
  • Paul Meehl
  • Philosophy of science
  • Positivism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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