And there is. Here’s a narrowly based argument for the hypothesis-testing model of concept acquisition; one that presupposes neither a cognitivist account of concept possession nor even any general inductivist thesis about the roleof hypothesis testing in the acquisition of empirical beliefs.

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And there is. Here’s a narrowly based argument for the hypothesis-testing model of concept acquisition; one that presupposes neither a cognitivist account of concept possession nor even any general inductivist thesis about the roleof hypothesis testing in the acquisition of empirical beliefs.

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Nobody, radical nativists included, doubts that what leads to acquiring a concept is typically having the right kinds of experiences. That experience is somehow essentially implicated in concept acquisition is common ground to both Nativistsand Empiricists; their argument is over whether concepts are abstracted from, or merely occasioned by, theexperiences that acquiring them requires. That this is indeed the polemical situation has been clear to everybodyconcerned (except the Empiricists) at least since Descartes. In short, SIA, like everybody else, has to live with the factthat it’s typically acquaintance with doorknobs that leads to getting locked to doorknobhood. So, like everybody else, SIAhas to explain why it’s those experiences, and not others, that eventuate in locking to that property. But that’s enough, allby itself, to make the search for a non-inductivist account of concept acquisition look pretty hopeless. For, even if a cognitivist model ofconcept possession is not assumed, the hypothesis-testing story has the virtue of solving what I’ll call the doorknob/DOORKNOB problem:77 why is it so often experiences of doorknobs, and so rarely experience with whipped creamor giraffes, that leads one to lock to doorknobhood?

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According to the hypothesis-testing model, the relation between the content of the concepts one acquires and the content of the experiences that eventuate in one’s acquiring them is evidential; in particular, it’s mediated by contentrelations between a hypothesis and the experiences that serve to confirm it. You acquire DOORKNOB fromexperience with doorknobs because you use the experiences to confirm a hypothesis about the nature of doorknobhood;and doorknobs, unlike giraffes or whipped cream, are ceteris paribus a good source of evidence about the nature ofdoorknobs. Come to think of it, one typically gets DOORKNOB from

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I had thought at first that I would call this the fire hydrant/FIRE HYDRANT problem, as a sort of hommage to the Fido/Fido fallacy. But perhaps the joke isn’t worth the extra syllables.

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experience with good or typical examples of doorknobs, and good or typical doorknobs are a very good source of evidence about doorknobs. I’ll return to this presently.

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If, by contrast, you assume that, in the course of concept acquisition, the relation between the eliciting experience and the concept acquired is not typically evidential—if, for example, it’s just ‘brute causal’ (for this terminology, see Fodor1981a)—then why shouldn’t it be experience with giraffes that typically eventuates in locking to doorknobhood? Or viceversa? Or both? It appears there’s more to be said for the hypothesis-testing model of concept acquisition than evenSA had supposed.78 Compare a proposal that Jerry Samet once made for avoiding the assumption that hypothesistesting mediates concept acquisition (and hence for avoiding the Standard Argument): perhaps concepts are notlearned but ‘caught’, sort of like the flu (Samet 1986). No doubt this suggestion is a bit underspecified; the ‘sort of’does all the work. But there’s also a deeper complaint: it’s left wide open why you generally catch DOORKNOB fromdoorknobs and not, as it might be, from using public telephones (again sort of like the flu).

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Undarwinian Digression

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At this point in the dialectic, there’s a strong temptation to dump the load on Darwin; a standard tactic, these days, when a philosopher gets in over his head. Suppose that the mechanism of concept acquisition is indeed non-cognitivist; suppose, for example, that it‘s some sort of triggering. Still, wouldn’t a mechanism that triggers the conceptX consequent upon experience with Xs be more of a help with surviving (or getting reproduced, or whatever) than,say, a mechanism that triggers the concept X consequent upon encounters with things that aren’t Xs? If so, thenmaybe SIA together with not-more-than-the-usual-amount of handwaving about Darwin might after all explain whythe relation between the content of experiences and the content of the concepts they eventuate in locking to is so rarelyarbitrary.

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