The career of measurement

Kensy Cooperrider*, Dedre Gentner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Units as they exist today are highly abstract. Meters, miles, and other modern measures have no obvious basis in tangible phenomena and can be applied broadly across domains. Historical examples suggest, however, that units have not always been so abstract. Here, we examine this issue systematically. We begin by analyzing linear measures in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and in an ethnographic database that spans 114 cultures (HRAF). Our survey of both datasets shows, first, that early length units have mostly come from concrete sources—body parts, artifacts, events, and other tangible phenomena—and, second, that they have often been tied to particular contexts. Measurement units have thus undergone a shift from highly concrete to highly abstract. How did this shift happen? Drawing on historical surveys and case studies—as well as data from the OED and HRAF—we next propose a reconstruction of how abstract units might have evolved gradually through a series of overlapping stages. We also consider the cognitive processes that underpin this evolution—in particular, comparison. Finally, we discuss the cognitive origins of units. Units are not only slow to emerge historically, they are also slow to be acquired developmentally, and mastering them appears to have cognitive consequences. Taken together, these observations suggest that units are not inevitable intuitions, but are best thought of as culturally evolved cognitive tools. By analyzing the career of measurement in detail, we illustrate how such tools—abstract as they are today—can arise from concrete, often bodily origins.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103942
JournalCognition
Volume191
DOIs
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019

Fingerprint

dictionary
career
Intuition
intuition
Artifacts
artifact
reconstruction
Databases
event
Surveys and Questionnaires
Oxford English Dictionary
Datasets
Ethnographic
Cognitive Processes
Length
Artifact
Data Base

Keywords

  • Abstraction
  • Analogy
  • Cognitive tools
  • Comparison
  • Measurement
  • Units

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

Cite this

Cooperrider, Kensy ; Gentner, Dedre. / The career of measurement. In: Cognition. 2019 ; Vol. 191.
@article{5663cde1f3364c7db42bc25cf29342e8,
title = "The career of measurement",
abstract = "Units as they exist today are highly abstract. Meters, miles, and other modern measures have no obvious basis in tangible phenomena and can be applied broadly across domains. Historical examples suggest, however, that units have not always been so abstract. Here, we examine this issue systematically. We begin by analyzing linear measures in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and in an ethnographic database that spans 114 cultures (HRAF). Our survey of both datasets shows, first, that early length units have mostly come from concrete sources—body parts, artifacts, events, and other tangible phenomena—and, second, that they have often been tied to particular contexts. Measurement units have thus undergone a shift from highly concrete to highly abstract. How did this shift happen? Drawing on historical surveys and case studies—as well as data from the OED and HRAF—we next propose a reconstruction of how abstract units might have evolved gradually through a series of overlapping stages. We also consider the cognitive processes that underpin this evolution—in particular, comparison. Finally, we discuss the cognitive origins of units. Units are not only slow to emerge historically, they are also slow to be acquired developmentally, and mastering them appears to have cognitive consequences. Taken together, these observations suggest that units are not inevitable intuitions, but are best thought of as culturally evolved cognitive tools. By analyzing the career of measurement in detail, we illustrate how such tools—abstract as they are today—can arise from concrete, often bodily origins.",
keywords = "Abstraction, Analogy, Cognitive tools, Comparison, Measurement, Units",
author = "Kensy Cooperrider and Dedre Gentner",
year = "2019",
month = "10",
day = "1",
doi = "10.1016/j.cognition.2019.04.011",
language = "English (US)",
volume = "191",
journal = "Cognition",
issn = "0010-0277",
publisher = "Elsevier",

}

The career of measurement. / Cooperrider, Kensy; Gentner, Dedre.

In: Cognition, Vol. 191, 103942, 01.10.2019.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

TY - JOUR

T1 - The career of measurement

AU - Cooperrider, Kensy

AU - Gentner, Dedre

PY - 2019/10/1

Y1 - 2019/10/1

N2 - Units as they exist today are highly abstract. Meters, miles, and other modern measures have no obvious basis in tangible phenomena and can be applied broadly across domains. Historical examples suggest, however, that units have not always been so abstract. Here, we examine this issue systematically. We begin by analyzing linear measures in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and in an ethnographic database that spans 114 cultures (HRAF). Our survey of both datasets shows, first, that early length units have mostly come from concrete sources—body parts, artifacts, events, and other tangible phenomena—and, second, that they have often been tied to particular contexts. Measurement units have thus undergone a shift from highly concrete to highly abstract. How did this shift happen? Drawing on historical surveys and case studies—as well as data from the OED and HRAF—we next propose a reconstruction of how abstract units might have evolved gradually through a series of overlapping stages. We also consider the cognitive processes that underpin this evolution—in particular, comparison. Finally, we discuss the cognitive origins of units. Units are not only slow to emerge historically, they are also slow to be acquired developmentally, and mastering them appears to have cognitive consequences. Taken together, these observations suggest that units are not inevitable intuitions, but are best thought of as culturally evolved cognitive tools. By analyzing the career of measurement in detail, we illustrate how such tools—abstract as they are today—can arise from concrete, often bodily origins.

AB - Units as they exist today are highly abstract. Meters, miles, and other modern measures have no obvious basis in tangible phenomena and can be applied broadly across domains. Historical examples suggest, however, that units have not always been so abstract. Here, we examine this issue systematically. We begin by analyzing linear measures in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and in an ethnographic database that spans 114 cultures (HRAF). Our survey of both datasets shows, first, that early length units have mostly come from concrete sources—body parts, artifacts, events, and other tangible phenomena—and, second, that they have often been tied to particular contexts. Measurement units have thus undergone a shift from highly concrete to highly abstract. How did this shift happen? Drawing on historical surveys and case studies—as well as data from the OED and HRAF—we next propose a reconstruction of how abstract units might have evolved gradually through a series of overlapping stages. We also consider the cognitive processes that underpin this evolution—in particular, comparison. Finally, we discuss the cognitive origins of units. Units are not only slow to emerge historically, they are also slow to be acquired developmentally, and mastering them appears to have cognitive consequences. Taken together, these observations suggest that units are not inevitable intuitions, but are best thought of as culturally evolved cognitive tools. By analyzing the career of measurement in detail, we illustrate how such tools—abstract as they are today—can arise from concrete, often bodily origins.

KW - Abstraction

KW - Analogy

KW - Cognitive tools

KW - Comparison

KW - Measurement

KW - Units

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?scp=85068621456&partnerID=8YFLogxK

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/citedby.url?scp=85068621456&partnerID=8YFLogxK

U2 - 10.1016/j.cognition.2019.04.011

DO - 10.1016/j.cognition.2019.04.011

M3 - Article

C2 - 31302322

AN - SCOPUS:85068621456

VL - 191

JO - Cognition

JF - Cognition

SN - 0010-0277

M1 - 103942

ER -