Relational Categories: Why they're Important and How they are Learned

AbstractResearch on categories has historically focused on categories whose members share intrinsic properties, such as eagle and flute. But recent work has investigated a different kind of nominal category—relational categories (Gentner, 2005; Gentner & Kurtz, 2005; Goldwater & Markman, 2011; Markman & Stilwell, 2001). By relational category we mean a category whose membership is determined by common relational structure, rather than by common intrinsic properties. For instance, for X to be a bridge, X must connect two other entities or points; for X to be a carnivore, X must eat animals. Relational categories contrast with entity categories like eagle, whose members share many intrinsic properties. Relational categories (or concepts, if we want to think about their intension) are important in cognitive life, especially in higher-order cognition. They vastly increase our capacity to communicate and reason about complex ideas and are critical to acquiring expertise in mathematical and scientific domains (Goldwater & Schalk, 2016; Richland & Simms, 2015). Thus, an understanding of how such categories are learned and used is imperative.


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