Thursday, 18 September 2014

Intellectualism Refuted (Part VI: Do Animals Have Beliefs?)

"When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions. (Light dawns gradually over the whole.)" —Ludwig Wittgenstein

When Kelly (1998) examines Evans' suggestion that belief is a "sophisticated cognitive state: one that is connected with... the notion of judgement, and so, also, connected with the notion of reasons" he finds this "intuition" insufficiently threatening to would-be intellectualists. According to Kelly this allows intellectualists to maintain either that animal beliefs and perception are sophisticated conceptual states or else that animals have no beliefs because their perceptual states are non-conceptual whereas human perceptual states—or so the intellectualists might insist—are conceptual. Kelly makes a valid point, but I think Evans' intuition deserves closer consideration.

Any principled theory of perception must be consistent with an evolutionary account of the emergence of intelligent behaviours and as such it must be committed to a sparing view of the development of  conceptual capacities like beliefs. Evans was evidently wary of assuming that "sophisticated cognitive states" precede skills of concept formation. But perhaps what he most needed in order to substantiate this intuition was a theory of how conceptual skills might have evolved from other more commonly observable non-conceptual capacities. One possible component of such a theory can be discerned in the notion of demonstratives to which Evans also turns his attention. I will examine demonstratives later, with the intention of explaining how such utterances as "this," "that" and "here" gain their efficacy not as "demonstrative concepts", as some have argued (McDowell 1994, Loar 1997), but as conceptualisations of what are in fact non-conceptual skills of representation. For the moment though, it will suffice to say that skills of nonverbal representation (mimicry in particular) deserve to be considered as plausible precursors to sophisticated forms of symbolic communication and concept formation that would be impossible, or so I claim, without these prior capacities to produce, select and use non-conceptual (nonverbal) forms of representation.

Since the publication of Evans' book in 1982, the question of animal concepts has been the subject of widespread research. In 1994 Chater and Heyes undertook a meta analysis of the then extant research and found that: "[T]he idea of a concept has not been successfully decoupled from natural language, and hence there is currently no coherent account of what animal concepts might be." Since this time, no further evidence of animal concepts has come to light, and whilst it may be premature to suspend all enquiries, it appears that the assumption that animal capacities are intrinsically conceptual lacks substantive empirical grounds. Analytically speaking, the picture is little better. In 1982 — two years after Evans' death—Donald Davidson, whose work had a profound influence on Evans, published a widely cited essay, "Rational Animals," in which he argues that: "[I]n order to have a belief, it is necessary to have the concept of belief...[and]... in order to have the concept of belief one must have language." Like Wittgenstein (and perhaps Evans also), Davidson considered belief to be part of a system of propositions — the idea being that beliefs and rationality in general are acquired social traits.

It seems likely that Evans was motivated by similar considerations as those expressed by Davidson which suggests that his position was more substantive than Kelly gives him credit for. Nonetheless "Varieties of Reference" makes no mention of this reasoning and it is understandable therefore that Kelly finds the arguments unpersuasive. He is also right to point out that, in the face of a challenge to the supposed conceptual foundations of animal perception, intellectualists might simply insist that human perception is uniquely conceptual. Evans had an answer to this claim that I will explore next.


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