[Wittrs] [quickphilosophy] Fodor on Concepts I: The set-up

  • From: wittrsl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 19 Aug 2010 14:17:47 -0000

According to Jerry Fodor, the characteristic philosophical doctrine of
the 20th Century?and, in his view, the biggest mistake to be found
there?is that concept possession, e.g., understanding the concept of
PARTRIDGE, is a dispositional/epistemic condition.  That is, to have
that or any other concept is a matter of knowing how to use some word(s)
or acting a certain way upon confronting some sort of object (in this
case a particular kind of bird), or some combination of like epistemic
and/or dispositional characteristics.  This doctrine is a big deal,
Fodor says, because as thoughts "are made of concepts" instead
of being event-like, the possition makes not just concepts but thoughts
themselves to be dispositional.  That is, one must take the causal
powers of mental states to be more along the analogy of fragility
causing a window to break than along the analagy of the wreckage being
the affect of the window's being struck by a baseball.  He also thinks
that since epistemic states are inherently normative (knowing being a
matter of getting something right) this doctrine makes concept
possession normative too.  Thus, understanding PARTRIDGE might be taken
to require distinguishing partridges from quails correctly.

Fodor calls this general error of the century "concept
pragmatism" and he lays it and the doorsteps of both "crude
behaviorists" (e.g., Quine and Skinner) and their more
"sophisticated" brethren (like Ryle, Wittgenstein, and
Davidson).  What Fodor takes to distinguish these two mistaken schools
is that the crude group believes that the know-how required by concept
possession can be specified in a purely behavioral way, rather than
needing a partly intentional vocabulary.

Fodor looks back longingly on what he calls the Cartesian take on
concept possession.  Cartesians (including, he says, Hume) had a
non-epistemic view of the matter.  On their view (and Fodor's too)
understanding the concept PARTRIDGE is an intentional state, not
requiring any particular knowledge (either how or that), but only an
ability to think in a particular way.  E.g., to have the concept
PARTRIDGE is nothing more or less than to be able to think about
partridges as such, and vice versa.  And as thinking about some
partridge as such is an event rather than a disposition, we get back to
the primacy of mental events instead of dispositional "states"
(like fragility).  And this is good, he thinks, because dispositions
are, on his view, really parasitical on events of particular types.  So,
for example, Swan's famous obsession with Odette consisted in his
inability to stop having particular recurring mental events that were
examples of thinking about her.  Further, there is nothing particularly
normative about concept possession for the Cartesian: it doesn't
require that anybody be able to perform this or that action correctly.

The crowning conclusion of Fodor's discussion of the pitfalls he
believes to have been produced by the mistaken view is an argument (but
not a very good one, I don't think) which he believes shows that
concept pragmatists are doomed to some sort of epistemological idealism.
The argument is this:

1. Concept pragmatism makes concept possession an intrinsically
epistemic condition.

2. If concept possession is intrinsically epistemic, then mental states
are intrinsically subject to epistemic evaluation.

3. Whatever is intrinsically subject to epistemic evaluation implies the
possibility of an evaluator and may thus be said to be

4. To be interpretation-dependent is akin to being mind-dependent.

5. Therefore, the facts of psychology, unlike, say, the facts of geology
are mind-dependent.

For what it's worth, not only is there quite a bit of hand-waving
going on here, but nobody?whatever their view of the nature of
concept possession?would (or should) deny that the facts of
psychology are mind-dependent in some way that the facts of geology are
not in the first place.  (There is another little section, one that
I've skipped, that seems to me to have similar flaws: it's about
Quine and Wittgenstein on the social/interpersonal nature of concepts.)
Fortunately, these arguments are not terribly important to Fodor's
main goal, which isn't so much to prove that concept pragmatism is
dastardly, but that it's dead wrong.  In the next installment,
I'll outline his case for that claim.


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