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

  • From: wittrsl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 19 Aug 2010 14:10:02 -0700 (PDT)

Hi Walter:
For Fodor, how do we arrive at concepts? And what exactly does it mean to think 
about a DOG as such?
For example, suppose I ask Fodor to think about a dieseldown. What does he do 
when thinking about a dieseldown as such?
Descartes believed in innate ideas. Indeed, those things learned by 
acquaintance and learned by description through experience were deemed quite 
inferior indeed to such innate concepts such as God, and goodness, and clarity. 
If Fodor does not himself resort to innateness in order to explain at least 
some concept acquisition, then what exactly is the source of the concepts we 
contemplate as such? Does Fodor not come back to some sort of epistemic basis 
for the concept acquisition? I would hesitate before ascribing this kind of 
concept possession to Hume, though. Certainly, Locke does not buy it for a 
I like the cheekiness of the article, and I wish I could have been at the Smart 
lecture back then. Prof. Fodor must be quite an entertaining lecturer. The most 
entertaining lecturers at Berkeley that I remember were Searle and 
Scriven. Their classes were always packed, but I never knew of anyone getting 
an 'A' in one of Scriven's classes. There, the intellectual thrills came at a 
steep price to your GPA. Ha!

--- On Thu, 8/19/10, walto <calhorn@xxxxxxx> wrote:

From: walto <calhorn@xxxxxxx>
Subject: [quickphilosophy] Fodor on Concepts I: The set-up
To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Date: Thursday, August 19, 2010, 7:17 AM


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 
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 
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 interpretation-dependent.
4. To be interpretation-dependent is akin to being mind-dependent.
5. Therefore, the facts of psychology, unlike, say, the facts of geology are 
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.


Other related posts: