[Wittrs] [quickphilosophy] Fodor on Concepts II: First argument against BCP

  • From: wittrsl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 19 Aug 2010 23:28:13 -0000

To take down concept pragmatism, Fodor first defines what he takes to be a bare 
boned version of it, which he calls "BCP."  Then he provides three arguments 
against it: I'll discuss only the first.  

So, what, exactly, is BCP?  Fodor says it's any theory according to which 
"concept possession is constituted by" two epistemic capacities, that for 
INFERRING and that for SORTING.  Assuming again that concepts "can occur as the 
constituents of thoughts" BCP holds that when a concept C is a constituent of 
some thought T, T will have certain entailments as a result of containing C.  
If, for example, someone eats a partridge, someone will have eaten a bird, 
while if someone eats a frog, that won't be the case.  The thought that Smith 
is eating a partridge entails that Smith is eating a bird in virtue of the 
thought's having the constituent PARTRIDGE.  And, according to BCP, a condition 
for possessing the concept C is that "one is disposed to draw (or otherwise to 
acknowledge) some of the inferences" that thoughts have in virtue of containing 
C.  While it may be a necessary truth that for X to be a partridge, X must be a 
bird, the entailments here need not be necessary.  For example, if it's widely 
known that all adult partridges are bigger than a standard thimble, then it may 
be that one cannot have the concept PARTRIDGE without inferring from "Smith ate 
a partridge" that Smith ate something bigger than a standard thimble.  

Besides making at least some of the right inferences, a concept possessor must 
according to BCP be able to do a bit of sorting.  If one can't separate the 
partridges from the frogs in a batch consisting of both animals, one probably 
hasn't got either the concept PARTRIDGE, the concept FROG (or, I guess, the 
concept DIFFERENT).  It may be that we need to have both inferential and 
sorting skills down to be said to have some concept.  E.g., to possess the 
concept PARTRIDGE we may need to be both "primitively compelled" to infer from 
"X is a partridge" that X is an animal, and  also be able to reliably 
distinguish partridges from frogs.

Fodor says that there are three basic objections to any such theory ("fatal 
when taken separately" and "annihilating when taken together").  I'll deal here 
only with the first basic objection, the so-called "analyticity argument," 
which Fodor claims to be the most familiar of the three.  I take this argument 
to go as follows:

1. According to BCP, for any person S and concept C there are some propositions 
that must be at least acquiesced to by S in order for S to have C.

2. If (1), then either the particular group of inferences that S must at least 
acquiesce to in order to possess C must either (i) be listable; (ii) include 
EVERY proposition that may be validly (even if empirically) inferred from a 
proposition including C; or (iii) involve all and only those propositions that 
analytically follow from a proposition that includes C.

3. But (i) and (ii) are absurd and (iii) requires a sustainable 
analytic/synthetic distinction.

4. There is no sustainable analytic/synthetic distinction.

5. Therefore BCP is false.

In support of the absurdity of (3)(ii), Fodor notes that concepts are public: 
lots of concepts are shared by lots of people.  If (3)(ii) were true, Fodor 
holds, no two people could share any concept C unless they shared all their 
beliefs involving C.  But, he says, "practically everybody has some eccentric 
beliefs about practically everything" at some time or other so not only does 
this sort of holism imply that no two people share the same concept, but even 
that no single person is likely to share it at different times during his/her 
life.  (And for those who might want to do away with concept identity between 
people in favor of concept similarity, Fodor refers them to a paper he wrote 
with Lepore that he believes shows that to be hopeless as well.)

Fodor calls "molecularism" the theory that some, but not ALL C-containing 
inferences need be acquiesced to in order for C to be possessed, and?while he 
admits that the position has some initial plausibility?he claims it depends on 
a sustainable analytic/synthetic distinction, since that is necessary to tell 
us just which beliefs are "conceptually necessary" to C.  

According to Fodor, the best way to make the point against the 
analytic/synthetic distinction is that "nobody has the slightest idea what the 
truth markers for claims about analyticity could be; that nobody knows what 
analyticity is, nobody can give clear account of what might make ascriptions of 
analyticity true (/false)."  Some have tried to base analyticities on 
part/whole: e.g., it's analytic that bachelors are unmarried simply because 
BACHELOR is nothing but some sort of combination of UNMARRIED and MAN.  But (a) 
the number of concepts that have parts has been vastly overrated, and (b) 
there's no good reason to suppose that UNMARRIED isn't really the derivative 
concept and BACHELOR is primitive.  

Another try has been made via "truth by convention." But even if linguistic 
analyticities are plausibly taken to be conventional, how could conceptual 
truths be?  "Did somebody stipulate that the concept BACHELOR applies only to 
men who are unmarried?  If so, when and who was it, and how did he go about 
it?"  Furthermore, how could something be both "true by meaning alone" and yet 
require some empirical fact to have at one time obtained?  "Copper is a metal" 
can't be analytically true if it requires it to be the case that copper is a 

And so, Fodor concludes, BCP is false.

There seem to me to be a number of weak points in his argument here, the most 
forceful one being that concept possession seems to me to be a fuzzier thing 
than Fodor can admit. This isn't necessarily a matter of Smith's concept C 
being only similar and not identical to Jones's, it's that the two people have 
differential masteries of what may really be one and the same thing.  Having 
the concept PARTRIDGE need not be the same thing for all people in order for 
PARTRIDGE itself to qualify as a single public concept.  Those who support BCP 
(as I guess maybe I do) and think that a sign of possession is epistemic don't 
therefore hold that the concept itself just IS the mastery or indeed any 
epistemic or dispositional element.  

But, of course, Fodor has other, and perhaps more powerful, arguments against 
BCP.  I leave their exposition to Ron.


Other related posts: