This introduction concerns essentialism in everyday thought. Roughly, essentialism is the view that categories have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly but that gives an object its identity. According to essentialism, categories (such as “boy,” “girl,” or “intelligence”) are real, in several senses: they are discovered (rather than invented), they are natural (rather than artificial), they predict other properties, and they point to natural discontinuities in the world. The question of whether children are essentialists runs directly against a powerful portrait of children's concepts as perceptually driven, concrete, and atheoretical. This chapter argues that children's concepts are not merely perceptually based, concrete, or built up from specifics, but rather reflect folk theories and a powerful capacity to look beyond the obvious. The discussion focuses on essentialism as an early, domain-specific cognitive bias; children's concepts as embedded in theories; and language as an influence on cognitive development.
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