Categories and Concepts – Fall 2021

NYU Psych-GA 2207

Categories and Concepts – Fall 2021

General information

Instructor: Brenden Lake
Assistant Professor of Psychology and Data Science
New York University

Meeting time and location:
Monday 2:00-3:50 PM
Meyer Room 851 (6 Washington Place)

Course numbers:
PSYCH-GA 2207 (Psychology)

Office hours:
Wednesdays, 4:30-5:30pm; 6 Washington Place, Room 858. I can also accommodate you on zoom if you let me know in advance.


This course introduces the major topics in the psychology of concepts, focusing on issues of concept representation and use. The first part of the course discusses the main theories of concepts, including the classic view, prototype models, exemplar models, and the knowledge view. We will also spend several weeks discussing computational models that implement these theories, focusing on the neural network and probabilistic traditions. The second part of the course will cover other key topics including taxonomic categories, category-based induction, conceptual development, categorical perception, and conceptual combination. The readings will be drawn from the textbook and classic papers in the field. The course will be in a lecture-discussion format.

Please note that this syllabus is not final and there may be further adjustments.

I am grateful to Greg Murphy for developing this first version of this class and, of course, writing the “The Big Book of Concepts” that we use as our textbook.


We will be using Greg Murphy’s “The Big Book of Concepts” as the textbook for this class. We will also draw original research articles. You can get the book from Amazon. You can also download the individual chapters here while on the NYU network.



Grading will be based on the response papers (35%) and a final paper (65%). Class participation will be used to decide grades in borderline cases.

Responses to the reading

Each week you will write a mini-paper (about 4 paragraphs or about 600 words) in which you will critique the week’s readings, discuss an issue raised by it, or propose a new experiment based on it. The main purpose of these responses is to get you to: 1) do the reading on time so we can talk about it, and 2) think about the reading. In the responses, please focus on what issues are most important or interesting and to think about, and what questions are unresolved in the field. Do not give a list of minor questions or flaws. You may skip one weekly response, but any other missed ones will need to be made up. Post your response to the class EdStem page before class (the night before would be preferred). Your responses will be graded on a check-plus, check, or check-minus basis, with most responses receiving a check.

Final paper

The final paper will be due Thursday 12/16. Submit via email with the file name lastname-cc-final.pdf

The final paper should address one of the topics covered in the class in more detail. Alternatively, it could investigate a key topic related to concepts/categories that was not covered in class. To make sure your paper is headed for success, you should write a proposal for your final paper due on Monday 11/15 (one half page written). Submit via email with the file name lastname-cc-proposal.pdf ( You can also discuss your topic with me during office hours. The paper should include a critical review of the literature, along with theoretical conclusions or suggestions for future research. I would expect papers to be about 12 pages long (double spaced), though the exact length is not as important as the quality of thought the paper reveals. In your paper, you should also be sure to connect with and demonstrate your knowledge of the topics covered in class.

EdStem and course discussion

We will be using Edstem to post the weekly responses to the readings, and for class discussion in general. You can join the class EdStem through this link.

Course policies

Auditing: Due to the complications in getting back to normal in-person classes, we will not allow auditors this semster.

Overview of topics and schedule

Detailed schedule and readings

Please see below for the assigned readings for each class (to be read before class). Papers are available for download on Brightspace.

9/13 Introduction; the classical view (slides)

9/20 Prototype and exemplar theories (slides)

9/27 Concepts as theories and the knowledge view (slides)

10/4 Computational models of category learning (part 1) (slides)

10/12 (Note special Tuesday time due to Fall recess) Computational models of category learning (part 2) (slides)

10/18 Computational models of category learning (part 3) (slides)

10/25 Computational models of category learning (part 4) (slides)

11/1 Taxonomic organization and the basic level (slides)

11/8 Category-based induction (slides)

11/15 Concepts in infancy (slides)

11/22 Conceptual development (slides)

11/29 How categories influence perception (slides)

12/6 Conceptual combination and exemplar generation