2002 William James Fellow Award

Susan Carey

Harvard University

Susan Carey is one of a very small handful of scholars who have completely changed the face of cognitive development research. Her research is invariably fascinating and provocative. Carey has conducted some of the pioneering work in developing new models of the acquisition of word meaning, models that have shifted us away from simple feature-by-feature addition models. Several concepts and terms from this work, such as “fast-mapping,” have become standard vocabulary for researchers in that area.

Carey and her colleagues have conducted a fundamentally important series of studies on face perception and recognition, work distinguished by its elegance and creativity, work which has had a major influence on the recent surge of research on face perception in cognitive neuroscience.

Carey has developed compelling arguments for the nature of conceptual change in both children and in the history of science. Her seminal work on the origins of biological thought set the stage for generations of researchers who have explored the implications of her proposals. She has taken philosophical notions such as commensurability and shown they can be explored in an experimental manner, suggesting dramatic changes in intuitive theories. Her studies in these and related areas have profoundly influenced views of science education.

Carey has also focused in recent years on the conceptual precursors of intuitive theories that are present in infancy, and on the sorts of changes that occur as explicit representational systems emerge after the first year of life. She and her colleagues have conducted studies suggesting dramatic changes in how infants and young children understand the nature of object kinds and individuate among them. Other work illustrates how subtle properties of human and non-human agents are understood differently in the first year of life.

Carey exemplifies what it means to be a cognitive scientist, seamlessly interweaving theories and ideas across psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and neuroscience. We understand infants’ and children’s own understandings much more clearly as a result of her exciting theories and compelling research. She has repeatedly energized new areas of research and suggested dramatically new ways to understand developmental phenomena, and she has supported her views with highly creative studies. Her work is unique in developmental psychology for its intellectual and theoretical depth and for her ability to tie developmental issues in profound and important ways into the philosophy of science.