According to Fred Dretske, concepts can be very rudimentary indeed. He writes:
“One can…see armadillos without seeing that they are armadillos, but perhaps one must…see that they are (say) animals of some sort…in seeing an object [one must] see that it is an object of some sort. To be aware of a thing is at least to be aware that it is…how shall we say it?…a thing. Something or other.” [Dretske, 1993]
In the above, Dretske is getting down to bottom-line quasi-Kantian concepts. Dretske appears to argue that animals don’t even have such basic concepts. My position is that if we insist on seeing concepts as exclusively sentential or linguistic (in any vague sense), then we will, by definition, exclude animals from concept-use. I think that such a position is both arbitrary and unnecessary.
Here is Dretske making a distinction between awareness of facts and awareness of things:
“Consciousness of facts implies a deployment of concepts. If S is aware that x is F, then S has the concept F and uses (applies) it [to x]… awareness of things (x) requires no fact-awareness (that x is F, for any F) of those things…there is no reasonably specific property F which is such that an awareness of a thing which is F requires fact-awareness that it is F.”
Perhaps all the above amounts to is that an animal (or animals) hasn’t got our own concept of x (e.g., [human]). However, it may have its own. The concept, say, [human] may be dependent on sentential constructions; whereas an animal’s concept [C] may be based on (or partly made-up of) mental images [see Brian Loar, 1990].
How can an animal be aware of a thing (x) without having concepts which help it differentiate or individuate that thing? How can it be aware of x without the application of concepts to x? Doesn’t individuation and the application of concepts also entail (or at least imply) Dretske’s “fact-awareness”?
Of course “that P” isn't, strictly speaking, applicable to animals if it's seen exclusively as a linguistic formulation (or a strict logical schema). Though need concepts and factual awareness be linguistic (or sentential) in form? Indeed couldn’t there be a non-linguistic version of - or alternative to - that P? Can we really distinguish “awareness of things” from “awareness of facts”? Perhaps things are, in a sense, bundled facts; or at least they are determined or delineated factually or conceptually.
My parents’ dog is called Joe. He's aware of a thing, Paul Murphy, by being aware (non-linguistically) that P. (i.e., that x, in front of him, is Paul Murphy.) Of course he doesn’t know me as 'Paul Murphy'.
Dretske almost seems to be saying that unless one knows that P (or a non-formal, though linguistic, version of it), then one has no “fact-awareness”. This is reminiscent of Descartes’ exclusion of animals from rationality and even thought because they didn’t speak French; or, more fairly, because they didn’t speak any human language. This is Descartes himself on that subject:
“…it has never yet been observed that any animal has arrived as such a degree of perfection as to make use of a true language; that is to say, as to be able to indicate to us by the voice…anything which could be referred to thought alone, rather than to a movement of mere nature; for the word is the sole sign and the only certain mark of the presence of thought…” - Letter to Henry More (1649)
Dretske himself claims as much when he says that the
“cat can smell, and thus be aware of, burning toast as well as the cook, but only the cook will be aware that the toast is burning”.
Yes, that last clause is indeed correct. Who would doubt it? The cat won't sub-vocally think to itself “the toast is burning”. Though it may have its own concept [B] for burning, its own concept [T] for toast, and even its own molecular concept [BT] for burning toast.
The implication also is that the cat is aware that the toast is burning; though not “fact-aware” that the toast is burning. Of course the cat isn’t aware that the toast is burning in the sense of thinking “the toast is burning” in English, French or in any language (even its own). However, it might be fact-aware of something.
That can be explained in this way.
The cat isn’t aware that “the toast is burning”; though it is aware that the toast is burning. We can say that it's aware of the truth-condition (i.e., burning toast); though not that truth-condition's expression in a natural language (i.e., "the toast is burning").
Despite all the above, Dretske himself says (at the beginning of his paper) that he doesn’t “know about animals”. He may not know about animals in the plural; though he seems to know about the cat in his own example.
If mental-image-based concepts can “pick out a kind” (Loar, 1990), then perhaps some animals can't only pick out an x. They may also believe that x is F (or that P). In a sense, an animal needs to think that x is F in order to distinguish x from, say, y. Of course the belief that x is F isn't sentential, linguistic or even formal or quasi-linguistic. Why should it be? Why is it necessary to believing x is F that it's a (as it were) linguistic by-product?
Take Joe again.
I'm x to Joe. I'm an individuated object to him. That much, surely, must be uncontroversial. How does Joe individuate and differentiate me from, say, y (say, another person or even an inanimate table)? It must do so by believing that x is F (or x, not y, is F). That is, it believes that the object in front of it is Paul Murphy. However, Joe is also applying a concept [P] to a reoccurrence of x. The concept [P] is being applied to x. Therefore, to Joe, x is F.
The concept [P], or [Paul Murphy], may be an agglomeration of atomic concepts: [a certain smell,] [certain clothes], [a certain voice], etc., as well as - perhaps more importantly - a concept-image (i.e., a mental image used as the basis for a concept).
Thus x is F (for Joe the dog) means that it applies (or has already applied) the image-concept [I], plus various atomic concepts (including smells, dress, etc.) to x. x, in this case, is a re-occurrence of the object my family - though not the dog - calls 'Paul Murphy'. Therefore the variable x isn't identical to the dog-concept of x. The concept [P] is applied - or belong - to object x. For Joe, therefore, x is (indeed) F.
Even language-users may use (or have) such non-linguistic (or non-sentential) concepts. Either that, or non-linguistic mental phenomena may be the basis of linguistic concepts.
x is F is conceptual . It needn't be based - or reliant - upon other sentential formulations such as “You know Tony sometimes lies?” or “That guy is a dissembler”. However, the concept (or belief) needn't be purely abstract either. There’s nothing more real (to me) than my mental images of Tony and also of Tony lying. However, lying itself, admittedly, is necessarily linguistic. Thus Joe (or any animal) can't think that Tony (or anyone or anything else for that matter) is a liar. Lying comes with language use (though not deception – animals practice deception).
Thus I’m not saying anything in the above that's very surprising. There are some human concepts that animals not only don’t have; but which they could never have. And not just beliefs/concepts such as “4 + 4 = 8”: far more mundane and basic ones too.
What of a semi-complex beliefs/concepts such as [forests are full of trees]?
My dog-translation of the verbal locution “forests are full of trees” wouldn’t of course be an exact translation in the way “I love you” can be precisely translated into French. So what? Animals aren’t fellow human beings like the French. A dog’s version of “forests are full of trees” may come close (if only in a few respects) to our concept or belief. In any case, why would we require (or need) an exact equivalent (or translation) anyway? I don’t need one to argue my case. The point is that the dog’s version (or alternative) would still be conceptual. It would also be (by inference) a belief. It could even be (in a sense) an example (or version) of a predicate attached to a noun. Of course we'd need non-linguistic interpretations or equivalents of predicates and nouns. That’s not a problem: we have them in philosophy. The predicate “are full of trees” could become some kind of property or attribute of the subject-term “forests”. The noun “forest” could become some kind of non-linguistic subject (or object). Indeed Frege (for one) believed that predicates are concepts; just as others think that concepts are universals.
Now we’ve reached bedrock.
Thought Before Language?
Something (or some things) must come before our linguistic expressions: both as a species and as individuals. Our linguistic expressions didn’t occur ex nihilo.
Here’s Paul Churchland making related points:
Here’s Paul Churchland making related points:
“…language use is something that is learned, by a brain already capable of vigorous cognitive activity; language use is acquired as only one among a great variety of learned manipulative skills; and it is mastered by a brain that evolution has shaped for a great many functions, language using being only the very latest and perhaps the least of them. Against the background of these facts, language use appears as an extremely peripheral activity, as a species-specific mode of social interaction which is mastered thanks to the versatility and power of a more basic mode of activity. Why accept, then, a theory of cognitive activity that models its elements on the elements of human language?” 
I believe that certain animals have beliefs and concepts even though I also believe that language and language-based concepts utterly shape human thought and experience.
Joe’s x is F could be even more abstract. It could be x (Paul Murphy) is a F (human being). I needn't stress again that F (i.e., the dog-concept [H]) needn't be our concept [human being]? Though Joe may have some concept (or concepts) of a human being or of what we call human beings. It may notice that we only have two legs; that we don’t sniff each other’s backsides; and that we smell a certain way (i.e., unlike him). Even these atomic concepts of the molecular concept [human being] would need to be “translated” into dog-concepts.
Joe “picks out a kind”[Loar, 1990] - the kind human beings call human beings. More correctly, Joe picks out a particular (say, Jim) and sees that he belongs to the kind we call (though it doesn’t) human beings. At no stage of the game am I saying that Joe’s x is F is anything like our x is F. It's structural; though not linguistic or sentential. It may even have a similar structure in some broad sense.
In any case, how close must Joe’s x is F be to our x is F? More relevantly, why do we demand an exact parallel with our x is F in order to allow attributions of concepts and beliefs to dogs and other animals?
Many 18th-century Europeans didn’t think that central-African tribesmen had rationality (or even concepts, etc.) simply because they didn’t speak English or French and were a different colour. (Think here of the earlier Descartes quote.) Of course 18th century central-African tribesmen were far more intellectually advanced than any animal; though my point still hold. The Europeans demanded exactitude from the tribesmen in order to ascribe rationality or even thought to them. Thus it’s no wonder that some contemporary philosophers are looking for exact equivalences between themselves and other animals in order to allow animals the privilege of having or using concepts and beliefs. It is (dare I say) a kind of chauvinism similar in spirit to that which the functionalists (of mind) detected in the 1960s when they argued that minds (qua minds) needn't share our (human) neurobiology.
Finally, I hope the reader doesn't get the wrong impression from all the above. I don’t think that animals are as clever as human beings... not even dolphins or apes. And I don’t want to say (here) whether or not these conclusions will have any impact on other issues related to animals, let alone on the issue of animal rights.
My claim is very simple: some animals do have concepts and beliefs.
Churchland, Paul. (1981) 'Eliminative materialism and the propositional attitudes'.Dretske, Fred. (1993) 'Conscious Experience'.
Loar, Brian. (1990) 'Phenomenal States'.