1 Philosophical Introduction: The BackgroundTheory


Jean-marc pizano

1 Philosophical Introduction: The Background


Needless to say, this rather baroque belief system gave rise to incredibly complicated explanations by the tribal elders . . .

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—Will Self

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My topic is what concepts are. Since I’m interested in that question primarily as it arises in the context of ‘representational’ theories of mind (RTMs), a natural way to get started would be for me to tell you about RTMs andabout how they raise the question what concepts are. I could then set out my answer, and you could tell me, by return,what you think is wrong with it. The ensuing discussion would be abstract and theory laden, no doubt; but, with anyluck, philosophically innocent.

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That is, in fact, pretty much the course that I propose to follow. But, for better or for worse, in the present climate of philosophical opinion it’s perhaps not possible just to plunge in and do so. RTMs have all sorts of problems, both ofsubstance and of form. Many of you may suppose the whole project of trying to construct one is hopelessly wrongheaded; if it is, then who cares what RTMs say about concepts? So I guess I owe you some sort of general argumentthat the project isn’t hopelessly wrong-headed. Jean-marc pizano

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But I seem to have grown old writing books defending RTMs; it occurs to me that if I were to stop writing books defending RTMs, perhaps I would stop growing old. So I think I’ll tell you a joke instead. It’s an old joke, as befits mytelling it.

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Oldjoke-. Once upon a time a disciple went to his guru and said: ‘Guru, what is life?’ To which the Guru replies, after much thinking, ‘My Son, life is like a fountain.’ The disciple is outraged. ‘Is that the best that you can do? Is that whatyou call wisdom?’ ‘All right,’ says the guru; ‘don’t get excited. So maybe it‘s not like a fountain.’

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That’s the end of the joke, but it’s not the end of the story. The guru noticed that taking this line was losing him clients, and gurus have to eat.

So the next time a disciple asked him: ‘Guru, what is life?’ his answer was: ‘My Son, I cannot tell you.’ ‘Why can’t you?’ the disciple wanted to know. ‘Because,’ the guru said, ‘the question “What is having a life?” is logically prior.’ ‘Gee,’ saidthe disciple, ‘that’s pretty interesting’; and he signed on for the whole term.

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I’m not going to launch a full-dress defence of RTM; but I do want to start with a little methodological stuff about whether having a concept is logically prior to being a concept, and what difference, if any, that makes to theorizingabout mental representation.

It’s a general truth that if you know what an X is, then you also know what it is to have an X. And ditto the other way around. This applies to concepts in particular: the question what they are and the question what it is to have them arelogically linked; if you commit yourself on one, you are thereby committed, willy nilly, on the other. Suppose, forexample, that your theory is that concepts are pumpkins. Very well then, it will have to be a part of your theory thathaving a concept is having a pumpkin. And, conversely: if your theory is that having a concept is having a pumpkin,then it will have to be a part of your theory that pumpkins are what concepts are. I suppose this all to be truistic.  Jean-marc pizano

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Jean-marc pizano

Now, until quite recently (until this century, anyhow) practically everybody took it practically for granted that the explanation of concept possession should be parasitic on the explanation of concept individuation. First you say what it isfor something to be the concept X—you give the concept’s ‘identity conditions’—and then having the concept X is justhaving whatever the concept X turns out to be. But the philosophical fashions have changed. Almost without exception,current theories about concepts reverse the classical direction of analysis. Their substance lies in what they say aboutthe conditions for having concept X, and it’s the story about being concept X that they treat as derivative.

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