E-Int: “In Search of the Concept CONCEPT”

Pevensey I 1A1

In Search of the Concept CONCEPT
Joel Parthemore
4:30 p.m. 17 May 2007

I attended a workshop this past weekend in Copenhagen, titled CONCEPTS: Content and Constitution. Peter Gardenfors, Jose Luiz Bermudez, Greg Ashby, Ruth Millikan and Daniel Dennett all presented their overlapping ideas about just what a concept is. Bermudez described concepts by contrasting them with non-conceptual content; Ashby offered a view of concepts from neuroscience, in the context of category learning; Prinz offered a spirited defense of concept empiricism (hooray! :-)); Milliken offered a teleological account of the role of “useless” concepts as a way of understanding concepts more generally; Dennett drew on the familiar analogy between source code and compiled code to, once again, contrast conceptual with non-conceptual content.

I will present all their different concepts of concept within the context of my own exploration of concept content, drawing in particular, I hope, from the talk (and recent book) by Gardenfors on conceptual spaces, and my recent work with Ron in synthetic phenomenology, as ways of using a geometry metaphor to specify the content of concepts non-conceptually. The central question I want to address is: What is our concept of concept? What, more precisely, is the content of our concept CONCEPT?

My work to date has involved examining standard and less standard theories of concepts in light of their potential applications. Building on that, I want to emphasize the centrality of an explicit and coherent theory of concepts to any work in cognitive science or AI. Further I want to argue for the importance, to any understanding of the nature of concepts, of a toggling between two perspectives: on the one hand, understanding concepts as being composed of other concepts (per e.g. Jesse Prinz and his proxytypes theory of concepts); on the other, understanding concepts as conceptually atomic (per Jerry Fodor and his informational atomism approach).* (Of course in other, non-conceptual ways, they will not be atomic at all.) Many in the field might take these perspectives to be poles apart, even incommensurable.

My intuition is that it is part of human cognition to toggle between these two perspectives constantly. When we think of concepts as concepts, then it’s natural (I want to argue) to understand them as complexly structured entities and specify their content conceptually. When we use concepts without thinking of them as concepts, then I think we need means to specify the contents of those very same concepts non-conceptually, using methods e.g. suggested by synthetic phenomenology, a term used by Ron Chrisley and others for methods of specifying the contents of experience (or certain kinds of experience) non-linguistically and indeed non-conceptually. Not only might this allow a nice continuity between non-conceptual and conceptual mental representations, it would also (I think) offer an escape from familiar self-referential paradoxes (e.g., Grelling’s Paradox)that arise when one attempts to specify the contents of concepts purely with other concepts, without needing to take the drastic step of banishing those paradoxes altogether.

* I raised this point with Prinz after his talk. His response was just to say that Fodor is, at heart, a good empiricist! 🙂


2 thoughts on “E-Int: “In Search of the Concept CONCEPT”

  1. Give an example address wellness: Imagine you are a master clinician in a leading US teaching hospital where technology captures reams of test data and financial incentives move patients out of beds and onto the streets as fast as possible. Before HMOs you could take the time to absorb all the patient’s illness related factors and have the time to reflect and to consult other master clinicians about the odd relationships of this individual patient and how they may contribute to overall -“methods of specifying the contents of experience (or certain kinds of experience) (relating to this patient and to what has just been collectively learned for teaching purposes) non-linguistically and indeed non-conceptually”-. What can you contribute as a take-away to help this teaching hospital capture the concept of the concepts now being lost at each patient discharge? Thanks: mpbelanger@semantxls.com

  2. This hospital is, presumably, going to be losing a whole lot of informational content that it was able to collect before: content some of which could probably best be specified discursively, some of which could probably best be specified iconically, some in a more obviously conceptual framework, some in a more apparently non-conceptual framework. Would they find any usefulness in the “toggling of perspectives” approach toward conceptual content that I presented in this paper — between understanding concepts as conceptually atomic and understanding concepts as conceptually complex structures that decompose into other concepts? Well, no, not immediately; I’m miles away from that kind of real-world application at the moment. But I do believe quite strongly that a theory of concepts is essential to any work in cognitive science or AI, and even that any AI project necessarily embodies some theory of concepts, even if it’s only implicit. So getting clearer about our theory of concepts should be a good thing, even if the fruits are not immediately obvious.

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