Metacognition of Concepts

European Research Council Project:
Metacognition of Concepts


The Project investigates the thoughts and feelings that accompany the use of concepts. Concepts lie at the heart of the extraordinary power of the human mind. They are the building blocks of thought, the tools with which we think. Like physical tools, they can be more or less dependable, more or less fit for purpose: e.g. for most people AMPHIBIAN feels like a better concept than SHRUB. We have an intuitive sense of how dependable a concept is, which is crucial when we decide whether to rely on the concept. It can underpin our decision to reject some concepts (e.g. INNATE) and embrace others in our theorising (e.g. VALIDITY). Similarly in everyday thinking: when concepts are selected for reasoning and induction, and when different cognitive processes compete for control of action, the metacognition that accompanies the concepts involved is likely to have a powerful effect. However, metacognition directed at concepts is still poorly understood. We lack even a clear theoretical framework to underpin research in this area.

Developing an account of people’s metacognitive understanding of their concepts is likely to tell us important things about concepts and about cognitive control; and to shed light on some thorny philosophical problems. The Project takes up that opportunity. It will be the first systematic investigation of the scope of metacognition as it applies to concepts. Our approach is to combine the analytic methods developed by philosophers of mind and cognitive science with psychological model-building and experimental investigation.


Project Team

Nicholas Shea, PI (Institute of Philosophy, University of London)
Joulia Smortchkova (University of Oxford)
Jake Quilty-Dunn (University of Oxford)
James Hampton (City, University of London)
Sapphira Thorne (City, University of London)


Aspects of the project examine:

  1. Theoretical foundations for the idea of metacognition applied to concepts; experimental study of the phenomenon; and investigation of its place in and consequences for theories of concepts.
  2. The role of concept-metacognition in cognitive control processes; in the phenomenon of knowing what one is thinking; and as a potential epistemic index of coherence.
  3. How cues and heuristics are likely to inform a thinker’s metacognitive assessments of their concepts, including socially-communicated cues; and the role of metacognitive communication in the social process of collectively constructing, selecting and rejecting concepts; also the extent to which these processes are distinctively human.


This project receives funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 681422)