The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought

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Essentialism is the idea that certain categories, such as "dog," "man," or "intelligence," have an underlying reality or true nature that gives objects their identity. Where does this idea come from? In this book, Susan Gelman argues that essentialism is an early cognitive bias. Young children's concepts reflect a deep commitment to essentialism, and this commitment leads children to look beyond the obvious in many converging ways: when learning words, generalizing knowledge to new category members, reasoning about the insides of things, contemplating the role of nature versus nurture, and constructing causal explanations. Gelman argues against the standard view of children as concrete or focused on the obvious, instead claiming that children have an early, powerful tendency to search for hidden, non-obvious features of things. She also attacks claims that children build up their knowledge of the world based on simple, associative learning strategies, arguing that children's concepts are embedded in rich folk theories. Parents don't explicitly teach children to essentialize; instead, during the preschool years, children spontaneously construct concepts and beliefs that reflect an essentialist bias.

Essentialist accounts have been offered, in one form or another, for thousands of years, extending back at least to Aristotle and Plato. Yet this book is the first to address the issues surrounding essentialism from a psychological perspective. Gelman synthesizes over 15 years of empirical research on essentialism into a unified framework and explores the broader lessons that the research imparts concerning, among other things, human concepts, children's thinking, and the ways in which language influences thought. This volume will appeal to developmental, cognitive, and social psychologists, as well as to scholars in cognitive science and philosophy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Susan Gelman's The Essential Child is both deep and accessible. She does the field a great service just by pulling together her truly remarkable research program into one integrated story. In doing so, she shows how the data that support the claim that young children have essentialist commitments challenge deeply held views about the nature of young children's thinking and about the nature of human concepts in general. Anybody concerned with understanding conceptual development and anybody concerned with understanding human concepts should read this book." —Susan E. Carey, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

"This is a path-breaking book on children's conceptual development with important implications for virtually all of cognitive science." —Douglas Medin, Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University

"Like all of Susan Gelman's writings, this book is lucid, comprehensive, and compelling. In it she makes a detailed and convincing case that the human mind naturally tends to construe things as possessing hidden essences, and that children display this 'essentializing bent," as she calls it, from an early age. Gelman also goes on to argue that essentialism is itself the consequence of other, more basic capacities, such as the ability to appreciate the appearance-reality distinction and the assumption that properties and events are casual. Much of the evidence supporting Gelman's claims comes from her own ingenious studies of young children's thinking, studies that have won her acclaim as one of the best developmental psychologists in the world. On all counts, then, this is a truly excellent book."—John H. Flavell, Professor of Psychology, Stanford University

"Gelman's book is a superb analysis of how essentialist tendencies emerge in childhood. She develops in detail an important new theoretical account of how essentialist biases develop and the implications of these developmental patterns for broader issues in cognition and cognitive development. This book is 'essential' reading for cognitive and social scientists interested in understanding this important aspect of being human."—Frank C. Keil, Professor of Psychology, Yale University

"This beautifully written book unifies large and varied strands of research into a compelling, coherent picture about a fundamentally important problem. It is a real achievement, and will make a genuinely important contribution to developmental psychology."—Ellen M. Markman, Lewis M. Terman Professor of Psychology, Stanford University

"The idea that people conceive of natural things as having an essence is one of the most interesting proposals in cognitive development of the past two decades. Susan Gelman is a pioneer of this area of research, and this lovely volume showcases her insight, experimental ingenuity, and theoretical depth. The Essential Child is a fascinating contribution to our understanding of human rationality."—Steven Pinker, Peter de Florez Professor of Psychology, MIT, and author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195181982
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/21/2005
  • Series: Oxford Series in Cognitive Development Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 392
  • Sales rank: 1,378,599
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan A. Gelman is the Frederick G. L. Huetwell Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. She has authored more than one hundred publications on language and cognitive development and has received numerous honors and awards, including a J.S. Guggenheim Fellowship, a Distinguished Scientific Award from the American Psychological Association for Early Career Contribution to Psychology, and a Boyd McCandless Young Scientist Award from Division 7 of the American Psychological Association. She also serves on the editorial board of several journals. Her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, the National Science Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
Introduction to Part I. Notes on Research Methods
2. The Inductive Potential of Categories
3. Hidden, Nonobvious Properties
4. Children's Conceptions of Nature and Nurture
5. Causal Explanations, Causal Determinism
6. Conclusions to Part I
7. What Parents Say—and Do Not Say—about Essences
8. Essentialism in Language
9. Theory Theories and DAM Theories
10. Unfinished Business
11. Why Do We Essentialize?
Author Index
Subject Index

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