Unpacking a dog

Jerry Fodor

  • A Study of Concepts by Christopher Peacocke
    MIT, 266 pp, £24.95, December 1992, ISBN 0 262 16133 8

The Modern era, as analytic philosophers reckon, started with Descartes. By contrast, the Recent era started when philosophy, in Richard Rorty’s phrase, took the ‘linguistic turn’. So it started with Frege or Russell, or early Wittgenstein, or the Vienna Circle; take your pick. Modern philosophy was mostly about epistemology: it wanted to understand what makes knowledge possible. Recent philosophy is mostly about meaning (or ‘content’) and wants to understand what makes thought and language possible. So, anyhow, we tell our undergraduates when we’re in a hurry.

There’s something to it, but probably not much. ‘Transcendental’ arguments used to run: ‘If it weren’t that P, we couldn’t know that Q; and we do know that Q; therefore P.’ Philosophical fashion now prefers: ‘If it weren’t that P, we couldn’t say (or think or judge) that Q; but we do say (or think or judge) that Q; therefore P.’ Much of a muchness, really. The two kinds of arguments tend to be about equally unconvincing and for the same reasons Often enough, it’s Empiricist preconceptions that do the work in both.

This is not, however, to deny that there is something very peculiar about Recent philosophy. There has indeed been a change that goes much deeper than shifting styles of philosophical analysis. What’s really happened, not just in philosophy, but in psychology, lexicography, linguistics, artificial intelligence, literary theory and just about everywhere else where meaning and content are the names of the game, is a new consensus about what concepts are. Take a sample of current and Recent theorists, chosen with an eye to having as little in common as may be: Heidegger, or Wittgenstein, or Chomsky, or Piaget, or Saussure, or Dewey or any cognitive scientist you like, to say nothing of such contemporary philosophers as Davidson, Dennett, Rorty and Quine. You may choose practically at random, but they are all likely to agree on this: concepts are capacities; in particular, concepts are epistemic capacities, abilities to recognise or to infer.

Christopher Peacocke’s A Study of Concepts is about as subtle and sophisticated an elaboration of the idea that concepts are epistemic capacities as you will ever want to read. It may, in fact, be a more subtle and sophisticated elaboration of that idea than you will ever want to read. Peacocke is hard work and he spares his reader nothing. His prose is not, perhaps, denser than the intricacy of his thought requires, so I’m warning, not com plaining; but his book wants exegesis, and it will surely get a lot. Many’s the graduate seminar that will slog its way through, line by line, and will be edified by doing so.

I won’t attempt anything of that sort here. There are too many passages I do not understand and, of the ones I do understand, there are too many that I haven’t made up my mind about. It does seem to me, however, that a striking number of Peacocke’s moves depend on assumptions that he makes, explicitly but practically without argument, in the book’s first several pages – and which strike me as a symptom of our times.

Peacocke’s topic is the nature of concepts. Just roughly and by way of orientation: 1. Concepts are word meanings. The concept dog is what the word ‘dog’ and its synonyms and translations express. This ties theories of concepts to theories of language. 2. Concepts are constituents of thoughts. To think that dogs bark is inter alia to entertain the concept dog and the concept bark. 3. Concepts apply to things in the world. The concept dog is one which, of necessity, all and only dogs fall under. Judgments are applications of concepts, which is why it’s things in the world that make judgments true or false.

This catalogue is me, not Peacocke, but I don’t expect it’s anything he’d object to very much. So then, if that’s what concepts are, what should a theory of concepts be? Starting on page five: Throughout this book I will try to respect the following principle ... There can be nothing more to the nature of a concept than is determined by ... a correct account of “grasping the concept” ... a theory of concepts should be a theory of concept possession.’ There are, to be sure, trivialising readings of this equation (C is the unique concept whose possession condition is that you have the concept C). But Peacocke intends that the nature of a concept should be illuminated by what a theory says about grasping it. For example: ‘Conjunction is that concept C to possess which a thinker must find [inferences of certain specified forms] primitively compelling, and must do so because they are of these forms.’ It partially identifies C as the concept of conjunction that anybody who has it finds inferences from the premises p and q to the conclusion pCq compelling as such.

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