Invertebrate concepts confront the Generality Constraint (and win)
Carruthers (Peter)
Source: R. Lurz (ed.), The Philosophy of Animal Minds. CUP, 2009
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Author’s Introduction (Excerpted)

  1. What does it take to possess a concept? Do any non-human animals have concepts? One crucial constraint on the concept concept is that concepts are the building blocks of thought. Hence no creature could count as a concept user that wasn’t capable of thinking. This mightn’t seem like a significant additional restriction, but actually it has some teeth, ruling out some otherwise concept-like phenomena. Consider the Australian digger wasp …
  2. … What the wasp actually has is an abstract, innately specified, but flexibly implementable, motor plan, which is guided in its detailed execution by perceptual information, and whose various stages are triggered and/or completed by the matching of concept-like recognitional templates against the perceptual data.
  3. From these considerations we can extract the following constraints. In order to count as having concepts, a creature needs to be capable of thinking. And that means, at least, that it must possess distinct belief states and desire states, which interact with one another (and with perception) in the selection and guidance of behavior. In addition, the belief states need to be structured out of component parts (concepts) which can be recombined with others to figure in other such states with distinct contents. Moreover, belief and desire states need to play causal roles that are sensitive to their underlying structures, figuring in simple inferences that bring to bear belief states to select actions that will enable the realization of the creature’s goals.
  4. These constraints on concept possession are by no means trivial. Nevertheless, many invertebrates actually satisfy them (or so I shall argue in section 2). This is especially clear in the case of honeybees, whose powers of thought have been intensively studied – notably their flexible use of spatial information in the service of a multitude of goals. But the constraints are probably satisfied by Australian digger wasps, too, in respect of the states that guide their navigational (but not their nest-construction) behavior. (And there is surely no requirement that all of an organism’s behavior should be guided by genuine concept-involving thoughts if any is to count as such. For much of our own routine, habitual, or “inconsequential” behavior wouldn’t pass muster, either.) I have argued for these claims in some detail elsewhere and will only sketch those arguments here. … My main focus will be on an argument purporting to establish yet further constraints on genuine concept possession (the so-called “generality constraint”), which invertebrates (together with most other animals) would turn out to fail.
  5. Let me say a word about terminology, however, before we proceed. The use of the term “concept” in philosophy is systematically ambiguous ("Margolis (Eric) & Laurence (Stephen), Eds. - Concepts - Core Readings" [2007]).
    1. It is sometimes used to designate the content of a word or a component of thought. In this usage a concept is an abstract object, often identified with a “mode of presentation” of the things that the word picks out.
    2. But sometimes concepts are intended to be mental representations, concrete components of the physical tokenings of the thoughts of which they form part.2
    In the present chapter I am concerned almost exclusively with concepts in the latter sense. Our question is whether invertebrates possess the sorts of mental representations that are the components of genuine thoughts. …

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