Topics in Philosophy of Mind
Topics in Philosophy of Mind PHIL 93507
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Nonoonoeptual content PHIL 93507 Jeff Speaks December 8 2009 1 Two meanings of nonconceptual content7 i i i i i i 1 2 Arguments for absolutely nonconceptual content 2 3 Arguments for relatively nonconceptual content i i 3 3 1 Possessing a concept7 i i i i i i i i i i i i i 3 32 The argument from neness of grain 3 3 3 Martinls memory argument i i i i i i i i i i 4 34 Learning or possessionexplanation arguments 5 4 A conjecture about perceptual content and thought availability i i i i i i i i i i i i i 5 One of the central debates in recent discussions of the philosophy of perception has been the debate about whether the contents of experience are conceptual or nonconceptual 1 Two meanings of nonconceptual content7 Participants in this debate have spent too little time trying to make clear what it would mean for perceptual content to be nonconceptual One can isolate in the literature the following two interpretations A mental state has absolutely nonconceptual content iff that mental state has a dif ferent kind of content than do beliefs thoughts etc A mental state of an agent A at a time t has relatively nonconceptual content iff the content of that mental state includes contents not grasped possessed by A at t It should be obvious that to say that content is nonconceptual in one sense is not to say that it is nonconceptual in the other it is also I think clear that there are no triVial entailment relations between the two A nice example of con ation of these two senses of nonconceptual content7 is provided by Pea cocke 2001 While being reluctant to attribute concepts to the lower animals many of us would also want to insist that the property of say representing a at brown surface as being at a certain distance from one can be common to the perceptions of humans and of lower animals lf the lower animals do not have states with conceptual content but some of their states have contents in common with human perceptions it follows that some perceptu 39 content is t 77 This argument seems to run as follows 1 Animals possess no concepts 2 The contents of the perceptions of animals are nonconceptual l 3 Animals and human beings are related to the same kind of content in perception C The contents of human perceptions are nonconceptual 23 If we interpret nonconceptual content7 to mean absolutely nonconceptual content7 2 does not follow from But if we interpret nonconceptuall in this argument to mean relatively nonconceptual7 C does not follow from 2 and For on this disambiguation the argument from 2 and 3 to C would run as follows nonhuman animals do not possess the contents of their experiences the contents of animal experiences are the same kinds of things as the contents of human experi ences therefore humans do not possess the contents of their experiences But this is not a valid argument because nothing rules out the possibility that both human beings and animals are related to the same kinds of contents in perception but that human beings and not animals must possess or grasp those contents Peacocke s version of the argument from sameness of animal and human perceptual content is thus an excellent example of the problems caused by con ating absolute and relative noncon ceptual content Each step in his argument may be validated by one of the interpretations of nonconceptuall but neither interpretation makes both steps valid 2 Arguments for absolutely nonconceptual content Most arguments which are presented as arguments for absolutely nonconceptual content fall well short of their target A good example is the argument from neness of grain7 the intuition behind which is wellstated by Richard Heck Consider your current perceptual state 7 and now imagine what a complete de scription of the way the world appears to you at this moment might be like Surely a thousand words would hardly begin to do the job77 Suppose that this is right suppose that the contents of an experience or perceptual state are far more detailed and full of information than could be captured in a single thought or even in a lifetime of thoughts On the face of it this hardly shows that the information given in perception is of a different kind than the information about the world represented in a belief it shows at most that there s more of it in the case of perception The only plausible sorts of arguments for absolutely nonconceptual contents would be an argu ment that show t at eg perceptual content is Russellian and a separate argument to show that the contents of thoughts are Fregean Welve already seen one of the former and there are many plausible examples of the latter But these belong more to the philosophy of language than the philosophy of perception 3 Arguments for relatively nonconceptual content 31 Possessing a concept lnconveniently the de nition of relatively nonconceptual content is given in terms of concept possession and this notion is extremely unclear One plausible interpretation is that A possesses a concept C iff A is capable of having thoughts involving C Here involving might be glosses as having a content one of whose constituents is C If one does not like constituents talk one can go for the sort of de ationary view of this we have already discussed One can give stronger interpretations but something this weak is needed to avoid the claim that thought as well as perception has relatively nonconceptual content 32 The argument from neness of grain The central argument in recent discussions of nonconceptual content has been the argument that the contents of perceptions are too rich or negrained to be conceptual contents We saw above that this argument was irrelevant to the issue of absolute nonconceptual content as applied to the issue of relative nonconceptual content this argument amounts to the claim that the contents of perceptions are negrained enough that they exceed the concepts possessed by the subject having the experience A quick potted history of the debate about this runs as follows Evans 1982 argued that we do not ave as many color concepts as there are shades of color as we can perceptually discriminate so that the contents of perceptions must be more negrained than the concepts we possess Mc Dowell 1994 lll5 replied that Evans had illicitly limited the color concepts under consideration to general color words like re and green and noted that we also possess demonstrative con cepts of the sort that we might express while attending to a sample by phrases like that shade or just that while focusing on the color in question Kelly 2001 has replied to McDowell by claiming that we do not possess enough demonstrative concepts to cover all the cases in which we make perceptual discriminations Kelly7s argument begins with the defense of the following condition for possession of demonstra tive concepts In order to possess a demonstrative concept for z a subject must be able to consis tently reidentify a given object or property as falling under the concept if it does The structure of the argument is then to describe a case in which a subject has an experience of a color but does not satisfy this condition for possessing a demonstrative concept perhaps expressible by that color which refers to the color If we can describe such a case and if this possession condition is correct then we will have described a case in which part of the content of a subject7s experience is not among the concepts grasped by the subject presuming plausibly that the agent will have no nondemonstrative concept of the color Kelly7s scenario is as follows a subject is presented several times with a pair of color chips and each time is able to distinguish the color chips in perception that is each time the subject correctly says that the two color chips are different in color Now we take one of those color chips and present it to the subject asking him whether it is the color chip originally presented on his left Suppose that we do this ten times and that the subject answers yes ve times and nol ve times Then the subject has failed the above possession condition for a demonstrative concept referring to the color of the chip originally presented on his left and then presented ten times by itself he cannot consistently reidentify the property But he is clearly able to distinguish the property in experience as evidenced by his pro ciency in distinguishing the two color chips when presented together Conclusion the color was part of the content of his experience but was not the content of any demonstrative concept he possessed It seems to me that the case Kelly describes is a clear reductio of the possession condition he defends rather than a convincing argument against the conceptualist position Consider for a moment what is involved in denying that the subject can have demonstrative thoughts about the color of the chip originally presented on his left and later presented by itself We must say that although he is looking directly at the color of the chip the subject is unable to have any demonstrative thoughts about involving the color of the chip at all But this seems excessively strong It seems clear that w en 1 am in direct perceptual contact with a color property I am able to have thoughts about that property whatever happens when I am presented with the property for reidenti cation at a later time If forced to choose between the claim that one can always have thoughts involving a color to which one is attending 7 whether this is the color of an object in one s environment or merely the color that one perceives such an object as having 7 and the claim that the possession condition for demonstratives given above is correct the choice seems clear One way to press this intuition is to imagine the subject uttering a demonstrative when presented with the color chip by itself The subject might say for example I m not sure whether that color while pointing at the chip is the same as the color of the chip on the left earlier77 It is natural to think that the subject understands the sentence he has just uttered and grasps the thought it expresses But it is also natural to think that the thought expressed by the sentence has a tquot col 1 39 the t 39 phrase that color and that this constituent is or refers to the color of the chip But saying these two things commits us to saying that contra the possession condition the subject grasps a demonstrative concept which picks out the color of the chip The only alternatives seem to be to say either that the subject fails to understand the sentence he has just uttered or that that color as it appears in this sentence lacks a meaning But neither of these moves seem particularly plausible Indeed there is a sense in which the thoughtexperiment construed as an argument that the subject does not possess the relevant color concepts is selfrefuting For it is surely a part of the assumed background of the case that when the examiner asks the subject whether the color chip presented alone is of the same color as the chip originally presented on his left or whether that color is the same as that of the chip originally on the left the subject understands the question But how could a subject do this without grasping a concept of the relevant color This exhibits a common failing of arguments for relatively nonconceptual content they impose implausibly strong constraints on concept possession Possible diagnosis confusion about what concept possession7 could mean in this context 33 Martin s memory argument Martin 1992 describes a case in which an agent Mary is playing a game with dice one of which is 8sided and one of which is 12sided But Mary does not distinguish between the two dice she treats all dice with more than six sides as the same Martin claims that when playing with the dice Mary may well lack the concept of a dodecahedron and this seems plausible But he says Mary might later after acquiring the concept of a dodecahedron recall her experience playing the game and realize that one of the dice was a dodecahedron This Martin says indicates that Maryls original experience presented the die as a dodecahedron but if Mary did not possess the concept of a dodecahedron this must mean that the content of her experience was nonconceptual The key step in this argument is evidently the use of a conditional of the following form A can infer p from remembering an experience had at t A p was part of the content of As experience at t But this principle is open to clear counterexamples Consider for example the following case I remember seeing an inscription on a plaque in my school of the words Ad majorem dei gloriam not knowing Latin I did not know what these words meant Later on I learn a bit of Latin and recalling my perception of this inscription come to judge that the plaque had an inscription which meant For the greater honor and glory of God77 So we can infer that it was part of the content of my original experience that the plaque had an inscription which meant For the greater honor and glory 0 God77 This inference is clearly fallacious My original perception did not have this as a part of its content I am a le to infer that the inscription ha this meaning because since perceiving the plaque l have acquired the ability to understand certain sentences of Latin This can be turned into an objection to Martin s example why should we not say that Mary7s original experience did not have the concept of a dodecahedron as part of its content but that Mary was a le to infer later that her childhood game was played using a dodecahedron due to her acquisition of conceptual capacities parallel to my acquisition of the ability to understand Latin 34 Learning 0r possessionexplanation arguments Basic idea we need to explain how we can come to possess concepts like the color red the only plausible explanation is in terms of perceptual experience But if perception were not relatively nonconceptual one would have to already possess the concept of redness in order to have a perceptual experience which represents something as red See Heck 2000 and for a clearer version Roskies 2008 Why this seems to be a bad kind of argument it seems that we can explain concept possession in terms of experience even if having the experience is metaphysically suf cient for possessing the concept 4 A conjecture about perceptual content and thought availability Let7s suppose that the thesis that perceptual content is relatively nonconceptual is false so that having an experience involving content C is sufficient for having thoughts involving G Then we can ask whether something stronger is true whether it is the case that for any experience e whose content involves C then it is possible to acquire the ability to have thoughts involving C for the rst time by having e This is the converse of the ContentAvailability principle which we have already discussed If both are true this gives us necessary and sufficient conditions for a perceptual experience to have a content involving a certain concept propositional constituent DVeVC e has C as parts of its content iff e could make C available for thoughthaving e could give the perceiver the ability to have thoughts involving C for the rst time Two complications Perhaps there are some contents which both can be perceptually represented and which are such that anyone capable of having thoughts at all can have thoughts involving that content These would falsify the above it should be restricted to contents which are not always available for thought This quanti es over experiences and talks about a certain modal property of these expe riences what thoughts those experiences could make available This means that we need some understanding of what it means to say that A and B are having the same experience In the present context a natural thought is that the relevant sense of same experience7 is experience with the same content7 This means that we are using facts about sameness of content to decide what the contents of a given experience include which in turn means that we can hardly claim to have provided an account of what gets into the content of experience which presupposes no facts about perceptual content But that is OK People who disagree about how sparse the contents of experience are might still agree in particular cases about whether two experiences have the same content References Gareth Evans 1982 Varieties of Reference Oxford Oxford University Press Richard Heck 2000 Nonconceptual Content and the Space of Reasons Philosophical Review 10944837524 Sean Kelly 2001 Demonstrative Concepts and Experience Philosophical Review 1103397419 M G F Martin 1992 Perception Concepts and Memory Philosophical Review 10147457763 John McDowell 1994 Mind and World Cambridge MA Harvard University Press Christopher Peacocke 2001 Phenomenology and Nonconceptual Content Philosophy and Phe nomenological Research 6236097616 Adina Roskies 2008 A New Argument for Nonconceptual Content Philosophy and Phenomeno logical Research 7636337659