Between Thought and Meaning: The Embodied Concept

Dissertation, Rutgers the State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick (2002)

John Sarnecki
University of Toledo
My dissertation is concerned with philosophical problems that attend to our capacity to acquire concepts. Philosophical problems with learning are not new, however, they are especially acute when applied to concept acquisition. What I hope to show is that we can offer an account of concepts which at once overcomes our concerns about first concept acquisition and is nevertheless compatible with the view that concepts are acquired through rational learning mechanisms. Towards this end I consider both cognitivist and noncognitivist theories of concept acquisition. Fodor's noncognitivism fails, I argue, because it requires an untenable nativism, whereas I suggest that Block's theory of concepts makes rational learning impossible. ;To solve this problem, I argue that concepts can be split into two component parts, an ontological classifier and a recognitional criterion. The OC is a kind of sortal term that designates the kind classification for a given concept, what sort of thing it refers to. The RC gives us information relative to our environment that enables us to pick out the referent of the concept. ;But how do we acquire concepts of this type? If every concept of a thing requires a kind of sortal, we would face a regress if we tried to claim that all concepts are learned. However, it seems clear that at least some concepts aren't learned. Our first cognitive steps, I maintain, are a function of the innate classificatory schema that children appear to possess very early in infancy. Cognitive psychologists have begun to show that infants and very young children appear to make specific assumptions about the nature of individual objects and kinds that populate their world. Children have concepts of objects and causes, of particular relations amongst kinds and their numbers, and as such make inferences about what can be expected from their future interactions with those objects. These early sortal classifications correspond very closely to the sorts of ontological classifiers adults employ in making kind determinations. I argue that these classifiers work in combination with the child's rudimentary perceptual or recognitional skills to outline individuals or substances as of various types. Construals of individual type classifications can be bound to other identificatory criteria to form new classifiers and hence new possibilities for rational concept acquisition
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