Friday, July 20, 2007

Do Babies have Concepts?

Or are they just a jumbled garble of sensations lacking any purported intentional or representational content? Or something in between?

I recently found myself in a discussion defending the thesis that cuddly babies and cute puppies and fuzzy gorillas do not have concepts. Denying that they have concepts of course a fortiori denies that they have beliefs, and thus anything like knowledge, and further, anything like a world-view. I'm not sure that I'm convinced by my own cobbled-together argument, but here is the core of it:

Let's admit that babies and doggies have perceptual capacities that allow them to discriminate among and, in some loose sense, to classify objects in their environment. A dog, I was told, being trained not to poop in the living room at home, will not poop in the living room of a neighbor's house. The lesson here is that the dog recognizes certain salient and genearl features common to living rooms. What could this 'recognition of general salient features' be other than something like recognition according to the concept 'living room'? Similarly, babies 'know' that it is mommy or daddy who is holding them, not someone else.

I don't deny any of this. I am more skeptical about the baby than about the dog (the baby, I can well imagine, is just reponding in some phylogenetically appropriate way to a range of feel-good mommy-and-daddy stimuli; it is not recognizing anything 'as' anything; it coos and caws and gurgles just like I would if you tickled my tummy). The question, however, is whether this discriminating, loosely classificatory capacity enjoyed by infants and monkeys and canines really amounts to something we should call a concept.

First off, to say this seems to commit one to the position that concepts make sense outside of propositional content and propositional attitudes. It is, in effect, to assume the buliding-block semantics Wittgenstein criticized in Philosophical Investigations. Thus, to accept that babies have concepts is to deny, in some important respect, holism. Of course many would like very much to do so, but it is at least problematic.

Secondly, as long as one does accept the Wittgensteinian position, and accepts therefore either a truth-conditional or verificationist semantics, the thesis seems wholly implausible. For in this case it is impossible to individuate and identify conceptual contents outside of the relevant propositional structures and attitudes in which they play a role. In other words, anything like a concept must be defined by some specficiable function it is to play in a propositional structure, and this in turn is something to which a truth predicate applies. Either purported baby-concepts are defined by a propositional role or not. If so, then one is ascribing more than concepts, but also propositions, and thus propositional attitudes and hence beliefs to babies. If not, then can one make sense of the idea of applying a truth-predicate to one of these 'concepts'? Can these concepts be false?

Thirdly, if one does not adopt the Wittgensteinian theory, then it seems that one has to adopt some version of mentalese, and this is problematic for all the reasons Quine and Davidson and Sellars, et. al., have been saying it is problematic for over fifty years.

In short, I guess I was arguing that one can admit that something has the capacity to discriminate, classify, and in some loose snese, recognize objects, without needing to say that such a capacity requires positing concepts. Concept capacity, I would say, should be reserved for those beings able to form true or justified beliefs about itself, its environment, or others. I'm sure what to call what it that babies and animals have or can do, but its probably not concepts or conceptual capacities.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. But then how do you deal with the fact that dogs and crows and bonobos do, at least in limited ways, act as if they recognize objects? That is the issue you start with, but it seems to be precisely the issue that requires explanation.

    I wonder if it is really necessary to take the approach you are suggesting here, which emphasizes the "all-or-nothing" view common to the linguistic turn. That is, your argument, as I understand it, is something along the following lines: having concepts implies having propositional attitudes in which these concepts are embedded and by which they are defined. Having propositional attitudes involves having a complete world and, furthermore, the propositional attitudes must be subject to various truth predicates. If babies have concepts, all of this applies. If this doesn't apply, then babies don't have concepts. "Either purported baby-concepts are defined by a propositional role or not." All or nothing.

    But why should we buy this picture? A sharp distinction between stimulus-response and propositional attitude is a useful analytical tool, but is there really such a distinction at the muddier levels of cognitive development? Why can't babies go from having recognition of general salient features, to more defined recognition, to pseudo concepts (or types, in Husserl's sense), to real concepts? And, if there is a gradation involved, why not put animals somewhere on that gradation? Some have something very similar to conceptual structures, though maybe not a complete world, without complete and clear propositional attitudes.

    At least, some fuzzy account like this seems necessary unless you want to claim that there is a magical flash of light during which babies with no concepts suddenly become epistemological subjects with concepts. That seems doubtful, doesn't it?