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Skunks, puppets, and human beings : exploring young people’s understanding of individual and kind identity Phillips, Jesse

Abstract

Taking its cue from one of the oldest of the old philosophical discourses—the relationship of one's body, and all of its determinations, to selfhood—the program of research reported here explores possible age-graded shifts in how young people, ordinarily understand the identity "objects" in the face of change. Trading upon earlier work by Gelman, (2003), Atran (2002), and Keil (1989), as well as Piaget (1983), the study reported here is intended as a means of getting clear about what are taken to be the persistent features of "objects" belonging to three ontologically distinct categories— categories that are standardly referred to as "things of a natural kind," artifacts, and persons. What is particularly novel about this study effort is that target objects of these three distinct ontological sorts were presented (in story form), all in ways that emphasized their credentials as either a "Kind' of thing, or their status as individuals. More particularly, I undertook to measure age-graded changes in the way that a building sample of 50 adolescents differently conceptualize such notions of kind and individual identity. The findings indicate that when young people were presented with tasks that required them to make judgments about the nature of "individual" and "kind" identity, they proved to be quite insensitive to matters of categorical membership. Instead, they tended to essentialize when these "objects" were described as kinds of things, but were significantly less ready to reason essentialistically when the individual character of these same objects was emphasized.

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