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Smith's Argument Against the Compatibility of Naturalism and Concept Formation

In the previous post in this series, we looked at Smith's argument against naturalistic accounts of concept correction. In this post, we'll take a brief look at Smith's argument against several naturalistic accounts of concept formation.

Here's a first pass at expressing Smith's argument:

1. If the views of Dretske et al. are correct, then every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically pre-packaged with a conceptualization. 
2. If every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically pre-packaged with a conceptualization, then the process of forming concepts can never get started. 
3. If the process of forming concepts can never get started, then we can't form concepts.
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4. Therefore, if the views of Dretske et al. are correct, then we can’t form concepts. 
5. We can form concepts. 
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6. Therefore, the views of Dretske et al. are not correct.

What to make of this argument? Perhaps the most obvious concern is that (2) is implausible as expressed above. For if every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically prepackaged with a conceptualization, then it would seem that the process of forming concepts can get started; by the very accounts Smith attributes to the authors in play, the process gets started automatically, with an agent's first act of introspection.

Smith seems to realize this, however, as indicated by his parenthetical remark that if the authors' view were correct, then we couldn't form concepts "in a way that involves understanding". By this, he means a conscious, intentional process, as opposed to a process that is sub-personal, unconscious, and automatic. Let us therefore revise (2) accordingly:

2'. If every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically pre-packaged with a conceptualization, then the process of consciously, intentionally forming concepts can never get started.

Unfortunately, (2') isn't much of an improvement over (2). For its consequent doesn't obviously follow from its antecedent. Thus, assume that our minds have been forming concepts automatically and sub-personally for as long as you please -- say, up to our 21st birthday.  It nonetheless seems possible that we can get started forming concepts in a conscious, intentional way on our 21st birthday.  Therefore, (2') seems false. Of course, if Smith's gloss on the authors' views in play are correct, then those concepts will have constituents that were not consciously and intentionally formed by the agent, but why is that a problem? We saw in the last post that Smith worries about the reliability of concepts that aren't formed consciously and intentionally, without pre-conceptual acquaintance with the external world, but we also saw that it's not at all that clear his worries are warranted.

In any case, what does seem true is not (2'), but rather

(2'') If every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically pre-packaged with a conceptualization, and the process of forming concepts is essentially a non-automatic, conscious, intentional process, then the process of forming concepts can never get started.

(2'')'s consequent seems to follow from its antecedent, and so in this sense, at least, (2''') is an improvement over (2'). But to preserve the validity of the argument, we'll need to add a premise that states the new clause present in (2'')'s antecedent. Let's therefore revise the argument accordingly:

1. If the views of Dretske et al. are correct, then every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically pre-packaged with a conceptualization. 
2''. If every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically pre-packaged with a conceptualization, and the process of forming concepts is essentially a non-automatic, conscious, intentional process, then the process of forming concepts can never get started.
2 1/2.  The process of forming concepts is essentially a non-automatic, conscious, intentional process.
3. If the process of forming concepts can never get started, then we can't form concepts.
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4. Therefore, if the views of Dretske et al. are correct, then we can’t form concepts. 
5. We can form concepts. 
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6. Therefore, the views of Dretske et al. are not correct.

Unfortunately, the problem now lies with (2 1/2): Why think the process of forming concepts is essentially a non-automatic, conscious, intentional process? It certainly doesn't seem to be known a priori. Perhaps one can weaken (2) and (2 1/2) by removing 'essentially', so that the relevant clause is a contingent truth. But then it becomes an empirical claim. Now Smith appeals to some of his own experience of forming concepts, and that of his daughter, as supporting empirical evidence, but of course that's not sufficient to support the claim. What's required is a representative sampling of the empirical literature on concept formation, as well as defeaters for nativist accounts of concept possession. Unfortunately, Smith nowhere addresses this literature.

However, some of Smith's remarks in the chapter suggest that he's pursuing a weaker line of argument. According to this latter construal of his argument, it is granted arguendo that some concepts may be innate, in which case the problem of accounting for coming to have concepts at all is mitigated. However, the worry is that even if this is so, it's not plausible that we have enough innate concepts to account for all the concepts that we possess. The background assumption seems to be that on any plausible account of this sort, the sources for concepts are limited to (i) a modest stock of innate concepts and (ii) those that can somehow be built up from combining representational elements from that stock (presumably via imagination or some automatic process). We can express this line of reasoning as follows:

1. If the most plausible glosses on the views of Dretske et al. are correct, then (a) every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically pre-packaged with a conceptualization, (b) the concepts involved in such packaging are all innate, (c) all our concepts are either innate or constructed from such, and (d) we have no other resources for forming new concepts.
2. If (a) every act of introspection requires that the representation of its referent come to us automatically pre-packaged with a conceptualization, (b) the concepts involved in such packaging are all innate, (c) all our concepts are either innate or constructed from such, and (d) we have no other resources for forming new concepts, then we wouldn't have nearly as many concepts as we do.
3. The consequent of (2) is false.
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4. Therefore, the most plausible glosses on the views of Dretske et al. are not correct.

I'm unable to see the plausibility of (1), however: why think the most plausible gloss on the authors' views in play includes clauses (c) and (d)? After all, it's natural to think that any account of concept formation worth its salt will include some story about the contributions of perceptual experience, whether or not the process involved in such input is intentional or automatic. It therefore seems that the most plausible glosses on their accounts will include a story involving the contributions of this source. And if that's right, then (1) looks to be false or otherwise unjustified. Again, Smith might worry that the contributions of experience are suspect, but we've seen in previous posts that those worries aren't sufficiently motivated.

Finally, some of Smith's remarks suggest a slightly different complaint. According to this variant of the argument, it's not the very general claim that we can't form concepts at all if naturalism is true, and it's not quite the complaint that we can't form enough concepts if naturalism is true. Rather, it's that we can't form a certain set of concepts if naturalism is true. In particular, we can't form the family of concepts associated intentionality itself, viz., registration (or representation, or indication), veridicality, and ofness. For such knowledge requires the ability to be directly acquainted with a referent x that has some property F, compare it with our concept of F-ness, see if they match, and then form the judgement that x is F. But if Dretske-style accounts of intentionality are correct, then this cannot be done, as all experience is overlaid with concepts, in which case the requisite direct  perceptual acquaintance with the external world is ruled out.

For the moment, let's assume, arguendo, that Smith is right about this. Why is this supposed to be problematic for naturalism? Smith's remarks suggest two key problems. First, if we can't form these concepts, then the naturalistic theories of intentionality spelled out by Dretske et al. would seem to suffer from something on the order of self-referential incoherence or performative contradiction. For their accounts would then entail that we can't form the concepts involved in their explanans and explanandum. Second, Smith argues that the family of concepts associated intentionality itself, (viz., registration, representationindication, veridicality, and ofness) are necessary prerequisites for having any knowledge at all.

What to make of this argument? Well, we've seen that Smith's arguments against naturalistic accounts of concept formation are less than compelling, but beyond that, I find an additional source of puzzlement in the present argument: why think we need the concept of indication (or representation, or ofness) before we can acquire some perceptual knowledge? This strikes me as too intellectualist to be plausible. For example, it's implausible to think my daughter had the concept of representation, or indication, or ofness when she was four, and yet it seems I could make correct knowledge attributions to her regarding simple perceptual reports. But Smith's argument seems to imply that I'm wrong about that (Me: "What's that big puffy thing floating in the sky?" Daughter: "A cloud, Daddy." Me: "So you think your perceptual experience that seems to be of a cloud reliably indicates the presence of a cloud, and that your perceptual state is veridical? Daughter: "Huh?" Me: Oh, for a moment I thought you knew a cloud was in the sky. My mistake.").

Smith anticipates that Dretske will raise just this worry, and (relatedly) the epistemic externalist's point that it's not necessary that one (rightly) conceptualize one's perceptual states as reliable in order to have knowledge about their external referents. Rather, it's enough if the process that produces the belief is in fact reliable. However, Smith has a few more things to say in reply, which I'll explore in the next post in this series.

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