Re: [quickphilosophy] Re: Fodor on Concepts III: Other Arguments Against BCP

  • From: wittrsl@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 31 Aug 2010 17:14:39 -0700 (PDT)

Hi Walter:
I've been out of town and unable to devote much time to Fodor.
Just an observation: I think you are reformulating Fodor's development and 
combining parts of different arguments. That's OK, though.
I agree completely that he's attacking BCP as if it were committed to sorting 
and inference as sufficient conditions for concept possession, when, in all 
likelihood, they are just necessary conditons. Individually and conjoined, 
then, they are still weaker than concept possession. 
Would not a kind of Chinese Room Argument be relevant to this question? For 
example, suppose I had a person inside the CRA who was asked to sort and make 
inferences upon objects that were presented to the window. The little guy in 
the CRA has to sort dieseldowns and he has to make inferences about them. But, 
he just follows a set of ad hoc rules that somehow, coincidentally, just happen 
to work for the particular sequence of dieseldown and non-dieseldown examples 
we hold up in the window and for the dieseldown and non-dieseldown deductive 
problems we hold up to the window. Now, this ad hoc, rule-driven luck is not 
sufficient to say that the Room has the concept of a dieseldown, even though, 
sure enough, it made a whole handsome series of sortations and a pretty decent 
pattern of inferences.
Also, another thing about your reformulated argument below. In your point (2) 
you define compositionality as concepts being decomposed into smaller ones. 
This is different from Fodor, who only asserts that they add together or 
permute in some fashion, not that they decompose. Also, the decomposition leads 
to an infinite regress. I either come to some concepts that are not 
compositional (and not composed of smaller ones) or I have compositional 
concepts all the way down (to minus infinity). But, if we don't regress, then 
all of our concepts are built up from atomic concepts, and a BCP advocate with 
an Atomic Propositions and Atomic Perceptions foundationalism underneath would 
not at all be unsatisfied with that result. If Fodor were to argue for the kind 
of compositionality that you seem to suggest here, then his Dog as such concept 
would be just a collection of atomic perceptions, better or worse known to a 
So, at least with your (2) below, I think that you have an infinite regress, 
and if not that, then you dissolve concepts as such into a variant acceptable 
to BCP.

--- On Wed, 8/25/10, walto <calhorn@xxxxxxx> wrote:

From: walto <calhorn@xxxxxxx>
Subject: [quickphilosophy] Re: Fodor on Concepts III: Other Arguments Against 
To: quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Date: Wednesday, August 25, 2010, 6:19 AM


--- In quickphilosophy@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, Ron Allen <wavelets@...> wrote:
> Hello Walto & quick-fill group:
> For his second obliteration of Bare-Bones Concept Pragmatism (BCP) in his 
> article "Having Concepts" Fodor argues that BCP's epistemic account of 
> possessing concepts fundamentally conflicts with the compositionality of 
> thought and language. This, Fodor has argued, is essential for explaining the 
> productivity and systematicity of thought and language.
> BCP, in Fodor's characterization, comprises both sortability and inference, 
> and, really, I think, nothing else; these are necessary and sufficient 
> criteria as Fodor relates them. Again, as I think Neil pointed out, it's not 
> for Fodor to state their conditions, but for the conceptual pragmatists to do 
> the same. That's one thing that is glaringly missing from this argument. 
> Where are the citations that somebody actually puts forward BCP? I see none.
> But,OK, BCP asserts (so Fodor) a sorting capability within concept 
> possession. [rla aside: Does Fodor not accept this? Is it possible that the 
> concept of a dog as such might not be sortable from a cat as such, and yet 
> the two concepts should nonetheless be distinct?] Fodor argues that if BCP is 
> correct, then to have a concept C is to be able to sort objects in its 
> extension.
> Here is Fodor's argument:
> 1. OK, what about dogs?
> 2. You can't pick out dogs that are relativistically outside our perceptual 
> scope. There might be dogs that are so far away that the finiteness of the 
> speed of light precludes our seeing them and discriminating them from 
> non-dogs. [rla: What an unbelievably specious argument. I'm appalled.]
> 3. [But no one in BCP claims that we have to sort physically unknowable 
> objects. Was the possible dog outside our lightcone whelped by a dog inside 
> our cone? If not, why even suggest that it's a dog? Why even suggest that it 
> exists, let alone make this imaginary thing a crucial entity for deciding our 
> intellectual dilemma? This is really a quite specious line of argumentation. 
> What does BCP say? It can only be fresher.]
> 4. The BCP requires us to identify dogs that died a long time ago and for 
> which there are no traces. So, for instance, we'd have to be able to say that 
> the "dogs" that darted around the Achaean camp in the Iliad were really dogs, 
> not jackals, in order for BCP to be correct. These dogs/jackals are gone. We 
> can't know anything about them. Therefore, the epistemic account of concept 
> possession is false.
> 5. We're not done yet. If it is required [rla: who said it was? Fodor has 
> quoted nobody on these goofball points]  that dog owners distinguish dogs 
> from anything else, then only God has this ability, and if one is an atheist, 
> then indeed no one can distinguish dogs from anything else [rla: because you 
> might make a mistake with a jackal or a dingo or a fox or even a wolf]; thus, 
> you can't sort dogs. Thus, you have no concept of dogs.
> 6. So, maybe you need good instances of dogs to be able to identify them? or 
> maybe you need favorable conditions? But, so Fodor argues, neither the 
> quality of the conditions for identifying dogs nor the conditions which might 
> be favorable for identifying them are compatible with compositionality; BCP 
> (which is not compositional) cannot be a good candidate for explaining the 
> possession of concepts (which is compositional).
> Thanks!--Ron
> (My errant thought/language: Does it not seem odd that thought and language 
> are taken to be isomorphic in this argument? Are they really? Navajo vs. 
> Sanskrit?)

Thanks, Ron.

Here's my own (maybe a little more charitable) restatement of Fodor's argument 

(1) For language/understanding to work (be generative), most concepts must be 

(2) For any concept C, C is compositional iff (if C is composed of (littler 
concepts) A + N, then for any person S, if S understands A + S understands N, 
then S will also understand C).

(3) For the BCPer, for all persons S and concepts C, if S undertands C, then S 
can sort representative Cs in favorable conditions.

(4) Therefore, for the BCPer, a concept C is compositional iff (for all Cs and 
Ss, if C is composed of A and N, then if S can sort both As and Ns in favorable 
conditions, then S can also sort representative ANs (i.e. representative Cs) in 
favorable conditions. [from (2) and (3)]

(5) But for many (perhaps most?) concepts of the AN type, there are many 
(perhaps most?) Ss who can sort both representative As and representative Ns in 
favorable conditions but CANNOT sort representative ANs in favorable 
conditions. [Fodor gives his night bluebird as an example here].

(6) Language/understanding is generative and does work.

(7) Therefore, BCP is wrong.

It's a clever argument, and the premises seem to me to be true. But I also 
THINK (though I may be wrong), that--in spite of appearances to the 
contrary--(4) doesn't actually follow from (2) and (3), because, once again, 
the BCPer need only claim that sorting is a NECESSARY condition for concept 
possession, and for the inference in (4) to work, you have to get from sorting 
to concept possession (which would make it a SUFFICIENT condtion. So, I THINK 
that his argument won't work, given any sensible definition of BCP. 

As I said before, it's my sense that Fodor would have been better off 
restricting the target of his attack--maybe to the position taken by W in the 
Investigations. Of course, then, it would probably not have struck people as 
much of a deal, since it's implausible on it's face that being able to reliably 
sort Xs in favorable conditions is a sufficient condition for having the 
concept of X: it's extremely easy to come up with counterexamples. 


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