Sunday, 18 October 2015

Paul Churchland on Non-Propositional Animal Thought?

Patricia and Paul Churchland
The philosopher Peter Geach hinted at the possibility of non-linguistic concepts when he wrote that the “ability to express a judgement in words thus presupposes a number of capacities previously acquired” [1958]. This is reminiscent of Paul Churchland's position. Churchland says, in greater detail, that

how to formulate, manipulate, and store a rich fabric of propositional attitudes is itself something that is learned…” [1981]

Again, elsewhere in the same paper:

“…language use is something that is learned, by a brain already capable of vigorous cognitive activity…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 activity that models its elements on the elements of human language?

The first quote above (from Churchland) would be given an immediate reply by a follower of Jerry Fodor. He'd say that the formulation, manipulation and storage of “a rich fabric of propositional attitudes” can be accounted for by something linguistic or at least something language-like: the language of thought. Thus we don’t escape from language here. Indeed, with more relevance to the issue of animals' non-linguistic concepts, Fodor says that the cognitive activity of animals could also be “linguaformal”.

Although Churchland may accept that the LOT could account for our learning (in the first place) how to “formulate, manipulate, and store a rich fabric of propositional attitudes”, his answer is that our learning to manipulate propositional attitudes is actually based on non-linguistic brain phenomena. To him, it's a question of the following:

“…a set or configuration on complex states…figurative ‘solids’ within a four- or five-dimensional phase space. The laws of the theory govern the interaction [“formulation”?], motion, and transformation [“manipulation”?] of these ‘solid’ states within that space…”

The point of bringing in Churchland is that - and we needn't accept his whole conceptual scheme - if he supplies us with possibilities/actualities of non-linguistic “cognitive activity”, then clearly this can be co-opted to show the same for non-linguistic concepts. (It’s a shame that Churchland himself doesn’t tackle concepts here.)

Fodor muddies the water by claiming that animal “cognitive activity” may also be “linguaformal”. The problem is that Fodor’s use of the word lingua (in what appears to be, inferentially, his acceptance of an animal Language of Thought) may be a use of a word that's so vague (vis-à-vis animal, not human, LOT) that it doesn’t satisfy any of the usual criteria for being a language.

Like Churchland, however, Fodor doesn’t say much about animals and non-linguistic concepts.

Now take Churchland’s reference to non-linguistic “representations” which can also be co-opted (to some extent) in order to talk about non-linguistic concepts. Here's Churchland talking about representations:

Any competent golfer has a detailed representation [concept] (perhaps in his cerebellum…) of a gold swing. It is a motor representation [concept]…The same golfer will also have a discursive representation of a gold swing (perhaps in his language cortex…)...” [1989]

And later:

A creature competent to make reliable colour discriminations has there developed a representation of the range of familiar colours, a representation that appears to consist in a specific configuration of weighted synaptic connections…This recognition depends upon the creature possessing a prior representation…This distributed representation is not remotely propositional or discursive…It…makes possible…discrimination, recognition, imagination…”

In a strong sense, what's been said above makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. At the level of species there must be a cognitive continuum between animal and human thought. On the scale of individuals, there's also a continuum between what can be called proto-thought and linguistic thought/verbal expression.

In the above, Churchland provides some of the scientific and philosophical details for such an argument; although, again, he doesn't tackle the subject of animal thought explicitly.


Churchland, Paul. (1981) ‘Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes’
- (1989) ‘Knowing Qualia: A Reply to Jackson’
Geach, Peter. (1958) Mental Acts: Their Content and Their Objects

Fodor, Gerry. (1987) 'Why There Still Has to Be a Language of Thought'

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