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Animadversions

Implicit knowledge and language learning

(Text as at 21/10/2007 19:12:00)


Tom: I had a question of you which may have been badly stated at the time, or may have grossly misunderstood the points at issue. I don’t want to let this point slip, but don’t want to encroach on your time either.

As I understand it, your paper supplied a lacuna in McDowell’s objections to Dummett’s argument in favour of full-blooded theories of meaning. Both he and Dummett accept the language acquisition thesis, and McDowell claims that full-blooded theories of meaning are inconsistent with it. My response to this would have been “reject the language acquisition thesis” (modus tollens rather than modus ponens), but this response is irrelevant to your paper (though it is interesting to me as (natural) language ability is often claimed to be a necessary property of persons. I’d prefer only insistence on a (partly innate) language of thought, along Fodor’s lines, though this is little more than a prejudice with me at the moment).

Anyway, that’s not really the point at issue, which is as follows. Dummett gives a behaviourist account of how concept mastery is manifested. He needs to do this (or something analogous) to avoid begging the question. But he’s worried that language use is a rational activity not (as Chomsky pointed out contra Skinner) simply describable in behaviourist terms (I agree). I also agree with you that Dummett’s invocation of implicit knowledge (though implicit knowledge per se is perfectly respectable) doesn’t help in this context for the reasons you supply.

However, I had a couple of concerns with Dummett’s proposal that concept-use should display the rationality of language use. Firstly, why does he need to invoke any sort of knowledge of theories of meaning – are there no alternatives that would imply rational activity? Secondly, cannot language-use be rational even if concept use per se isn’t?

To explain the second point above, Dummett had invoked the chess-playing analogy earlier. Presumably the chess pieces are analogous to concepts, and the (set of) legal moves correspond to the meaning of the concepts. It is true that one might know how to make legal moves in chess without explicitly being able to state the rules. But this has nothing to do with rationality or with being able to play chess, or at least not rationally. There’s something of a parallel with Chomsky’s claim that we have innate implicit knowledge of universal grammar. Even if we do, this isn’t what makes language use rational. And the same goes for our presumed implicit knowledge of the grammar of our own natural language (English).

Being able to make random legal chess-moves does not display rationality. Being able to play chess well involves a deep understanding of chess positions, tactics and strategy. It’s at this level that rationality comes in. Similarly, asserting that snow is black may show that you don’t possess the concept ‘snow’. But this has nothing to do with rational language use. Saying “snow is white” in response to a request for an essay may display mastery of the concept ‘snow’, but doesn’t show rationality either, unless one is being very subtle.

So, I don’t think the demonstration of the possession of concepts has anything to do with language use as a rational activity, so a purely behaviourist demonstration of concept possession is no objection to rational language use either, and Dummett doesn’t need to show that it does display implicit knowledge.

Presumably if the above is a valid objection, Dummett or McDowell would have thought of it, so this must mean that I’m missing the whole point of the argument somewhere. Could someone enlighten me?

Note: this was a follow-up to a question raised at a graduate seminar at Birkbeck on the evening of Thursday 11th October 2007.




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