Conceptual Causation: Some Elementary Reflections
McGinn (Colin)
Source: Mind, New Series, Vol. 100, No. 4, Mind and Content (Oct., 1991), pp. 573-586
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Once there were no thinking beings and hence no concepts1. In those thoughtless days all the events in the world happened through non-conceptual causation2. Then concepts found a home in the head region of certain organisms; thereafter concepts began to exert control over the course of nature. The proportion of effects due to conceptual causation3 and effects due to causation4 of other kinds gradually grew. When concepts of a scientific sort found their way into human thoughts conceptual causation5 really came into its own, technology being the most spectacular upshot.
  2. Many of these effects were good, but others have been less so. Conceptual causation6 has now reached the point at which it has the power to put an end to the human race and ruin the planet – far cry from those early days when it could only get an organism a decent meal.
  3. Part of the causal power of concepts has always been auto-destructive, what with suicide and so on; but now concepts have the causal heft to annihilate themselves completely. There were prophets, indeed, who sagely predicted this life-cycle for concepts – "lo, there will come concepts containing the seeds of their own extinction".
  4. One day concepts would beget effects that obliterate the very causes of those effects (and there are not many kinds of cause you can say that of). In any case, conceptual causation7 is a force to be reckoned with: we would do well to understand how it works.
  5. My concern in this paper is not, however, with the ecological and eschatological repercussions of causation8 by concepts: it is with the analysis of such causation9 (of course).
    • What is the structure of a conceptual cause?
    • Out of what elements are such causes made up?
    • How do they bring about their effects?
  6. I shall begin by enunciating three laws or principles of conceptual causation10, focusing in on the third. The fate of the earth, as mooted above, will turn out to have a lot to do with events on twin earth, since these events are the key to understanding conceptual causation11 as it occurs around here. (And they say analytic philosophy has no practical relevance!)
  7. I want to make conceptual causation12 safe from an analytical point of view; taming it in other ways will have to be left, as they say, for another occasion, or another life.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: I shall be using "concept" in the psychological, not the abstract, sense, so that concepts exist only when minds do.


Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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