At the very beginning of this doctorate, the very first book I bought was Greg Murphy’s introductory The Big Book of Concepts (Murphy, 2002). At the time, I was charmed and delighted by the title. I could not imagine a more appropriate
title for anyone embarking on any Ph.D. The image of being armed with a large almanac of ideas seemed like the perfect starting point where-ever you were going.
But this also emphasised to me that not everyone starting on a doctorate would be handed The Big Book of Concepts. It was a very specialist tome aimed at the narrow field of psychologists and cognitive scientists interested in concept learning. Even someone starting a doctorate in philosophy would not be expected to start
out by reading a big book of concepts (They might perhaps be handed a book of Big Concepts). Yet I also wondered if they ought to be. I would not go as far as Steve Harnad and claim that cognition is categorization (Harnad, 2005). But there is no question that an understanding the structure of concepts and the process by which they are acquired is part of the foundation of an understanding of cognition. It ought to interest a few of the philosophers too, possibly the epistemologists.
This concept has been a source of joy and inspiration throughout my doctorate. The sense of relevancy of the topic and the sense that I was coming up against a Big Concept, quite literally so, and I was tasked with taking it apart to see how it worked. I felt like I am helping out a very large project that may well be
important. Understanding the concept of Concept might be an important problem. It is certainly a big problem. I have just spent three years beginning to understand that.
When faced with a big problem, there is no better place to start than at the beginning. Infancy is the time when we are learning the most and everything that we learn later depends upon the foundations acquired early on. You have to crawl before you can walk. You have to think small before you can think big. So let’s
start with the babies. I am very glad I did because, unquestionably, it has been the babies who have been the best part of the whole thing. It has great trying to keep a straight face when explaining infantology to someone new. Telling them in
serious tones that
”We do not study babies because we wish to know what babies are thinking about. More often we study babies because we do not know what adults are thinking about. And every adult was a baby once.”
Yes, that’s all true but equally important is that fact that studying babies is about a babillion times more fun than studying adults. My results have proved to me that it may be very difficult to know what infants are thinking about. But that, to a first approximation, unquestionably they are thinking. Their thoughts aren’t easy to understand but that is because they aren’t
stupid. They aren’t too smart either but they are learning.
They are always learning.
Small concepts so far but that that’s okay because everybody starts small.
”Hello, babies, Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies–:
’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, (1965)