Pevensey I 1A1
In Search of the Concept CONCEPT
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! 🙂