Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Part 1b: Heading Off Objections

In my last post I raised the issue of the specialized, abstracted ways in which philosophers of mind tend to describe and analyze mental life. This will be crucial to some of the arguments I want to develop. There’s a risk here that it will seem as though I’m constructing a straw man, criticizing a caricature that doesn’t faithfully depict the way philosophers actually talk. There’s also a risk that my argument will seem like a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction against complex vocabulary or sentence construction.

This post is an effort to head-off those types of objections by giving specific examples of what I mean by abstract, technical, specialized philosophical language. All that matters for the sake of my arguments is that it is markedly different, and in some sense removed, from concrete or empirical data — whether objective (observable phenomena and behavior) or subjective (direct experience).

I’ll give just a couple of examples (the first good ones I found on a random search), but there are countless others throughout the field. My point applies to any discussion that sounds even remotely like what follows, or that is based on conclusions drawn from this sort of analysis.

The following examples are taken from Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong, by Jerry Fodor (1998).

"Since content supervenes on purely nomic relations — that is, on certain lawful relations among properties — and since lawful relations can presumably hold among properties that are, de facto, uninstantiated, the metaphysical conditions for content can in principle can be met entirely counterfactually: no actual tokens of DOG have actually to be caused by dogs for the counterfactuals that its content supervenes on to be in place."

My point is not that this is complex, rich with philosophical jargon, or difficult for non-philosophers to understand — though of course it is — but that what’s being described here are abstract entities and categories (DOG, tokens, properties) and how those relate to one another. DOG is not a living, panting cocker spaniel sitting at Fodor’s feet; it is a theoretical construct.

Fodor describes such theoretical constructs as interacting or relating to each other in a variety of ways, such as “instantiating,” “supervening on,” or being “constitutive of” on one another. Here are two other examples:

"So we have it, by assumption, that 'dog' and DOG mean dog because 'dog' expresses DOG, and DOG tokens fall under a law according to which they reliably are (or would be) among the effects of instantiated doghood.

"[C]oncepts are constituents of mental states. Thus, for example, believing that cats are animals is a paradigmatic mental sate, and the concept ANIMAL is a constituent of the belief that cats are animals."

These next quotes are by David Chalmers, in “The Content and Epistemology of Phenomenal Belief” (2003).

“I take concepts to be mental entities on a par with beliefs: they are constituents of beliefs (and other propositional attitudes) in a manner loosely analogous to the way in which words are constituents of sentences. Like beliefs, concepts are tokens rather than types in the first instance. But they also fall under types, some of which I explore in what follows.”

Again, the entities being discussed here are abstract. (Which is not to say that nobody imagines these abstract entities will correspond to physical entities. But so far, we’re operating in pure theory.)

“I look at a red apple, and visually experience its color…” (So far so good! A little oddly phrased, but still pretty well grounded in the reality of people, apples, and colors.) “…This experience instantiates a phenomenal quality R, which we might call phenomenal redness.” (And then *poof!* we’re back in theory-land.)

Note: Lest it still seem as though I am critiquing an outdated, minority viewpoint, please read the post "This Means You Too, Andy Clark."


  1. I could easily be wrong, but I see two related tacks here in your argument: one is about the kinds of concepts philosophers use and the other is about the language they use. Perhaps these two can't be separated. I could easily see a philosopher responding that you are setting up an untenable distinction between the "abstract concept" and the "real-life example." Philosophy (this person might argue) *is* reasoning from the particular to the general. Personally I agree with where you're going with this, but of course that's probably why I'm not a philosopher. I could say, though, that the "living, breathing cocker spaniel" of your example is as much a "theoretical construct" as Fodor's "DOG," since both are *linguistic* constructions: neither is a "real" dog in that sense. So I want to hear more about what role the "real-life example" is going to play in your argument.

  2. Excellent comments. I’ll address them one by one.
    1) Concepts vs. language: The relationship between the two is a tricky issue that I’ll go into more detail on later. For the purposes of the (very limited, mundane) point I’m making right now, either will do. If you want to think of it as philosophers of mind using particular types of concepts, fine. If you want to think of it as them using particular types of language, that’s fine too.

    2)Abstraction vs. reality: I’m not wedded to any of the terms I’m using here. In fact, “reasoning from the particular to the general” is at least as good a way to say what I’m getting at. Anyone who finds that terminology less objectionable can feel free to replace my references to “talking in abstract/theoretical terms” with “reasoning from the particular to the general.” The point stands that this is different from ordinary ways of speaking, and we are entitled to ask how useful it is. How are the general things philosophers come up with relevant to, and able to explain, particular cases?

    3)Certainly the phrase “living, breathing cocker spaniel” is a linguistic construction; it is, literally, made out of words. What I’m talking about is an actual dog — whatever that would make you think of if we were not talking about philosophy. Again, I’m trying to point out something mundane and obvious, not make a philosophical argument. I hope everyone can agree that DOG is a theoretical construct in a way that, for instance, your dog (whom I happen to know is named Tara) is not. Again, feel free to substitute the particular/general distinction here. In an explanation of how you’re able to identify a dog, instead of talking about particulars, what actually happens — e.g., when someone points to Tara and asks what kind of animal that is, you automatically say “dog” — a philosopher of mind talks in general (abstract, theoretical, whatever) terms, with references to concepts and instantiation and tokens and so on.

    Does this adequately address those issues for you?