Must concepts be shareable? If so, can they be inside people’s heads?

Must concepts be shareable? If so, can they be inside people’s heads?
In this essay I shall be investigating the role of concepts within a Representational Theory of Mind (RTM). I shall be attempting to answer the question set out in the title; if concepts are mental particulars, how can they be shared and what form might this sharing take?

Concepts have an essential, explanatory role within both cognitive psychology and philosophy of mind. They are posited in order to explain both our own actions and, more importantly perhaps, the actions of others.

Representational theories of mind state, roughly, that concepts are mental representations of the objects, entities, properties and so on to which they correspond. It is a matter of some debate how we come to acquire these concepts; however this shall not be the main focus of this paper.

Prinz lays out desiderata for concepts, including such considerations as scope , compositionality and, finally, publicity stating,

“If no two people associate the same concepts with their words then communication is impossible. Therefore, concepts must be shareable.”

citing, by way of example, concepts use in explaining another’s actions. He then goes on to show why concepts must share their cognitive contents appealing to Putnam’s famous Twin Earth cases wherein two people with, necessarily, identical concepts may not rely upon extension in comparing the identity of their concepts.

Fodor raises many of the same objections as Prinz, further adding that as concepts are posited for their explanatory power, if my concept WATER differs from everyone else’s, my thought “Thirsty people seek water” applies only to me and that two people mean different things in expressing such thoughts.

He continues by stating that any attempt to circumvent the problem by appealing to a theory of concept similarity is doomed to failure as it must

“be robust in that it preserves intentional explanations pretty generally but must do so without presupposing a robust notion of content identity.”

This he demonstrates by two people comparing their concepts of, say PRESIDENT. They start by comparing beliefs they hold relating to Presidents until they come across a belief upon which they disagree, such as “Millard Fillmore was President” which one takes as true, but the other does not. It would seem that as our two friends ascribe different beliefs to their concept(s) PRESIDENT, we have two separate concepts.

However, as Fodor is quick to point out, there must exist some concept identity for our two friends to make any meaningful comparison, hence their concept(s) must be identical despite diametrically opposing beliefs stemming from them/it .

“All theories of content that offer a robust construal of conceptual similarity do so by presupposing a correspondingly robust notion of concept identity. As far as I can see, this is unavoidable. If I’m right that is, then the Publicity Constraint (PC) is ipso-facto non-negotiable.”

So it seems there are dire consequences for any theory unwilling to accept that concepts are publicly shareable. But what form could and would this sharing take? How might you and I partake in the same concept and how might a mental representation within my head be something that someone else may utilise, given that, as some think, it may be impossible for even the user to access them directly?

These ideas seem counter-intuitive but let us see, then, what other consequences might follow by allowing that concepts are public, shareable entities.

If concepts follow PC and are available to all, what is to distinguish them from the meanings of the words we use to express them, which must surely be accessible entities, external to the mind? If the two are indistinguishable, are they separate entities and, if so, have we need of both?

If concepts are the same as word meaning, must I have concepts expressed by words I have never seen or heard? If I travel to a country where there live animals of which I have no experience, must I have a concept of that animal; a mental representation of that animal?

The term square circle has a meaning which can be communicated – i.e. a circular square – but has no corresponding concept. I cannot conceptualise what it is for a square to be circular, hence meaning and concept must be distinct.

These problems obviously need clarifying by those that wish to convince us that concepts are public entities. How are we to distinguish concept from meaning if both are publicly accessible pertaining to the same intensions, extensions and psychological attitudes. Notice that for an internalist description of concepts this question holds no pitfalls: Concepts are inside the mind, word meaning is external

So, we have seen that both allowing and denying concepts shareable, public status leads us to difficulties, but let us see if any of these problems may be overcome by examining the manner by which I may scrutinise the concepts of others.

The thoughts that I employ when attempting to communicate with others can never be experienced directly by other people. The converse is also true. When I attempt to discover whether or not we “share” a concept the only means at my disposal are analyses of a person’s speech and action. If a person is predisposed to make similar remarks or reactions when confronted with certain stimuli, say exclaiming “dog” when presented with dog-type stimuli, then I may conclude only that the person makes the same reactions upon the same stimuli. I may further posit that these reactions are due to the same thought, but may never discover the truth of this.

This is best illustrated with two examples:

It is thought that the simplest concepts are composed of direct sense experience, e.g. colour. There is no test that I can devise to that will test the whether your concept RED matches with my concept RED. For all we know your RED may be what I think of as GREEN, but given that we have always been taught to, and are hence predisposed to call the colour “red” then we may never discover if such a discrepancy were to exist. Indeed, it matters not a jot to our capacity to communicate our thoughts about colour.

The second example demonstrates the limitations of any language:

When describing playing cards we have at our disposal a variety of words; red, black, heart, diamond, king, queen and so forth. How might two people, each given a card, communicate to each other the card in their possession? Of course they may easily discover if the other has the same card-type, say Queen of Hearts, but, given the lexicon at their disposal how might they convey to each other thoughts about the design on the back of the card?

It is the same with language. We can discover if someone has the same concept-type as us but given that we are limited to describing our concepts using words and that even newly coined words must be described/defined in terms of existing words, we might never resolve the issue, as it were, in finer detail than words offer.

We might easily discover when a person employs wildly different concepts from ourselves , such as has been widely documented and discussed by people such as Kuhn, within the scientific community and Piaget and Carey within Child Development.

So it seems that language may act as a benchmark by which we make comparison of the concepts we employ. An analogy may be of some benefit here: distance, mass and many other means by which we may make discoveries about the physical world are defined entirely arbitrarily. Their absolute value, as it were, is of little interest , so long as they form a coherent network in relation to each other. The metre, kilogram, second and so on are all defined by us, however having been thus defined, they may be employed most usefully.

So it is with words: their meaning is defined (most likely in terms of other words) and with this rough and ready guide at our disposal we may go on to express the thoughts that come to us. From this new perspective it no longer seems that concepts must be shareable entities, however they must be communicable.

We are not quite, however, free of our dilemma. The only means by which we may discover the meaning of many words (other than a few objects that gain meaning by direct reference, e.g. pointing gestures accompanied by words) is by definition using other words. A regress seems to be looming, however we may make appeal to an holistic system of word definition.

Armed with a few basic direct reference words we may then go on to teach relational and propositional attributes quite easily. More complex concepts and ideas may then be demonstrated by use of examples and appealing to the learner’s ability to abstract common features between them , for instance teaching the concept of KINDNESS by reference to examples of kind acts.

In this way the full range of concepts held a person may be obtained by a form of “bootstrapping” procedure. Indeed this model is much evidenced by the methods employed when teaching children new ideas.

It may be argued by some that I am confusing the psychological aspect of concepts with the purely philosophical concept and for this reason I am attempting to maintain that different people may hold different concepts, that one person’s concept WATER might not be the same as another person’s. This may well be true but in reply I simply reiterate that I am making no claims as to whether or not two people’s concepts are identical or otherwise, I am claiming that there exists no method by which we may discover one way or the other. However, to accept that they do share identical concepts causes us problems which, as far as I can see cannot be easily resolved.

It is also, I would claim, a matter of some debate as to whether or not a concept can be entirely separated from our dispositional attitudes towards it, given the unique experiential framework under which each of us gains our concepts. To implicitly assume that the two are separable immediately adds weight to the case that concepts are shareable. Notice also that any method we employ by which we try to discover the nature of another person’s concepts will, necessarily involve the person’s psychological and emotional attitudes toward the concept.

Bibliography & Further Reading:

J.Fodor (1998) Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong.
J.Prinz (2002) Furnishing the Mind
C.Peacocke (1992) A Study of Concepts
G.Frege The Thought in P.Strawson (ed) Philosophical Logic
L.Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations
G.Rey (1983) Concepts and Stereotypes, Cognition 15, 237-262
M.Aydede Fodor on Concepts and Frege Puzzles, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly
G.Rey (1998) Concepts, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
F.C.Keil & G.Gutheil (1998) Cognitive Development, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
F.Jackson & G.Rey (1998) Phiilosophy of Mind, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy