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Concept Constitution Author(s): Paul Horwich Source: Philosophical Issues, Vol. 9, Concepts (1998), pp. 15-19 Published by: Ridgeview Publishing Company Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1522955 Accessed: 05/12/2008 06:56 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=rpc. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]
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Jerry Fodor defines a 'recognitional' concept as one whose possession requires the ability to recognize at least some of its instances: thus RED is recognitional if, and only if, in order to have that concept one must be able (in favourable circumstances) to identify certain red things as red. His argument that there are in reality no such concepts has two main premises. One, which he, calls "the compositionality principle", is that the possession condition of a complex concept (such as PET FISH) will be satisfied by anyone who satisfies the possession conditions of its constituents and who appreciates how those constituents have been combined. The other, to which he does not give a name but which we might call "the principle of uniformity", is that if the constituents of a certain complex concept are recognitional then that concept must itself be recognitional. In a more general form, this principle would require that if the constituents of a concept have possession conditions of a certain type, K, then the concept must also have possession conditions of that type. From this pair of premises Fodor reaches his conclusion without difficulty. Given any concept A (e.g. PET) we can always find another one N (e.g. FISH) such that our being able to recognize certain instances of A and certain instances of N does not ensure that we will be able to recognize any instances of AN; therefore, the assumption
that there are recognitional concepts leads to a conflict between the uniformity principle (which implies that the complexes they form are recognitional) and the compositionality principle (which implies that not all such complexes could have possession conditions characteristic of recognitional concepts); therefore, there are no recognitional concepts. So the situation is uncontroversially this: the principle of compositionality, the principle of uniformity, and the belief in recognitional concepts, form an inconsistent triad. Moreover, no one wants to give up the principle of compositionality. Therefore the issue boils down to whether we are to give up uniformity or recognitional concepts. Fodor thinks there is good reason to hold on to the principle of uniformity -so recognitional concepts must go. His critics (amongst whom I must count myself) don't agree with (or don't understand) his reason for wanting to hang on to the principle of uniformity. Therefore, whether or not they themselves have any time for recognitional concepts, they think that his argument against them is no good. In support of this scepticism about Fodor's position I'd like to offer three considerations. The first responds to his allegation that to give up the principle of uniformity is ad hoc. The second is the admittedly ad hominem point that Fodor's own 'informational' view of concept constitution would fall foul of uniformity just as blatantly as do recognitional concepts. And the third consideration sketches a prima facie plausible rationale for the principle of uniformity and identifies where that rationale goes wrong.
1 Is It Ad Hoc to Abandon Uniformity? In the face of Fodor's argument, one might try to preserve recognitional concepts by denying the principle of uniformity and maintaining instead that, although primitive concepts A and N may be recognitional, the condition for possessing the complex concept AN is simply possessing A and possessing N and seeing how they are put together. To this, however, Fodor objects that it would make the principle of compositionality true by stipulation -which is not as explanatorily deep and plausible as having it derive from general principles of concept constitution. But this complaint strikes me as unjust. For the situation is really that we are faced with two competing general accounts of concept constitution. One (which Fodor have simple and complexprefers) says that all concepts -both I am recommendK. The other of conditions possession type (which
ing) says that the possession condition for any simple concept is of type K, and for any complex concept is 'possessing the constituent concepts and knowing how they are combined'.1 Both of these are substantive proposals. Neither is merely a stipulation. Granted, one of them trivially entails compositionality, whereas showing that the other entails it will take a bit of work. But since when was it an objection to a theory that it obviously entails an obvious fact?
2 There Are No Informational Concepts; Not Even RED! Fodor's own view of concept constitution (which he does not talk about in the paper under discussion) is that a person has the concept F if and only if he has a term (of mentalese) whose tokening would, in appropriate circumstances, be caused by the presence of Fs.2 Thus x means RED = the presence of something red would, in appropriate circumstances, cause a tokening of x x means COPPER = the presence of copper would, in appropriate circumstances, cause a tokening of x and so on. But now we are in a position to argue, on the basis of the generalized uniformity principle, that there can be no such 'informational concepts'. Actually, there are two such arguments. In the first place, if the informational account is to have any plausibility at all then we cannot suppose that the 'appropriate circumstances' for red things to cause tokenings of "red" are exactly the same as those for copper to cause "copper": precisely how the qualifier is filled in will have to depend on the concept in question. But that means that the different meaning-constituting properties are not especially uniform. We do not have a general theory of the form x means F = T(x, F) where T is the same for every F. What we have, rather, is x means RED = Ti(x, red) 1For articulation and defence of this approach to compositionality, see my "The Composition of Meanings", Philosophical Review, 1998. 2See J.A. Fodor, Psychosemantics, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1987; and A Theory of Content and Other Essays, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1990.
x means COPPER = T2(x, copper) x means DOG = T3(x, dog)
which is not truly uniform. In the second place consider concepts such as ROUND SQUARE and HOT SNOW which, for either semantic or physical reasons, cannot have any instances at all. In the case of such concepts there are no 'appropriate circumstances' in which instances would cause some expression or other to be tokened.
Consequently the posses-
sion conditions for those concepts cannot be informational; so, given the generalised uniformity principle, there can be no informational concepts. It would seem then that Fodor has to chose between his theory of concept constitution and his principle of uniformity.
A defective case for uniformity
One natural line of thought leading to the uniformity principle goes like this. Surely all predicative concepts belong to the same ontological category -in particular, they might well all be properties. But then, for a simple or complex term to express a concept is for it to stand in some specific non-semantic relation to one of these entities. And this is surely the same relation in each case; for it is whatever constitutes the relation 'x means (or expresses) property y'. Consequently, what constitutes the property 'x means F' is the same sort of thing whatever F may be. Therefore, what constitutes '(Ex)(Person S has x and x means F)' -or, in other words, 'Person S possesses concept F- must be constituted by the same sort of thing regardless of which concept F is (and, in particular, regardless of whether it is simple or complex). The flaw in this reasoning, it seems to me, is the implicit assump-
tion that any relational fact, a R b, must be constituted by combining whatever constitutes its three components, a, b, and R. That is the general rationale for assuming, in particular, that facts of the form 'x means F' must consist in facts of the form 'x bears relation R to the property of F-ness'. However, to see that this need not be so,
consider the relational properties 'x exemplifies redness', 'x exemplifies doggyness', etc. What constitute these properties are simply 'x is red', 'x is a dog', and so on. Thus properties of the form 'x exem-
plifies F-ness' are not constituted by properties of the form 'x bears relation R to F-ness'. Similarly, we cannot take for granted that the form 'x of means F' (or, if concepts are properties, 'x properties means F-ness') are constituted by properties of the form 'x bears
R to F-ness'. But if they needn't be, then the argument for uniformity collapses. It becomes quite possible that 'x means RED' and 'x means RED DOG' are constituted by properties of very different kinds. Thus there is a line of thought leading to the uniformity principle, one which is prima facie plausible -but which on reflection should not persuade us. I think the moral of this discussion is that Fodor is absolutely right to stress that compositionality, being one of the very few things we really know about concepts, can be put to useful work in helping us develope a general account of them. But its real import is not to rule out recognitional concepts, informational concepts, stereotype concepts, or indeed any theory of primitive concept constitution;3 but rather to show that the principle of uniformity is false and that the possession condition for a complex concept can perfectly well be possessing its constituents and knowing how they are combined.
3Arguments against the constitution of word-meanings either by conceptual roles or by prototype structures are given by Jerry Fodor and Ernie Lepore in their "Why Meaning (Probably) Isn't Conceptual Role" (Mind and Language 6, 4, 1991) and their "The Pet Fish and The Red Herring: Why Concepts arn't Be Prototypes" (Cognition 58(2), Feb 1996, 243-276). But these arguments take for granted the uniformity principle, and so they are subject to the criticisms developed above.