Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


The Unified Conceptual Space Theory: An Enactive Theory of Concepts

Joel Parthemore (Centre for Cognitive Semiotics, Lund University)

Theories of concepts attempt to explain the systematicity and productivity of structured thought. Until the Unified Conceptual Space Theory (UCST) (Parthemore 2010, Parthemore 2011), based on Peter Gärdenfors' Conceptual Spaces Theory (CST) (2004), no one had attempted to offer a specifically enactive theory of concepts.  UCST is set apart from its competitors -- Jesse Prinz's (2004) proxytypes theory; Jerry Fodor's (2008) informational atomism; even, to some extent, CST -- in the way it locates concepts not in the mind (or the brain) of the conceptual agent nor in the affordances of the agent's environment but in the interaction between the two. Concepts are never truly static: conceptual knowledge is always in the process of being "brought forth" through that interaction, such that neither agent nor environment can cleanly be separated from each other.  The pre-conceptual noumena cannot be reconstructed free of conceptual taint: through such conceptual colouring, mind extends, in a meaningful way into the world. Concepts create binary distinctions -- beginning, most importantly, with the self/non-self self/other self/world distinction – and discrete entities that mask what are, from a conceptual perspective, underlying continua. These distinctions – implying notions of e.g. internal and external, inner experience and outer world – are both conceptually necessary and, at the same time, meaningful only with respect to an observer, and not to the organism itself independent of some identifiable observer. In consequence, phenomenology has a key role to play, and first-person methods are indispensable to any empirical investigation of concepts.


  • Fodor, J. A. (1998). Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Gärdenfors, P. (2004 [2000]). Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought. Bradford Books.
  • Parthemore, J. and A. Morse (2010). "Representations reclaimed: Accounting for the co-emergence of concepts and experience", Pragmatics and Cognition, 18(2): 273-312.
  • Parthemore, J. (2011). Concepts Enacted: Confronting the Obstacles and Paradoxes Inherent in Pursuing a Scientific Understanding of the Building Blocks of Human Thought. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sussex, UK.
  • Prinz, J. (2004 [2002]). Furnishing the Mind: Concepts and Their Perceptual Basis. MIT Press.