We claim that the animate and inanimate conceptual categories represent evolutionarily adapted domain-specific knowledge systems that are subserved by distinct neural mechanisms, thereby allowing for their selective impairment in conditions of brain damage. On this view, (some of) the category-specific deficits that have recently been reported in the cognitive neuropsychological literature—for example, the selective damage or sparing of knowledge about animals—are truly categorical effects. Here, we articulate and defend this thesis against the dominant, reductionist theory of category-specific deficits, which holds that the categorical nature of the deficits is the result of selective damage to noncategorically organized visual or functional semantic subsystems. On the latter view, the sensory/functional dimension provides the fundamental organizing principle of the semantic system. Since, according to the latter theory, sensory and functional properties are differentially important in determining the meaning of the members of different semantic categories, selective damage to the visual or the functional semantic subsystem will result in a category-like deficit. A review of the literature and the results of a new case of category-specific deficit will show that the domain-specific knowledge framework provides a better account of category-specific deficits than the sensory/functional dichotomy theory.

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