Centro de Filosofia da Universidade de Lisboa
LanCog Group (Language, Mind and Cognition Research Group)
Project Online Companion PTDC/FIL-FIL/121209/2010
SEMINAR SERIES IN ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY
2013-14: Session 6
On the concept-conception distinction
University of Milano-Bicocca
16 May 2014, 15:00
Faculdade de Letras de Lisboa
Sala Mattos Romão (departamento de Filosofia)
Abstract: ‘Concept’ is a theoretical term in both philosophical and psychological theories. Some authors have put into question the existence of concepts as natural kinds, with homogeneous properties out there to be explained (Machery 2009, Malt 2010). Many others, however, concede the point but claim that concepts are part of the explanans in cognitive science and philosophy, their function being to enable us to describe and give accounts of phenomena such as language understanding, inference, categorization, decision-making and deliberation (Weiskopf 2010, Lalumera 2010, Hampton 2010). According to these authors there are phenomena that we would not be able to explain adequately without the notion of concept.
In line with this broad view, this is a conservative paper. My aim here is to defend the view that, far from being theoretically idle, the notion of concept should be supplemented by a more thorough understanding of the concept-conception distinction. In fact, the notion of concept is not fine-grained enough in some explanatory contexts. I claim that phenomena such as genuine disagreement and concept contestation can be better described in terms of both concepts and conceptions, and would otherwise remain implausibly puzzling.
Intuitively, conceptions stand to concepts as do many to one, and conceptions can be wrong, and get corrected. Though familiar, however, the concept-conception distinction is rarely focused on. Some material can be found in the debate in political philosophy, in the discussion following John Rawls, and Richard Dworkin’s work (Rawls 1999, Dworkin 1988). In the philosophy of mind and psychology Susan Carey (2009), Ruth Millikan (2000), Georges Rey (1985, 2010), and less recently Christopher Peacocke (1992, 1998) wrote about the two notions. In what follows I will individuate two different ways to draw the concept-conception distinction (sections 2 and 3), and confront them vis-à-vis the explanatory desiderata posed by cases of genuine disagreement, and concept contestation, which I present in the fourth section, drawing on well-known examples by Tyler Burge , and Timothy Williamson. Finally I discuss the notion of essentially contested concept, introduced by W. B. Gallie (1956).
One clarification before starting. Some philosophers of psychology think that the notion of concept is ambiguous between the philosophical and the psychological usage. Supporters of the ambiguity view point to the fact that concepts for philosophers are abstract objects, while concepts for psychologists are mental particulars (Margolis and Laurence 2007); that philosophers are concerned with the semantics of concepts while psychologists are not (Machery 2009); that – in a similar vein – concepts for philosophers determine their extensions, while concept for psychologists do not, or they determine a different extension (Margolis and Laurence 2007); and finally, that philosophers narrow the scope of conceptual capacities to rational deliberation and language understanding only, whereas psychologists broaden it (Machery 2009). In this paper I do not provide arguments against the ambiguity view, but I assume the rival position, namely the view that ‘concept’ is a polysemous word, whose philosophical and psychological meaning are related. One way to relate them is to agree that concepts constitute a functional kind posited to explain some traits of human behaviour, as I said above (Weiskopf 2010, Lalumera 2010), and that (typical) psychological theories and (typical) philosophical theories of concepts diverge on the agenda of what has to be explained and in what order (Carey 2009). I will suggest that conceptions may deserve the same status.
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