PART 3: The Impossibility Arguments.
afraid I am now required to set out some background. I must trace
the course of an argument Iíve been having (mostly with myself)
for the last twenty five years or so, as to whether, given plausible
empirical premises, it is even coherent to hold that there is such a process as concept learning.
And, if itís not, what nativistic alternatives there might be.
I managed some time
back to convince myself that Impossibility Arguments show that the
received account of concept learning is indeed incoherent. But it
has recently occurred to me that the implications of this can perhaps
be made to sound a little less preposterous than, for example, that
the concept CARBURATOR (or the concept CURRY) is innate. Contrary
to what I had at first supposed, there is a way of saying things
like `no concepts are learned; a fortiori, the concept CARBURATOR
isnít learnedí that makes it not also require saying things like
`no concepts are learned; a fortiori the concept CARBURATOR is innate.í
That strikes me
as, if perhaps not awfully important in the long run, still a good
thing tactically. For some reason, philosophers, who are often prepared
to swallow the most outlandish views ----that there arenít any tables
or chairs; or that there arenít any numbers; or that there arenít
any minds; or that, (to the contrary) there is nothing
but minds; or that there is nothing but numbers;
(I havenít heard of a philosopher according to whom there is nothing
but tables and chairs, but my knowledge of the ontological literature
is fragmentary); or that we made the stars; or that there is no
distinction between confirmation and truth; or that the only good
is the greatest happiness of the greatest number; or that the goal
of physics is to predict the state of excitation of oneís sensory
neuronsÖ and so forth, practically endlessly--- philosophers, who
have learned to gaze on all of that and not to boggle, tend to become
quite hysterical at the thought that the human conceptual repertoire,
CARBURATOR included, might be innately specified. Their view, apparently,
is that human ethology (unlike, say, spider ethology, or fish ethology)
is an a priori science, primarily responsible to what strikes philosophers
as plausible from a genetic or an evolutionary point of view.
That being so, and
what with the notion of concept learning being incoherent (according
to an argument I find convincing) it would be nice if one could
somehow endorse the Impossibility Argument without having to say
that CARBURATOR is innate
of course, thinks that IAs are unsound, hence that we neednít worry
about what form of concept nativism the philosophical community
might be prepared to tolerate. Partly she thinks this on methodological
grounds, but mostly on the ground that a key premise of IA isnít
true. As it turns out, Iím comprehensively unmoved by the considerations
she raises; Iíll tell you why in just a moment. First Iíll have
to give you a sketch of how IA is supposed to run. Then Iíll tell
you what kind of concept nativism I think we ought to endorse if
IA is sound; and why I think that kind of concept nativism is independently
plausible. Then Iíll tell you why Cowie rejects (not just the Impossibility
Argument but, also and independently,) the kind of concept nativism
Iím proposing. Then I will tell you why her grounds for rejecting
it are insubstantial. Then, I think, we can call it a day.
runs on the following assumptions, from which, it claims, the incoherence
of the received view of concept learning follows:
caused alterations of a creatureís conceptual repertoire count as
only if they are mediated by processes of hypothesis formation and
confirmation; if one were somehow to acquire the concept DOORKNOB
by surgical insertion, that would not count as learning it. I take it that this is actually
not in dispute. Surgical insertion is not a species of hypothesis
formation; and to my knowledge, no
alternative to the hypothesis testing
account of concept learning has ever been proposed. (There are, to be sure, many different
vocabularies that this hypothesis has been couched in, and people
who espouse it thus often fail to notice that theyíve done so.)
It thus bears emphasis
that, if you accept 3.1, you already have good reason to doubt that the notion of concept
learning is coherent. What hypothesis confirmation eventuates in
confirming is, after all hypotheses;
and concepts are not hypotheses (a
muddled Pragmatist tradition to the contrary notwithstanding). You can, for example,
(dis)confirm the hypothesis that dogs
bark; but you canít (dis)confirm the
concept DOG or the concept BARK. That concepts arenít hypotheses
should hardly seem surprising since concepts are the constituents of hypotheses;
concepts are what hypotheses are made of and are thus prior to hypotheses,
in much the ways that bricks are prior to brick houses. Since concepts
are prior to hypotheses, they are a fortiori, concepts are prior
to the (dis)confirmation of hypotheses. Empiricists have been confused
about these priority relations between (what used to be called)
`Ideasí and `Judgementsí for several centuries, and the end of this
also is not in sight. Just as Kant and Frege both warned it would,
confusing Ideas with Judgements got empiricists into endless trouble,
including their egregious failure to understand that theories of
concept acquisition must differ in
kind from theories of belief fixation;
in particular, that the former canít be learning
theories as 3.1 understand that notion.28
`Mostí of our concepts are primitives;
i.e. they have no internal structure; i.e. they havenít got other
concepts as constituents (in the way that, for example, itís often
supposed that the concept DOG has the concept ANIMAL as one of its
constituents, and that the concept BACHELOR has the concept UNMARRIED
as one of its constituents.)
3.1 is more or less untendentious (presumably because its unsettling
implications have not been widely recognized), 3.2 very clearly
isnít. I take it, however, that 3.2 is licensed by the following
concepts could have other concepts as parts (at least some concepts
must be `primitiveí). This I take to be common ground.
Broadly empirical considerations (from cognitive psychology and
elsewhere) show that `mostí concepts could have internal structure
only if most concepts are (something like) stereotypes or prototypes.
(For discussion of some of this literature, see Fodor (1998a))
There are decisive reasons why `mostí concepts canít be (anything
like) stereotypes or prototypes.
has two main lines of attack on the soundness of the Impossibility
Argument, one of which centers on 3.2.3; weíll turn to that presently.
(unstructured) concepts canít be learned by the formation/ confirmation
of hypothesis. 29
basic argument for 3.2.4. is that its denial leads to circularity.
Consider a concept like RED (which is pretty widely agreed to be
primitive if any concept is.) How would a hypothesis testing account
imagine that RED is learned? Well, presumably learning RED would
involve confirming some hypothesis about which
concept RED is (about its `individuating
propertiesí); as, for example, that itís the concept that expresses the property of being red. But, clearly, that canít be right; for any hypothesis
of the form X is the concept that expresses
the property of being red ipso facto contains the concept
RED among its constituents. A fortiori, itís not a hypothesis that
could be formulated by someone who lacked that concept. A fortiori
itís not a hypothesis that could be (dis)confirmed by anyone who
lacked that concept. Since the same reasoning goes through, mutatis
mutandis, for any concept that is supposed to be primitive, it follows
that primitive concepts canít be learned (where learning means what
3.1 says that it does). Hume got this right: "Öwhenever we
reason, we must antecedently [my emphasis] be possest of clear ideas, which may
be the objects of our reasoning. The conception always precedes
the understandingÖ (214)." You canít reason with a concept
you donít already have.30 So `mostí primitive concepts canít be acquired by
reasoning. But, taken together, 3.2.2 and 3.2.3 imply that `mostí
of our concepts are primitive. So `mostí of our concepts are unlearned.
Just a word about
the shudder quotes around `mostí. Clearly we have infinitely many
structured concepts (ones that have other concepts as constituents)
Thus my concept A FRIEND OF MY AUNT contains, among its parts the
concepts FRIEND and AUNT, as do infinitely many concepts that belong
to the same family: A FRIEND OF A FRIEND OF MY AUNTÖ and so on.
This is, once again common ground. But what of the concepts FRIEND
and AUNT themselves? Are they primitive, or do they have parts?
And if the latter, what parts do they have? Itís clear, in any case,
that if AUNT has constituents, the corresponding English expression
(viz. `Auntí) doesnít display them; (unlike, of course, the English
expression that corresponds to A FRIEND OF MY AUNT, (viz ` a friend
of my Auntí) which, as it were, shows that FRIEND and AUNT are parts
of the complex concept that it expresses.) All that being so, we
can now take the quotes off `mostí. The conclusion of the Impossibility
Argument is supposed to be that the set of unlearned concepts is
approximately coextensive with the set of concepts whose structures
displayed by the corresponding English expressions. (It therefore
likely includes FRIEND and AUNT, but not FRIEND OF MY AUNT.) This
is all very
approximate, to be sure, but it will do for the purposes of hand
since I suppose that, if anything of even
approximately this sort is true, then
now, at last:
3.3 Cowieís objections to the impossibility
In an earlier draft of this paper, I allowed myself
a little grumble about Cowieís tendency to offer, against some proposition
she has under attack, a fardel of arguments the conjunction of whose
premises is not consistent and some of which must therefore be unsound.31
Itís hard on the weary exegete that Cowie generally doesnít say
which arguments she proposes to give up in case she canít have them
all. In the event, however, I decided to delete that passage. (I
think it is good for my character occasionally to resist the temptation
to grumble. Very occasionally.) But the reader should be advised
that weíve now come to a polemical situation of this kind.
has two objections to impossibility arguments. One is that (pace
3.2.2) most concepts are prototypes, and itís common ground that
prototypes are complex statistical structures and can be learned
by assembling them from their constituents. The second argument,
however, takes a much stronger line in that it seems to reject,
a priori, the very idea that a concept might be innate. Now, I really
donít think Cowie can have this both ways. Prototypes are ipso facto
constructions out of a primitive conceptual basis; and, as far as
I can tell, Cowie accepts that primitive concepts have to be unlearned
(as per 3.2.4). But if that is so, she can hardly claim to be possessed
of a general and principled argument that no concepts are innate.
In short: Cowieís
empiricist account of how concepts are acquired applies only to concepts
that have (or are) prototypes. But if prototypes are ipso facto
learnable, thatís because they are ipso facto structurally complex,
primitive concepts. So, it looks to me that, qua friend of prototypes,
Cowie needs there to be a bona fide set of innate primitives. So,
conceive of my puzzlement upon encountering such passages as this:
"Fodor talks of [innate, primitive] concepts `becoming available,í
as if acquisition were the activation by a triggering stimulus of
some sort of preexisting conceptlike object. We come into the world
equipped with a stock of `protoconcepts,í mental structures of some
sort that become fully fledged concepts once they are triggered
by an appropriate stimulusÖ Iíll argue that thisÖ picture is seriously
confused. For thereís simply nothing for protoconcepts to be [sic] (83). "
Well, I am confused;
I donít see how it could both be that learned concepts are ipso facto complex and
nonetheless that no concepts are innate. Thatís why not just paradigm
rationalists, but also paradigm empiricists (Locke, Hume, William
James) have always agreed that primitive concepts must
be innate (for some references see
Fodor, (1981)). How could a creature that has no concepts learn anything? (Say "bootstrap" and Iíll scream.)
So, I donít think
that both Cowieís objections to the impossibility argument could
be sound; the positive (prototype based) view of concept acquisition
towards which she gestures seems to me not to cohere with her claim
that proto-(viz. innate) concepts are ipso
facto corrupt. I wonít, however speculate
on how she might seek to reconcile these two sorts of argument.
objections to IAs are unsound, it doesnít matter, for our purpose,
that their premises arenít compatible.
3.3.1. Cowieís argument against protoconcepts.
is a short argument.) Innate concepts (like concepts that arenít
innate; for that matter, like anything at all) are in want of principles
of individuation. Now, patently, concepts are individuated by their
contents inter alia; viz `semanticallyí. 32 Letís assume
some or other sort of `externalistí metaphysics of content (eg.
that the content of a concept supervenes on world-to-mind causal
interactions.) Well, unactivated innate concepts ---those that are,
as it were, waiting around to be triggered--- are presumably ipso
facto not causally connected to anything in the world. So, according
to externalism, they canít have any contents; so they canít be content-individuated;
so they canít be concepts. "There is simply nothing for protoconcepts
to be" compatible with, on the one hand, concepts being necessarily
semantically individuated and, on the other hand, protoconcepts
being de facto causally inert. 33
the question comes down to: Could an externalist believe that there
are innate ideas? Pace Cowie, the answer is: `Sure.í For example,
an externalist could hold that the semantic properties of `protoconceptsí
supervene on their dispositions to enter into causal world-to-mind relations. Maybe
what makes a mental representation a token of the protoconcept type
CAT is its disposition to be triggered by cats. 34
It is, I think,
very puzzling that Cowie doesnít seriously consider the possibility
of an externalist nativism that is dispositionalist about the semantic
properties of concepts (all the more so since she does, briefly,
consider the possibility of a dispositionalist internalism; see the footnote before last.) Unless there
are passages Iíve overlooked, the closest she gets is her remark
(on p. 91) that "on one Ö model Ö experience serves to trigger
innate protoconcepts, transforming preexisting mental objects Ö
into fully fledged intentional objects. [However]Ö the assertion
that protoconcepts are triggered by experience boils down to the
observation, with which no one would disagree, that thereís something
about our minds such that our experiences lead to our getting concepts."
But no argument is provided that the former thesis does indeed `boil
downí to the latter; and a momentís reflection suggests that it
couldnít possibly. On all standard ethological accounts of triggering,
part of whatís innate in a triggered concept is
a specification of its proprietary trigger. Since
the trigger of an innate concept is both proprietary and innately specified, such concepts
can be unvacuously individuated by reference to what would trigger them; which is to say, by reference to their
characteristic dispositions to enter into world-to-mind relations.
thinks that postulating innate concepts should be avoided because
it raises a pseudo-question to which no answer can be forthcoming:
What constitutes the content of a concept when the concept is causally
inert (eg. before it is triggered)? Iíve just argued, to the contrary,
that the content of protoconcepts is no particular problem for a
semantic externalist, so long as he assumes that it supervenes on
(possibly unactualized) dispositions. But there is also a less narrow
point to make; one that I think is sufficiently interesting as to
merit (sigh, another) digression. The question about content that
Cowie thinks that the postulation of innate concepts raises is of
a kind that has familiar avatars outside nativist psychology. And
itís one which, in consequence of the so-called `informational revolutioní
in biology, we now have some idea how to answer.
innate ideas to one side, and consider the structural similarity
between two problems, the solution of each of which was crucial
in determining the course of a science that raised it:
Mendelís problem: What becomes of the properties of organisms when
they arenít phenotypically expressed?
(J.B.) Watsonís problem: What becomes of the intentional contents of propositional
attitudes when they arenít the objects of thought?
both cases, there is the same crucial constraint on the answer.
Unexpressed phenotypic properties neednít just `go awayí; they can
skip generations and cause the offspring of heterozygotes to be
more similar to their grandparents than they are to their parents. Likewise,
the behavioral (etc.) expressions of oneís propositional attitudes
are typically discontinuous; often, you can remember your name even
across an interval of dreamless sleep. By contrast, however, causal
skip links; they require that something going on all
the time between the first component
cause and the last component effect. So, whatís to do? How can it
be that mental contents that arenít being thought, and phenotypic
traits that arenít being instantiated, are nonetheless among the
links in causal chains? These questions must have answers, whatever you may
think about innate ideas and such.
indeed they do. Unexpressed traits (unattended contents) can be
by microstructures that persist even through time stretches when
the traits (/contents) donít manifest themselves. So, oneís `genes
forí blue eyes can persist in oneís brown-eyed children, who may
then themselves have children with `blue eyes just like Grannyísí.
So too, the neural `engramí that encodes your knowledge of your
name may continue to do so even while youíre asleep. Prima facie,
these sorts of explanation of (what would otherwise appear to be)
temporal gaps in causal histories are extremely persuasive. Watson
himself went half bananas trying (and failing) to reconcile them
with his behaviorism. (At one point, he was tempted by the thought
that a sleeper who remembers that P is perhaps saying `Pí to himself,
all through the night.) Mendel, being less methodologically inhibited,
invented the gene.
3.4 Cowies argument for prototypes.
common ground that some such premise as 3.2.1 appears essentially
in Impossibility Arguments 36 For, suppose
that most concepts are prototypes after all. Then most concepts
are complex, and could be learned by confirming hypotheses that
identify the prototype. If the concept FISH is the prototype `wet,
lives in the ocean and has scalesí then learning that fish are (typically) wet, scaly and ocean dwelling
is all there need be to learning FISH. So sans an argument that
most concepts arenít prototypes, IA fails.
there is such an argument, and itís short. Let C1 be a complex concept,
of which the constituents are C2 Ö Cn (each of the latter may be
either primitive or complex.) Then:
nothing belongs to the content of C1 except what belongs to the
content of C2 or C3 orÖCn 37. Call this the Compositionality Constraint (=CC.)
It says, in effect, that that the identity of a complex concept
is entirely determined by the identity of its constituents. Since
Cowie doesnít deny the compositionality of concepts, I wonít bother
to argue for CC except to remark that, as far as anybody knows,
explaining the productivity and systematicity of conceptual repertoires
depends on it. That makes CC not negotiable.
arrive at Cowieís second objection to the Impossibility Argument.
I hold that concepts
canít be prototypes, hence that `mostí concepts must be unstructured,
hence that most concepts must be unlearned. My argument for the
crucial first step is that prototypes donít satisfy CC. Patently
(to cite some of the classic examples) the prototypical pet fish
is neither a prototypical pet nor a prototypical fish; the prototypical
male nurse may be a prototypical male but is not a prototypical
nurse. And so on through productively many cases. (For much more
discussion, and for the argument that if concepts are prototypes,
the set of counterexamples to CC is productive, see Fodor 1998a, Ch. 4.)
this line of thought, Cowie offers the following reply. Perhaps
the possession conditions for `mostí primitive concepts have two parts: they require
both a prototype and something that determines the conceptís extension
38. Since the prototypes of a concept is, ipso facto,
the intentional object of some of that conceptís ownerís propositional
attitudes, learning its prototype can be a possession condition for having
even a primitive concept. However, by assumption, prototypes do
CC; accordingly complex concepts need not have prototypes (and if a complex concept does, its
prototype neednít be inherited from its constituents.) The situation
is otherwise for the extension-determiners. Externalism being assumed,
the extension of a concept is determined by causal (world-to- mind)
relations; so concept possession requires the appropriate such relations
to be in place. But nobody need know what
they are, or even that
they are, in order to have the concept
in question. This is Cowieís version of the familiar externalist
maxim that meanings `ainít in the head.í (The general picture derives, of course,
from Putnam (1975).) Cowie expresses her two-factor account of the
individuation of primitive concepts by saying that there are two
senses of `meaningí (circa p. 145): meanings "in the technical
sense" are required to compose. Meanings "in the intuitive
sense" are what prototype theory gives an account of, and CC
doesnít apply to them.
everythingís fine; for `mostí concepts, including most primitive
concepts, the possession conditions can after all include some learning
that P. IAs to the contrary not withstanding.
is a way out of impossibility arguments that a lot of people have
suggested (including Stephen Schiffer, Christopher Peacocke, Jessie
Prinz, Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence among others). The key
idea is that, although nothing belongs to the individuation of a
complex concept except what it inherits from its constituents (per
CC), it doesnít follow that nothing
belongs to the individuation of a constituent concept except what
it contribute to its hosts. This means
that there can be possession conditions for a constituent concept
that are not
ipso facto among the possession conditions of its hosts., and knowing
the prototype for the concept might be one of these, So it could
turn out that, although you canít have DOG unless you know the DOG
prototype, nevertheless, you can have the DOG FROM NEBRASKA even
though there is no prototype that corresponds to it; all thatís
required, for the latter, is that the corresponding mental representation
have the right semantic value.
this two factor story wonít do. For extended discussion, see Fodor
1998b, Chs. 3.4; but hereís the gist: If the possession
conditions on a constituent concept C are not inherited by its host
H, then it should be perfectly possible to have the latter without
having the former. So (eg.) it should be perfectly possible to have
the concept DOG FROM NEBRASKA without having either the concept
DOG or the concept NEBRASKA 39. (A fortiori,
it should be possible that someone is able to think DOG FROM NEBRASKA
but not able to think either DOG or NEBRASKA and so does not find
`compellingí either the inference that dogs from Nebraska are dogs,
or that they are from Nebraska, or that if something is a dog and
from Nebraska, then itís a dog from Nebraska.) I take that to be
about as decisive as reductios get in this part of the woods.
The upshot is that
CC needs to hold in a biconditional form: P is a possession condition on a constituent
concept iff it is a possession condition on that conceptís hosts;
nothing belongs to the content of a primitive concept except what it transmits
to its hosts. If this is right it is very important quite aside
from the innateness issues. Practically all the standard theories
of conceptual content (mutatis mutandis lexical meaning, assuming
that the meaning of a word is the concept it expresses) fail this
strong version of CC. In particular, all theories fail according
to which epistemic
capacities are among the conditions on concept possession. Probably
that leaves only theories that identify conceptual contents (/lexical
meanings) with semantic values. These are, however, Very Deep Matters,
best discussed elsewhere. (See, once again, Fodor 1998b (Chs. 4 and 5). I do wish you would
read those papers. Perhaps if I were to offer a small reward? )
Where does this
leave us? Well, if CC holds in its strong form, then the Impossibility
Argument is presumably ok; anyhow, itís ok for all that Cowie has
to say against it. If the Impossibility Argument is ok, then `mostí
such concepts as CAT. DOORKNOB and CARBURATOR arenít acquired by
a learning process, which is what Iíve been trying to tell you all
thereís really is a quandary since, if most concepts arenít learned
by hypothesis formation and confirmation, why is it that so many
concepts are acquired from experiences of things that fall under
them? Why is it, for example, that DOORKNOB is typically acquired
from experiences of doorknobs (and not, say, from experiences with
cats, carburetors or pet fish?) If , as IA appears to require, the
processes underlying concept acquisition are more like triggering
than they are like induction, almost
anything might turn out to be the
trigger for DOORKNOB.
is what Concepts
called the `doorknob/DOORKNOBí (=d/D) problem. The main theme of
is that you have a d/D problem as soon
as you accept the Impossibility Argument:
for, whereas IA says that concept acquisition canít be a kind of
induction, the fact that concepts are typically learned from their
instance suggests that it has to be. The Impossibility Argument
wants concept nativism, and the d/D problem wants concept empiricism.
You canít have both so somethingís gotta give.
offered a way of splitting this difference; one I rather like (though.
of course, Cowie doesnít.) A word on this and then we really are
3.5 The `Constitutioní Thesis.
an alternative to inductivist solutions of the d/D problem. True,
we generally acquire DOORKNOB from doorknobs (indeed, from good
(roughly, paradigm) instances of doorknobs). So be it. But maybe
thatís not after
all because concept acquisition is hypothesis confirmation; maybe
itís because of what property being
a doorknob is. The idea is that being a doorknob is
mind-dependent. To be a doorknob is to have that
property that minds like ours `lockí
to 40 in
consequence of the kinds of experiences from which our kinds of
mind learn the
doorknob prototype. In effect, the
proposal is to do for (or to) being
a doorknob what Locke did for being red (and what
Humeís `second definitioní proposes to do for being
a cause (Treatise, Bk. 1 Sect. XIV)); namely make it a property thatís
defined relative to us. If one takes this line, then `how come DOORKNOB is
generally learned from doorknobs?í is to be answered in the same
way that Locke dealt with `How come itís typically red-sensations that red things cause us to have?í The
answer, in both cases, is `thatís of the essence of the properties
I say, this strikes me as rather a good idea; I intend, in fact,
to spend a couple of more years having it. If it works, then empiricists
and rationalists are both partly right about where concepts come
from. The acquisition of DOORKNOB, for example, has two phases:
One of them maps from (eg.) doorknob experiences to (something like)
a doorknob prototype. Since prototype formation is generally held
to be a species of statistical inference, this phase of concept
acquisition approximates to being a rational process, just as empiricists
would like. But, as weíve seen, prototypes donít compose, so they
arenít the right kind of mental representations to be concepts;
or even to be components of concepts, given that CC holds in the strong form.
So there has to be another stage of DOORKNOB acquisition; one that
starts from a doorknob prototype 41
and yields a mental representation
that is of
the right kind to be the concept DOORKNOB; namely a mental representation
that is `lockedí (see above) to an extension that includes all and
only the doorknobs. I suppose itís just a brute fact about minds
like ours that experiences of the sort that eventuate in doorknob-prototype-formation
also eventuate in locking to doorknobhood; if we had different kinds of minds, weíd (as one
used to say) `generalizeí differently from our experiences of prototypical
doorknobs.42 Likewise, if
we had different kinds of eyes, we wouldnít generalize from experiences
of tomatoes to a mental representation thatís locked to being red. So said
Locke, and so say I.
there are lots of problems with this picture; and of course the
odds are that nothing of the kind will work; those are overwhelmingly
the odds on any theory of mind thatís been thought of so far. But
Iím unmoved by what Cowie has against it. So deeply unmoved, in
fact, that Iíll take only a moment in going through her objections.
The first is that
Cowie doesnít like Lockean essences; she doesnít like properties
being individuated in terms of the effects things that things that
instance them have on us. She says she suspects that this kind of
metaphysics must always turn out circular. (Cf. the traditional
worry about Lockeís story about being
red: that it presupposes the notion
of a red-sensation).
But, as Cowie herself remarks, the discussion of this point has
now had a couple of hundred years of being inconclusive. Perhaps
it will eventually come out my (and Lockeís) way after all. Since
Cowie admits to having no argument to the contrary that amounts
to more than voicing a suspicion, how about if we all agree to give
me the benefit of this doubt?
second objection begs the main issue. She says that my story about
the constitution of doorknobhood and the like doesnít really give
us what we want. What Cowie says we want is a psychology of concept
acquisition; in particular, a theory of the mechanism whose operation
explains it. Whereas, Cowie complains, I havenít provided anything
like such a theory; only a (dubious) metaphysics for being a doorknob.
It is a "serious mistake" to confuse a piece of metaphysics
(dubious or otherwise) with a theory of cognition. To offer the
one where the other is wanted would be a typical example of philosophical
it would; but in fact I donít. The `constitutioní story isnít supposed
to be a theory of concept acquisition; itís supposed to be an answer
to the d/D problem. The whole point of the strategy in Concepts to argue that d/D for distinguishing the d/D problem
from the concept acquisition problem. According to Concepts,
a metaphysical problem thatís been misidentified as psychological. What really is psychological (according to me) is not d/D but concept
acquisition. Nobody knows how concept acquisition works, and Iím
not expecting that anybody will find out in the next couple of weeks.
But at lest we can avoid a paradox that had seemed to threaten:
on the one hand, d/D gives us good reason to believe that something
inductive (like prototype formation) is part of concept acquisition;
and, on the other hand, the Impossibility Argument shows that concept
acquisition canít be
inductive. This looks like a dilemma, hence a serious embarrassment
for anybody who runs a concept-based theory of mind, whichever side of
the rationalist/empiricist dispute he favors. It seems, in fact,
to show that thereís something wrong with RTM per se.
thank goodness, the constitution story shows that it doesnít. So,
like the man in Kierkegaard, weíre alright so for.43
Now, really: Did
that sound to you like a moan? Or a cry for help? According to Cowie,
"Fodorís position is of a kind with the mystery-mongering of
Descartes and LeibnizÖ Fodor makes it admirably explicit that his
`bottom lineí Ö is that acquiring concepts is a psychologically
inexplicable processÖ none of the psychologistís business. (106-107)."
Actually, if I can
have Leibniz and/or Descartes for company, Iím quite prepared to
monger mysteries till the cows come home. Still, the present objection
is another case of Cowieís failing to grasp the polemical position.
If concept formation includes a brute causal process (like the triggering
of a concept by a prototype) then to that extent it is none of the
(intentional) psychologistís business. But it doesnít follow that
itís a mystery, or that itís `inexplicableí tout court. (While weíre
at it, it also doesnít follow that it isnít.) What follows is just
that concept acquisition is not a phenomenon in the domain of (intentional)
psychology. Contrary, to be sure, to what intentional psychologists
have generally supposed.44 Maybe concept
acquisition is a phenomenon in the domain of neurology; or physiology;
or, for all I know (and for all Cowie does), geology. Any of those
would surely be compatible with `the scientific world viewí. Most,
indeed overwhelmingly most, things that happen in the world arenít phenomena in the
domain of intentional psychology. Whatís so interesting about the
mind, as cognitive science has come to understand it, is that it
appears to be atypical; some of the things that happen in it apparently are. The research
issue (not to be answered a priori) is which
right, all right; so maybe your constitution story isnít a cry for
help. But isnít it still Radically Nativist? Are you a rationalist
or arenít you? Damn it, why donít you `fess up?í "Regardless
of what Fodor wants to call himself, the question still arises:
Is he a nativistÖ.(Cowie, p. 106)" Actually, what Iím trying
for is something in the middle: Empiricism is right about the relation
between oneís experiences and the prototypes that having them lead
one to construct. Nativism is right about the relation between the
prototypes that oneís experiences lead one to construct and the
concepts that constructing the prototypes trigger. Does that make
Fodor Still A Radical Nativist After All? If, you positively insist
that I come out of the closet hereís my very last word:
is hard, theory is long, and life is short. Still, we should all
do our best not to think in headlines.
Cowie references are to (1999)
is the very same Fiona Cowie who accuses rationalists in general
(and me in particular; see p. 106 and passim) of having at best
a "mystery mongering" account of learning on offer. Let
me see if Iíve got this right: When I say that learning is a mystery,
thatís me merely mongering. When she says that learning is mysterious
and miraculous, thatís Cowie bravely facing up to the facts.
I wish to request a recount.
is one of the places where Cowie appears to forget that the empiricist
and rationalist are equally in want of independent construals of their
key notions `learnedí and `innate.í Compare Part 1.
wonít discuss Cowieís treatment of the historical figures, though
I do find some of it pretty peculiar. For a quick example: Cowie
thinks that Leibniz thought that you canít be an Empiricist unless
you believe in metaphysically real causation. For, if you donít,
"what this means, metaphysically speaking, is that [the] bearing
that our experience appears to have on our mental life is strictly
an illusion.(60)" But if not believing in metaphysically real
causation makes you not an empiricist, then I suppose even Hume
doesnít qualify. Just this once in what has been in many ways a
life of self-denial, I am prepared to invoke a paradigm case argument.
is , however, not always Chomskyís way to make life easy for his
exegetes. His frequent references to an innate `language organí
do indeed invite the reading that POSAs are about what mechanisms are available in the `initial stateí of the language
acquisition process. In fact, for reasons about to be offered, I
doubt very much that that could be the intended force of the metaphor.
Rather, Chomsky has it in mind to emphasize the continuity of his
nativism with standard biological methodology and theory. About
that he is, of course, absolutely right.
accordance with the usual practice, Iíll sometimes speak of grammars
(and of UGs) as true or false, thus equivocating between grammar
qua the speaker/hearerís (putative) internal representation of his
language and grammar qua the linguistís theory of the speaker/hearerís
(putative) internal representation of his language. Itís only the
latter about which questions of truth value straightforwardly arise;
but fudging the distinction helps a lot with the exegesis, and nothing
essential will turn on doing so, as far as I can tell.
a grammar of L be `descriptively adequate í iff it specifies all
and only the sentences of L together with their correct structural
told from time to time that the thesis that DOORKNOB is innate is
prima facie very implausible. Often, the earnest tone in which this
observation is proffered suggests itís a point that Iíve been supposed
not to have noticed. Actually, I do understand that it seems implausible
that DOORKNOB is innate. The trouble is, I find it very hard to
see whatís wrong with the arguments that appear to require that
conclusion. Nor do the plausibility intuitions with which several
centuries of uncritical empiricism (to say nothing of a century
and a half of Pop-Darwinism) have left us strike me as likely to
bear much weight in the long run.
assumes what all parties to the present discussion agree about:
That PAs have concepts as their constituents, and that the constituent
structure of a PA is among its essential properties. Only connectionists
deny this; and they wouldnít either if they could figure out some
way to stop their connectionism from entailing it. (As, in fact,
theyíve occasionally tried to do, but with no success. see Smolensky
(1988); Fodor and McLaughlin; and Fodor
(both in Fodor (1998b) ).
you are inclined to deny that there could, I suppose thatís not
on account of your views about nativism/empiricism per se, but rather
because you hold some form of` `theory/theoryí (or `inferential
roleí theory) about the nature of conceptual content. That kind
of metaphysics does entail that no concepts can be innate unless
some PAs are. For present purposes, youíre welcome to whatever metaphysical
assumptions about content you like. Suffice it that, unless you
make some, thereís no inference from nativism about concepts to
nativism about PAs.
laws of association are supposed to be sensitive only to spatio-temporal
relations (`frequency and contiguityí) among the Ideas that they
apply to. However, so hopeless is that sort of view as a theory
either of learning or of thought, that empiricists have often let
`similarityí and the like determine associations too. That was cheating,
of course, unless thereís a domain neutral notion of similarity,
(which, of course, there isnít.) Unsurprisingly, the impulse to
cheat this way came back when associationism did. See (eg) the exchange
between Churchland (1998),
and Fodor and Lepore (1999).
might argue that the kind of knowledge that explains linguistic
capacities is `knowing howí not `knowing thatí, hence that having
it doesnít require believing or cognizing anything. But such a view
leads to the rejection, not just of a mentalistic reading of nativism,
but to a mentalistic reading of empiricism as well. It is therefore not Cowieís
line. Cowie wants rationalism to be false compatible with the
cognitive turn in psychology having been Quite A Good Thing.
how Plato (himself a bit of a Platonist) explains the slave-boyís
ability to do geometry in the Meno. Holding that what one knows
explains oneís capacities is entirely compatible with holding that the objects
of oneís knowledge are non-natural.
puzzling passage this. One might have thought that I just couldnít have a better reason for preferring my theory to yours than
that yours doesnít exist. (Assuming, of course, that mine does.)
Notice, by the way, how much the "yet" is tendentious.
Likewise the "real" in the sentence that follows .Cowie
is rather prone to obiter dicta about what "really" explains
what.; see below.
wife is in this line of work, and she assures me that is so. Maybe
Cowie should go argue with her.
precisely, in the PLDs from which they could acquire
language, consonant with the normality of the process. Critical
experiments, in which the conditions of language acquisition are
systematically controlled, are of course not possible; so the distinction
between what is merely typical of the acquisition process and what it actually
requires is hard to draw. This is a kind of point of which ethologists
are forever reminding us: Birds "learn" to fly if they
are given normal opportunities to practice. But, as it turns out,
they also "learn" to fly if theyíre not.
That Cowie is inattentive to this caveat is hardly surprising.
If you think of languages the way she prefers to, viz not as things
people know but as "spatiotemporally located natural objects" youíre correspondingly
unlikely to think of linguistics as responsible to the counterfactuals
about what human languages there could be, or the conditions under which humans
could acquire them. Cowie says literally nothing about whether
she takes linguistics to be responsible to such counterfactuals,
or about what she thinks their truth-makers are.
great lot of the cross-disciplinary discussion of Chomskyís theory
has turned on whether the PLD reliably exhibits sentences whose
derivations require structure-dependent operations. Thatís what
Chomsky gets for offering an example thatís easy to understand.
It therefore bears emphasis that structure dependence is only one
of very many constraints that UG is supposed to impose upon grammars;
hence to which the PLD must testify if the thesis that children
approach the PLD with a UG already in mind is to be supposed untrue.
Ancients remember `subtle cuesí very well. They used to pop up whenever,
on the one hand, a psychologist was hell-bent to explain the organization
of a creatureís behavior by appeal to the structure of its environment;
but, on the other hand, a survey of the creatureís environment failed
to reveal psychophysical counterparts of the structure it was presumed
to have. Thus Skinnerian behaviorists thought there must be some
`stimulus propertiesí that are reliable indicators of (as it might
be) the bankruptcy of a financial institution; because, after all,
some human organisms (viz. accountants) are able to respond in a
way that discriminates bankrupt institutions from others in environments
that contain the relevant account books. Just what `stimulus propertyí
controls such selective responses as `the capitalization would appear
to be inadequately fluidí remains, to be sure, a matter for further
research. Beyond doubt, itís one of those `subtle cues.í
So nice to have them back.
is no indication, either in Cowie or in the literature she cites,
how such information (about transition probabilities among phonemes,
as it happens) might be employed to isolate anything thatís grammatically
pertinent except morpheme boundaries. The rest of a statistical
theory of language learning has "yet" to be "worked
oddly, Cowie appears to hold both
that thereís no case for
the childís lack of negative information in language acquisition
and that "there is a dearth of negative evidence in
every domain in which people learn. .For example, you
learn what Curry is without being told about all the things that
curry isnít (215, my italics)." In fact, Cowie remarks, "human
beings learn an awful lot, about bewildering variety of topics,
from sketchy and largely positive data. That they can do soÖ is
miraculous and mysterious. It is not, however, a reason to accept
a nativist explanation of the miracle as the solution of the mystery"
(216). She doesnít, however, say why itís not except for remarking that "itís
just absurd to suppose that the domain-specific principles required
for learning about curries are innate (215). "Why, one wonders,
does Cowie think so? It looks like whatís absurd isnít supposing
that learning about curry requires lots of information that is innate
and domain specific, but rather supposing that curry is the
domain to which the innate information is specific. (Try food; and
see the introduction of practically any serious cookbook; where
thereís likely to be an attempt to make some of the relevant domain-specific
generalizations explicit.) Likewise, nativists about language donít
suppose that the domain of the innate information thatís used to
learn English is English;
they only claim that English
is in that domain. Itís an open, empirical question --- indeed,
one that linguistics is devoted, almost entirely, to answering---
what else is in there too (what it is that all and only the possible
natural languages have in common.)
Reductio only works on arguments with false conclusions.
are forever giving nativists edifying lectures on this point. Thus
Cowie: "Conservative politicians, moralists, and jurists apparently
find overwhelming the inference from `innate` to `rightí and `inevitableíÖ
[But] to suppose that something is right just because it is innate
is to commit the fallacy of deriving `oughtí from `isí Ö. the inference
is Ö being made all the time, with potentially devastating consequences.
(x-xi; see also Ellman et al))."
I do find this sort of special pleading extremely
in mind, by the way, thatís not all a child has to keep him busy.
He has to learn a lot of vocabulary too. To say nothing of the geometrical
structure of perceptual space, the intuitive physics of middle-sized
objects; the intuitive intentional psychology of his conspecifics,
and so on; all of which information enlightened empiricists, just
like their unilluminated empiricist colleagues, presumably take
not to be genotypically carried. (Also, infants sleep a lot.) Since
Cowie sticks exclusively to the issue of nativism about language,
she is never required to discuss the overall
plausibility of the empiricist
view of cognitive development. It is probably wise of her not to
in passing, that the PLD is better evidence for the grammar of L
than it is for UG; which suggests (pace EE) that if both are learned,
itís the grammar, and not UG, that should be learned first. Lís grammar
expresses the structural similarities that sentences exhibit in virtue of their all belonging to L. UG, by contrast, expresses only the very
abstract structural similarities that sentences exhibit in virtue
of their all belonging to
some natural language or other. (Read
`some languageí with short scope relative to the `allí.)
Parallel considerations very strongly suggest
that the grammar-acquisition mechanisms should be domain specific
even if theyíre not innate: The chances are surely overwhelming
that arbitrary sentences drawn from a PLD will be more similar to
one another (hence better evidence for both the grammar
and for the UG) than they are to arbitrary objects of the
childís nonlinguistic experiences. Any sentence of English
is ipso facto more similar to another English sentence and to any sentence of Russian then either is to a bird, or Mother, or a
jar of emulsified peaches. (That, I suppose, is what it is
to think of language as a domain.)Yet it is regularities among a
childís nonlinguistic experiences that his inductions
from data to the UG depend on according to EE. "If you assert,
therefore, that the understanding of the child is led to this conclusion
by any process of argument or ratiocination, I may justly require
you to produce that argument, nor have you any pretense to refuse
so equitable a demand". (Hume, INQUIRY,
Section IV, Part 1).
P entails P, itís not clear that EE adds anything at all
to the assumption that the child canít learn the language unless
he knows P.
appears to hold that iteration arguments somehow require as a premise
that UG is psychologically real (see p. 273). But she is quite wrong
to think that; as, indeed, the present discussion shows. Iíve used
nothing about the ontological status of UG; Iíve assumed only what
EE grants: that you canít learn a first language unless you know
that grammatical rules are structure dependent.
It testifies to Kantís
genius that he saw that a cognitive theory that posits across-the-board structural preferences,
is in need of a transcendental argument that the world can be relied
on to comply with them. But most people doubt that he actually had
Itís a considerable
irony that the notion of having
a concept that Chomsky thinks
is needed for such very special purposes as explaining language
learning, is much the same one that philosophers who confuse metaphysics
and semantics with epistemology think is satisfied by the possession
of empirical concepts quite
generally: They think that
to have a concept is to know `in principleí how to identify the
things it applies to, and/or to know `in principleí how to bring
about states of affairs in which the concept applies. My guess is
that Cowie has taken some such verificationist view of concept possession
for granted. Putting that together with the observation that, in
the general case, concept acquisition doesnít require a grasp of
essences, gives Cowie the argument presently under examination.
Typical avatars of
this venerable confusion include the various semantic holisms that
so many empiricists now endorse. (The latest being the `theory theoryí
of concept individuation, according to which the identity of a concept
is determined by the beliefs it is embedded in rather than the other
way Ďround.) In semantics (as elsewhere), outbreaks of holism are
invariably signs of a foundational blunder. For discussion of this
complex of issues, see Fodor and Lepore (1992).
Weíve already seen
one reason why 3.2.4 must be true; viz that concepts are ontologically
prior to the kinds of things that can be (dis)confirmed. The argument
now unfolding waives that objection and assumes, for the sake of
the discussion, that the notion of concept learning by hypothesis
testing is coherent; but it claims, even so, that primitive concepts
canít be learned that way.
Cowie apparently thinks
that "deferential" concepts are somehow an exception.
My own view is that the category belongs to sociology, not semantics
(see Fodor (1994)). But it
will do for present purposes that you canít reason with a concept
unless somebody already has it. Thatís a truism, no?
One is reminded of
a familiar parody of lawyerly arguments: `My client didnít do it,
he wasnít there; and even if was there, he didnít have a gun; and
even if he was there and had a gun, it wasnít loaded; and even if
he was there and had a gun and it was loadedÖ. usw.
Which is not
to deny what `methodological solipsismí claims: viz. that a mental
processes applies to the concepts in its domains "solely in
virtue of" their nonsemantic properties. That mental processes
are syntactically driven doesnít at all imply that metal representations
are syntactically individuated. I canít begin to tell you how many philosophers
have been confused about this over the years.
33_ As Iíve already suggested, this line of
thought depends on taking for granted the (fashionable) externalist
view of the supervenience base for semantic properties. Letís grant
this assumption, for which, however, Cowie offers only the following
strange argument: "Ö protoconcepts [canít] be conceptual roles
understood dispositionally as networks of potential [sic]
causal/inferential interactions. For protoconcepts are supposed
to be innately specified, whereas the dispositions that our concepts
have to interact causally or inferentiallyÖ are not. I was not born
such that my tokenings of PLATYPUS are disposed to cause tokenings
of MONOTREMEÖ. (85)" This is, I think, the only argument Iíve
ever heard against a conceptual role semantics that doesnít
work. The most it shows is that somebody who is both an internalist
and a nativist about concepts shouldnít also be an unmitigated semantic
holist. Rather, he ought to hold that a conceptís innateness requires
only the innateness of its constitutive inferences; and, by assumption, much less
than every inference that a concept enters into is constitutive.
In fact, practically every internalist does hold something like
this (often at the price of endorsing an analytic/synthetic distinction.)
So, whatís the problem about internalists being nativists?
Notice, in particular, that not even every
necessary inference that involves concept C is is ipso facto constitutive
of C (assuming constitutive inferences to be the ones that correspond
to possession conditions). So, even if you are an inferential role
internalist, and even if you think that PLATYPUS is innate, and
even if you think that a platypus
is a monotreme is necessarily
true, you still are not required to claim that a platypus is a monotreme is innate; nor are you required to claim
that having the concept MONOTREME is a possession condition for
having the concept PLATYPUS; a fortiori, you are not required to
claim that having very concept that interacts with PLATYPUS interacts
causally is a possession condition for PLATYPUS. Concepts cautions
against this mistake, oh, maybe fifty times. To no avail, it appears.
34_Iím not, of course, supposing that anything
so simple would work as a metaphysics of the content of innate concepts;
just that the proposal is perfectly bona fide qua externalist.
If you want an externalist metaphysics of the content of innate
concepts thatís not just bona fide but true, Iím afraid
there isnít one "yet". (But, there isnít one for learned concepts
either; or for words. I donít suppose thatís an argument that there
arenít any words or concepts.)
35_In passing, and quite independent of issues
about nativism: thereís every reason for an externalist to take
content to supervene on possible (including nonactual) causal relations.
He thereby disencumbers himself of such embarrassments as Donald
Davidsonís `Swampman.í (According to Davidson, since Swampman has
no causal history, he ipso facto has no intentional states.) In
semantics as elsewhere, whatís actual doesnít matter much to the
metaphysics; itís the counterfactuals that count.
I assume (as does Cowie)
that the other familiar account according to which `mostí concepts
are complex ---viz that they are definitions--- is no longer seriously
in the running. For arguments, See Fodor (1998a,
For simplicity, I ignore
such content properties of C1 as may be determined by the arrangement of its constituents (i.e. by its `syntaxí). This is,
to be sure, no small matter; itís presumably such arrangement features
that distinguish (eg.) A PERSONíS FAVORITE CAT from A CATíS FAVORITE
PERSON. But abstracting from the effects of syntax on conceptual
content wonít affect our present purposes, and it simplifies the
Thereís some question
whether the `secondí component of a concept is to be an extension
determiner, or an extension.
My own view (but not Cowieís,
as far as I can make out) is that extensions are much the better
if those are the choices. For one thing, itís a lot more plausible
that extensions compose than that the world-to-mind relations do
that are supposed by externalists to be what fix semantic values.
For another thing, it would be nice if the content of a concept
were ipso facto at least part of what the concept expresses. This
will be so if contents are semantic values, but not if they are
the mechanisms that mediate world-to-mind connections. Maybe DOG
expresses the set of dogs, or the property of being a dog,
or the like. But it certainly doesnít express whatever the causal
hookup is that, by assumption, connects DOG to dogs or to dogness.
To say nothing of not
having the concept FROM. Prototype theorists tend to keep an extremely low profile in respect to the possession conditions for
concepts that express relations; as well they might since, prima
facie anyhow, relation concepts would seem
not to have prototypes. Cowie
doesnít discuss the issue.
`Lockingí is a place
holder for your favorite (externalist) theory of the relation such
that, if it holds between a thought type and a property, then the
property is the intentional object of tokens of that thought type.
However, see the footnote
before last. God only knows what, if anything, corresponds to prototypes
in the case of relational concepts.
doorknobsí rigidly; i.e. as prototypical
of actual-world doorknobs.
He has fallen from
a window and is half way down.
More precisely, contrary
to what many of them have supposed themselves to suppose. If you
look closely at paradigm empiricist/constructivist theories of concept
acquisition, itís not at all clear to what extent they endorse intentionalist
solutions. Locke and Hume thought that you get RED `brute causallyí
from stimulations of the sensorium. Dewey thought you get new concepts
by doing some "doing and undergoing"; (whatever that is,
it doesnít sound much like anything intentional.) Piaget thought
you get them by doing some "assimilating and accommodating.,"
(to which the same applies.)
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