Jean-marc pizano In succeeding chapters, I’ll consider three stories about what concepts are; viz. that they are definitions; that they are prototypes/ stereotypes; and (briefly)something called the ‘theory theory’ which says, as far as I can make out, that concepts are abstractions from beliefsystems. I’ll argue that each of these theories violates at least one of the non-negotiable constraints; and that it does so,so to speak, not a little bit around the edges but egregiously and down the middle. We will then have to consider what,if any, options remain for developing a theory of concepts suitable to the purposes of an RTM.
Before we settle down to this, however, there are a last couple of preliminary points that I want to put in place.
Here is the first: although I’m distinguishing three theories of concepts for purposes of exposition and attack, and though supporters of each of these theories have traditionally wanted to distance themselves as much as possible fromsupporters of the others, still all three theories are really versions of one and the same idea about content. I want tostress this since I’m going to argue that it is primarily because of what they agree about that all three fail.
The theories of concepts we’ll be considering all assume a metaphysical thesis which, as I remarked in Chapter 1, I propose to reject: namely, that primitive concepts, and (hence) their possession conditions, are at least partlyconstituted by their inferential relations. (That complex concepts—BROWN COW, etc.—and their possessionconditions are exhaustively constituted by their inferential relations to their constituent concepts is not in dispute; tothe contrary, compositionality requires it, and compositionality isn’t negotiable.) The current near-universal acceptanceof Inferential Role Semantics in cognitive science marks a radical break with the preceding tradition in theories aboutmind and language: pre-modern theories typically supposed that primitive concepts are individuated by their (e.g.iconic or causal) relations to things in the world. The history of the conversion of cognitive scientists to IR semanticswould make a book by itself; a comedy, I think, though thus far without a happy ending:
—In philosophy, the idea was pretty explicitly to extend the Logicist treatment of logical terms into the non-logical vocabulary; if IF and SOME can be identified with their inferential roles, why not TABLE and TREE as well?
—In linguistics, the idea was to extend to semantics the Structuralist notion that a level of grammatical description is a ‘system of differences’: if their relations of equivalence and contrast are what bestow phonological values on speechsounds, why shouldn’t their relations of implication and exclusion be what bestow semantic values on forms of words?
—In AI, the principle avatar of IRS was ‘procedural semantics’, a deeply misguided attempt to extend the principle of ‘methodological solipsism’ from the theory of mental processes to the theory of meaning: if a mental process (thinking,perceiving, remembering, and the like) can be ‘purely computational’ why can’t conceptual content be purelycomputational too? If computers qua devices that perform inferences can think, why can’t computers qua devices thatperform inferences mean?
—I don’t know how psychology caught IRS; perhaps it was from philosophy, linguistics, and AI. (I know one eminent developmental psychologist who certainly caught it from Thomas Kuhn.) Let that be an object lesson in the danger ofmixing disciplines. Anyhow, IRS got to bethe fashion in psychology too. Perhaps the main effect of the “cognitive revolution” was that espousing some or otherversion of IRS became the received way for a psychologist not to be a behaviourist.
So, starting around 1950, practically everybody was saying that the “ ‘Fido”—Fido fallacy’ is fallacious,24 and that concepts (/words) are like chess pieces: just as there can’t be a rook without a queen, so there can‘t be a DOG withoutan ANIMAL. Just as the value of the rook is partly determined by its relation to the queen, so the content of DOG ispartly determined by its relation to ANIMAL. Content is therefore a thing that can only happen internal to systems ofsymbols (or internal to languages, or, on some versions, internal to forms of life). It was left to ‘literary theory’ toproduce the reductio ad absurdum (literary theory is good at that): content is constituted entirely by intra-symbolicrelations; just as there’s nothing ‘outside’ the chess game that matters to the values of the pieces, so too there’s nothingoutside the text that matters to what it means.Jean-marc pizano