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Infants’ Metaphysics: The Case of Numerical Identity

Cognitive Psychology
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1006/cogp.1996.0005


Abstract Adults conceptualize the world in terms of enduring physical objects. Sortal conceptsprovide conditions of individuation (establishing the boundaries of objects) and numerical identity (establishing whether an object is the same oneas one encountered at some other time). In the adult conceptual system, there are two roughly hierarchical levels of object sortals. Most general is the sortal bounded physical objectitself, for which spatiotemporal properties provide the criteria for individuation and identity. More specific sortals, such as dogor car,rely on additional types of properties to provide criteria for individuation and identity. We conjecture that young infants might represent only the general sortal, object,and construct more specific sortals later (the Object-first Hypothesis). This is closely related to Bower's (1974) conjecture that infants use spatiotemporal information to trace identity before they use property information. Five studies using the visual habituation paradigm were conducted to address the Object-first Hypothesis. In these studies, 10-month-old infants were able to use spatiotemporal information but failed to use property/kind information to set up representations of numerically distinct individuals, thus providing empirical evidence for the Object-first Hypothesis. Finally, infants succeed at object individuation in terms of more specific sortals by 12 months. The relation between success at our task and early noun comprehension is discussed.

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