Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 153–168 | Cite as

Concepts and how they get that way

  • Karenleigh A. OvermannEmail author


Drawing on the material culture of the Ancient Near East as interpreted through Material Engagement Theory, the journey of how material number becomes a conceptual number is traced to address questions of how a particular material form might generate a concept and how concepts might ultimately encompass multiple material forms so that they include but are irreducible to all of them together. Material forms incorporated into the cognitive system affect the content and structure of concepts through their agency and affordances, the capabilities and constraints they provide as the material component of the extended, enactive mind. Material forms give concepts the tangibility that enables them to be literally grasped and manipulated. As they are distributed over multiple material forms, concepts effectively become independent of any of them, yielding the abstract irreducibility that makes a concept like number what it is. Finally, social aspects of material use—collaboration, ordinariness, and time—have important effects on the generation and distribution of concepts.


Material Engagement Theory Numeracy Literacy Ancient Near East 



I thank two anonymous reviewers for their close reading of and insightful comments on the draft, which led to its improvement. Admittedly, I resisted their recommendations for greater inclusion of the social aspects of numerical cognition in this work. As an archaeologist, where many researchers in numerical cognition foreground social transactions and mention the material as an ancillary matter, I reverse this order specifically and intentionally to focus on how the material structures used for counting inform the content, structure, and organization of numerical concepts over time, as well as the use of materiality as a collaborative medium for change on the level of society. The extent to which this is a fault is entirely mine. I also thank Lambros Malafouris, whose work significantly influences my own, for the opportunity to submit a paper for this special issue.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Cognitive Archaeology, Department of AnthropologyUniversity of ColoradoColorado SpringsUSA

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