Thomistic-Wittgensteinian Concept Formation and a Problem For Naturalism

I’m reading Haldane’s and Smart’s debate, ‘Atheism and Theism’, and Haldane makes an interesting point regarding what he takes to be a problem for a materialist/naturalistic metaphysic – that of our formation of abstract and universal concepts – such as square or triangularity. He gives a quick look at the two more traditional options – innatism, where concepts are just, as the name suggests, innate. We’re just born with them.The other option is abstraction – where, again as the name suggests, we abstract our concepts from our experience with objects. He notes problems for each: on innatism, how many concepts are we born with, and why that many? How did they get there? Are we born with the concept of both square and rectangle? Why or why not? On abstraction-ism, he cites Geach’s argument:

‘In the late 1950s Peter Geach produced a powerful argument against this latter thesis [abstraction-ism]. The suggestion that the concept square, say, is acquired by experiencing a variety of square objects and attending to their squarenss, while bracketing their other aspects, is absurd because in order to attend selectively to the squareness of square objects you must already have the concept square: attending to an instance of a feature F as such, is to exercise the concept f.’ (p. 102)

Haldane proceeds to give an answer along Wittgensteinian lines – basically, our concepts are neither innate nor abstracted but taught. The later Wittgenstein more or else held that our language and understanding (and one may reasonably assume concepts to fall under those two headings) are developed, taught and shaped by our actually participating in life and non-linguistic activities – against, say Augustine, Wittgenstein holds that the public is prior to the private in language. As we become part of a community, we learn and acquire language from the community – so our concepts aren’t innate, since we have to be participating in the life of the community, and they aren’t abstracted, since by the same token the concept wasn’t available until it was taught.

Haldane then ties Aquinas in thus:

‘In order for something like the Wittgensteinian explanation to work it has to be the case that the child has a prior disposition or potentiality to form concepts under appropriate influences; it also has to be the case that there is one that is itself already possessed of the concept. Alice will not pick up the meaning of the term ‘cat’ unless she has a relevant potentiality, unless the structure of her receptivity is of the right sort. By the same token, that potentiality will not be actualized except by an intellect that is already active in using the concept, her older brother James, for example…here I am forging a link with Wittgenstein’s linguistic communitarian account of the origins of thinking in the individual, and that suggests diving these aspects of the intellect, at least in the first instance, between the teacher and the taught. In these terms one may say that Alice’s intellect is receptive to, or potentially informed by, the concept cat, while the mind or intellect of James who has already mastered the use of the term is active with, or actually informed by this concept. In teaching Alice the word, James imparts the concept and thereby actualizes her potentiality. This picture grants something both to innatism and abstractionsim. One the one hand, in order to explain possession of concepts a native power has to be postulated; but on the other it is allowed that, in a sense, concepts are acquired through experience.’ (p. 103)

The dilemma that Haldane sees for naturalism can be roughly stated as follows: given that neither innatism or abstractionism provide an adequate account of our grasp and use of concepts, something like the Wittgensteinian picture must be the case so as to avoid the horns of the dilemma. But if the Wittgensteinian picture is the case, then we have a problem of infinite regress: if the explanation of Alice’s conceptual ability is explained by James’ ability, then James’ conceptual ability calls for an explanation, and then that explanation calls for an explanation, and so on and so on. While the Wittgensteinian picture escapes the innatism/abstractionism dilemma, it opens itself up to the charge of infinite regress unless it can be shown coherently how concept-formation may have arisen.

Haldane forsees a possible way out by arguing for a kind of ‘fading conceptuality’ history of language:

‘…no history of thought or language can be philosophically adequate if it tries to meet the genesis problem by postulating ‘fading conceptuality’. Though it is not put in there terms, or indeed very often discussed at all, something of this sort is presumably part of a naturalistic versiuon of Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory. On this account the history of concept-formation and use is the history of language; a history that leads us back to pre-lingustic activities, back further to pre-mental life, to pre-replicating life and ultimately to pre-animate matter…what needs to be accounted for is a natural transition from the non-conceptual to the conceptual and that is not the same distinction as one between degrees of conceptual complexity. Doubtless Stone Age cave dwellers made fewer and less abstract discriminations than a contemporary physicist, but that is irrelevant; the point is that the ability to make any general classifications is a conceptual power.’ (p. 106)

While this line of argument isn’t a bullet-proof argument against a naturalistic theory of concept-formation, there do seem to be some genuine difficulties here.

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It Wasn’t Intentional

Intentionality is an interesting thing. Me personally, I find it fascinating how you just can’t get rid of it. If you try and eliminate it or reduce it, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Now to me, this makes quite a bit of sense since, if you read my blog many moons ago, I spent a little bit of time trying to develop a linguistic and semantic conception of reality (here, for example) which I still pretty much hold to. You could probably get away with calling my view tagmemics, or at least noting that it’s in the same neighbourhood.

When it comes to intentionality, meaning, etc, I generally take a semiotic view (not that I’m any great expert in semiotics). The classic Stoic example is a flushed face, which is a sign for a fever. The flush means fever. But this isn’t the whole story – how does a flush, which at bottom is just a biological phenomenon, mean anything? Well, it depends on how we define ‘mean’. If we see enough flushes in close connection with enough fevers, we start to realize, hey, there’s some connection here. If there is a flush, then he has a fever. Or think of smoke and fire. Smoke doesn’t ‘mean’ fire – smoke is just a collection of particles floating around. The meaning comes from us – when we see enough columns of smoke coming from enough fires, we can confidently say, ‘smoke means fire’. These are what John Searle would call ‘derived’ intentionality – the intentionality is derived from us. It’s not an intrinsic feature of smoke, or flushes. Smoke isn’t ‘about’ fire and flushes aren’t ‘about’ fevers.

Most things in the world have derived intentionality. Words on paper don’t have intrinsic intentionality or meaning – there’s no intrinsic connection between c-a-t and the furry four-legged creature that meows at at my bedside 3AM to be let out. It could just as well be m-a-t, if enough folks went with that.

As-if intentionality is another of Searle’s classification – when we say, ‘boy, that computer just doesn’t want to run that program’, that’s as-if intentionality. The computer doesn’t want or not want to do anything – it has no desires or goals or any kind of conscious life. Another classic example is that of a river – the river appears to want to flow downstream, but the river has no conscious intention or desire to flow. It’s just a river.

The last of Searle’s three types of intentionality is ‘intrinsic’ – intentionality intrinsic to a thing. This is generally associated with the mind – Brentano called intentionality ‘the mark of the mental’. This refers to the ability of the mind to direct itself in thought towards things – to have thoughts ‘about’ things. There are lots of different ways of thinking about intentionality – naturalist, reductionist, eliminativist (of these, eliminativism is perhaps the least coherent) – but for my money, I’m not convinced by any of them for the rather simple fact that no matter what’s done to eliminate it, it always seems to be a very necessary part of how it’s eliminated. Other accounts of intentionality, say the conceptual role theory, do a decent enough job explaining a possible mechanism of intentionality but don’t really offer any actual account of how there is such a thing in the first place.

A basic theme in intentionality is that if it’s physical, it has no fixed meaning:

‘One could never derive the specific meaning of a given physical event from the event itself, not even a brain event, because in itself it means nothing at all; even the most minute investigation of its physical constituents and instances could never yield the particular significance that mind represents it as having.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Experience of God’, p. 195-196)

Meaning, being the mark of the mental, is also the gift of the mental. I’ve expounded (the two links above) a conception of reality in which it’s semantic in nature – call it a field of semantics, out of which meaning can be made (this is different from, say a more general account of ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ in the universe that one often hears about). We exist as meaning-making agents because we exist in a reality that is a semantic field.