Saturday, 21 February 2015

Tools in the Workshop of Language

Do nonhuman animals form and use concepts? Is their negotiation of the world informed by abstract ideas of causality, agency, dominance, submission, absence, etc? Do animals theorise? I intend to use this post to explore the view that conceptualisation is possible only in direct proportion to the capacity of creatures to use symbolic communication and to the degree that they have an evolutionary history in which valuable objects – tools in particular – are  commonly manufactured and exchanged.

Language is, in large part, a highly sophisticated form of symbolic communication. By "symbolic" I mean the ability to exchange thing A for thing B despite the fact that thing A and thing B need share no properties in common. For example, we commonly exchange material goods and services for mere pieces of paper despite the fact that the pieces of paper concerned have practically no intrinsic value of their own. We can only do this because we collectively agree to abide by the rules of monetary exchange.

Now, it might be claimed that I am simply setting the bar unreasonably high for qualification as a concept-user and moreover that concepts must surely be prerequisites of the skills that enable tool-use. I hope to show otherwise. Firstly, it should be clear that language is by no means the only thing that sets us apart from other animals. Our skills in the manufacture and use of tools and composite tools outstrip those of other animals by many orders of magnitude and we have clear evidence that our ancestors worked with skillfully crafted stone tools for at least 2 million years with untold years of prior use of sticks, bones, leaves and other raw materials. It would be strange in the extreme if this long history of cultural and biological co-evolution had only a minor influence upon the development and acquisition of our skills as language-users.

Secondly, the assumption that certain sophisticated behaviours can only be explained by concept-possession is only justified if every other explanatory alternative has been ruled out. It might be argued, indeed I would support the view, that nonverbal capacities in particular deserve to be examined much more extensively regarding their potential to explain intelligent behaviour. Elisabeth Camp (2009) contends that some very plausible explanations of complex behaviours can be provided by nonlinguistic compositional capacities, and on the basis of this research she rejects the claim (Cheney and Seafarth 2007) that baboon behavior can only be explained by a “language of thought” (Fodor 1975). Nonetheless Camp’s research, whilst important, is a mere synapse in a vast cortex of research that directs its primary focus towards what animals might plausibly think rather than what animals intelligently do.

There are two problems that seriously impede progress in this area. The first is the overriding reliance upon representational theories of mind and the second is an almost universal paucity in understanding of the nature and role of capacities of nonverbal representation in the story of intelligent behaviour. Theorists like Jerry Fodor clearly realise that there are certain kinds of representation that are simply impossible in the brain. So inner displays and inner models of the perceived world are straightforwardly ruled out. (Grid cells and place cells are held by many to be evidence if inner representation but other theorists – Hutto and Myin (2011) for example – convincingly argue that correlation and/or covariation do not amount to representation). Similarly, inner pictures have so far evaded the probes, electrodes and scanners of neuroscience. Only inner symbols seem safe from the scrutiny of fMRI and for this reason Fodor’s Language of Thought continues its merry march across the pages of books, conference papers and PhD theses (although its weakening stranglehold seems to be allowing a little more blood to reach the neurons of some thinkers).

Like Davidson (1982) and Chater and Heyes (1994), I hold that language and concepts are inextricably intertwined, and I know of no instance of claimed animal concept-possession that cannot be more plausibly explained by the possession of nonverbal (i.e. non-conceptual) skills. However, unlike Davidson, I think we can reasonably ascribe the capacity for surprise to animals, and once again the explanation derives from an account of the nonverbal capacities involved. To be a conscious creature and to act deliberately is to have expectations, but these expectations are not concepts. To expect a ripe apple to be sweet is not predicated upon a concept of sweetness. To expect the ground to be solid under one’s feet is not a theorisation. We do not need concepts to be surprised when the song we are listening to on the radio suddenly stops. Expectations are skills, but they are not conceptual skills. They are practical, not ratiocinative. They are nonverbal.

For advocates of inner representation, the act of perception involves the production of internal representations that correlate with the world. I agree that representation plays a vital part in perception, but I do not agree that brains manufacture representations in any shape or form. A much simpler, and I think more plausible explanation, conceives of perception as a cluster of skills in the production of public representations, as a readiness or preparedness to substitute the thing seen, touched or heard etc. for its duplicate in one or more respects.

Experience leads to the development of expectations about the regularities of the universe and of unfolding events. I propose that we first attempt to rule out all possible nonverbal explanations before we attempt to ascribe capacities of conceptualisation to nonverbal creatures.

One further point. Nonverbal expectations cannot be conceptual because, as Gareth Evans pointed out in 1982, perception is fine grained in a way that concepts simply are not: “Do we really believe the suggestion that we have as many colour concepts as there are colours in the rainbow.”

Many animals use symbolic communication, from dolphins and prairie dogs to bats, birds and honey bees. We observe such forms of communication in a great variety of quantities and degrees. But what we do not observe is anything like the degree of tool-use that we find in human culture. Nonetheless, if it is true that conceptualisation is in part enabled by the skills of symbolic communication then it should be possible for symbol-using animals to acquire one or two very basic components of concept use. It should be noted though, that a capacity to acquire one or two basic components of a broader set of skills and the acquisition or possession of the rudiments of that skillset are by no means the same. A fistful of clay does not a sculptor make. Nor is it necessarily the case that the mere acquisition, even of a large number of proper or common nouns for example, enables these to be manipulated and recombined in intelligible ways. And the question of how the skills of combining and contrasting concepts – of conceptual reasoning – could be practiced, refined and evaluated in the absence of social feedback would seem to present a insurmountable explanatory obstacle for advocates of private concept formation.

Concepts are tools in the workshop of language. But without the techniques that enable the skillful use of these tools, concepts are as purposeless as mere sticks, stones, leaves and bones.