Saturday, 25 August 2012

Some thoughts on Fodor's LOT for HEA SD2

Although fairly long in the tooth in higher education, I have not evaded the need to gain some sort of teaching accreditation (viz: standard descriptor 2 (SD2) of the UK PSF). One aspect of that is that I am invited in the documentation to think about the question ‘What learning and teaching theorists have had an influence on your teaching practice? In what way have they had an impact?’  

Now I cannot claim any expertise in research on teaching. At best, I could claim that one paper explicitly addresses a pedagogical issue.
Thornton, T. (2006) ‘Judgementand the role of the metaphysics of values in medical ethicsJournal of Medical Ethics 32: 365-370
It argues that the way to teach skill in medical ethical judgement is to proceed via an account of moral particularism, in order to break the stranglehold of distorting principlist concerns. I guess a similar interest, not so much in normative ethics but how best to think of and thus to share competence in making value judgements, has shaped my thinking about what is often called ‘Values Based Practice’ in eg:
Thornton, T.(2011) ‘Radical liberal values based practiceJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice 17: 988-91
Reflection on teaching philosophy of mental health in particular led to a conference presentation at the MHHE conference in 2010 which is written up on my blog and is published in the AAPP bulletin. But it was scornfully rejected by the Journal of Mental Health Training Education and Practice, however.

I also think that the account of tacit knowledge Neil Gascoigne and I have developed in our forthcoming book:
Gascoigne, N. and Thornton, T. (forthcoming 2013) Tacit Knowledge, Durham: Acumen.
and rehearsed in a number of papers especially:
Thornton, T. (2010) ‘Clinical judgement, expertise and skilled copingJournal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice 16: 284-291
has implications for teaching. Tacit knowledge is practical, context-dependent but nevertheless conceptually structured. There is thus continuity between a rational agent’s practical know-how and their explicit linguistically structured judgements in so far as they are connected via an holistic inferential structure (the structure of the space of reasons!). (Why is it tacit? Because it can only be articulated (for example in practical demonstrations structured by demonstrative concepts) not fully linguistically codified in context-free general terms. It is only effable given a chicken, or a Polynesian canoe, or whatever.)

But whilst the bolshy teenager in me wants to answer the question ‘What learning and teaching theorists have had an influence on your teaching practice?’ by saying ‘none!’, that isn’t actually true given a suitable understanding of ‘learning and teaching theorist’. Since the Institute of Education is presently a hotbed of McDowell studies, I can surely claim him. And if him why not his most reliable teacher (if spookily from beyond the grave): Wittgenstein? With that combination in the back of my mind I can think about what surely seems the most serious threat to the idea of education: Jerry Fodor’s typically pugnacious reductio of the very idea. (I can never tell whether Fodor intends it in this way but it seems damning to me.) Perhaps attempting to head off this worry will count, or serve, as a philosophy of education. After all, Fodor’s argument is a kind of twenty first century version of the paradox of learning and surely we should all be interested in that?

Here’s the highlight of the argument in his recent book LOT2: The language of thought revisited [Fodor 2008]. Fodor himself sets up the argument with three key premises but I just want to highlight two here starting with this. Learning is a rational process.

[T]he experience from which a concept is learned must provide (inductive) evidence about what the concept applies to. Perhaps COW is learned from experience with cows? If so, then experiences with cows must somehow witness that it’s cows that COW applies to. This internal connection between concept learning and epistemic notions like evidence is the source of the strong intuition that concept learning is some sort of rational process. It contrasts sharply with kinds of concept acquisition where, for example, a concept is acquired by surgical implantation; or by swallowing a pill; or by hitting one’s head against a hard surface, etc. Intuitively, none of these is concept learning; but any or all of them might eventuate in concept attainment. [Fodor 2008: 135]

It seems, however, that there is only one way to meet this. Learning must be a matter of induction. More precisely, it must be a matter of hypothesis formation and confirmation. This applies centrally to the idea of learning concepts.

There is, I think, a pretty general consensus in the cognitive science literature about what makes a kind of concept acquisition a kind of concept learning. Roughly, it’s that concept learning is a process of inductive inference; in particular, that it’s a process of projecting and confirming hypotheses about what the things that the concept applies to have in common. [ibid: 132]

With this set up, the argument against genuine concept learning and, in its place, for nativism (for the idea that basic concepts at least are innate) runs as follows.

Consider any concept that you’re prepared to accept as primitive, the concept GREEN as it might be. Then ask ‘What is the hypothesis the inductive confirmation of which constitutes the learning of that concept?’ Well, to acquire a concept is at least to know what it’s the concept of ; that is, what’s required of things that the concept applies to. So, maybe learning the concept GREEN is coming to believe that GREEN applies to (all and only) green things; it’s surely plausible that coming to believe that is at least a necessary condition for acquiring GREEN. Notice, however, that (assuming RTM) a token of the concept GREEN is a constituent of the belief that the concept GREEN applies to all and only green things. A fortiori, nobody who lacked the concept GREEN could believe this; nobody who lacked the concept GREEN could so much as contemplate believing this. A fortiori, on pain of circularity, coming to believe this can’t be the process by which GREEN is acquired. Likewise mutatis mutandis for any other primitive concept; so, LOT 1 concluded quite correctly that no primitive concept can be learned. If one then throws in the (empirical; see above) assumption that most of the concepts one has are primitive (which is to say, not definable) you get the consequence that most of the concepts one has can’t have been learned. [ibid: 137-8]

In fact, in LOT2, Fodor goes further than he did in LOT and argues that there can be no concept learning at all, not just no learning of the basic concepts. ‘What I should have said is that it’s true and a priori that the whole notion of concept learning is per se confused. Punkt.’ [ibid: 130]. But I won’t go into that here.

If concept learning is a matter of hypothesis formation (where the alternatives look not to be any kind of rational process worthy of the labels ‘teaching’ or ‘learning’) then it seems that that process requires prior possession of the concept one is supposed to be learning in order to represent to oneself the hypothesis, testing of which constitutes learning. To be in a position even to contemplate that a concept applies to a particular class of instances one seems already to need to use the concept to single out the potential infinity of instances. Even if we pick out the concept in question demonstratively (as this! concept, rather than naming it GREEN) still the class of instances will have to be picked out by some concept or other but which? Although sniffy of regress arguments, Fodor has one up his sleeve here. Sooner or later the class of instances will have to be picked out by a concept for which one has no synonym, a basic concept, and that, by the argument, will have to be innate. Thus there can be no genuine learning of new concepts. We must already have all the concepts we will ever have. That seems a damning view of the transforming possibilities of teaching and learning to me.

Two points on this.

First, as Fodor sets up the argument, it depends on his Representational Theory of Mind (RTM). He says (above): ‘Notice, however, that (assuming RTM) a token of the concept GREEN is a constituent of the belief that the concept GREEN applies to all and only green things’. RTM is the idea that the conceptual articulation of thought is mirrored (and explained by) structural articulation of the vehicles of thought. (To explain that notion of a vehicle of thought or content consider: This sentence carries the thought it expresses. In the sentence I just deployed, those mere squiggles meant: This sentence carries the thought it expresses. The squiggles are the vehicle of – they ‘carry’ – the meaning, content or thought expressed by the sentence.) But that now invites the question: how do those inner vehicles successfully carry thought to all and only green things? Once we attempt to explain how concepts reach out to their potentially infinite class of instances through the idea of inner tokens, things that just stand there like signposts in our heads, things look bleak because of the threat of a regress argument familiar from Wittgenstein and which in Ryle’s hands runs thus: [for my Wittgensteinian take on this see Thornton 1998: 1-68]].

If a deed, to be intelligent, has to be guided by the consideration of a regulative proposition, the gap between that consideration and the practical application of the regulation has to be bridged by some go-between process which cannot by the pre-supposed definition itself be an exercise of intelligence and cannot, by definition, be the resultant deed. This go-between application- process has somehow to marry observance of a contemplated maxim with the enforcement of behaviour. So it has to unite in itself the allegedly incompatible properties of being kith to theory and kin to practice, else it could not be the applying of the one in the other. For, unlike theory, it must be able to influence action, and, unlike impulses, it must be amenable to regulative propositions. Consistency requires, therefore, that this schizophrenic broker must again be subdivided into one bit which contemplates but does not execute, one which executes but does not contemplate and a third which reconciles these irreconcilables. And so on forever. [Ryle 1945: 2]

This first concern is not a knock down argument against Fodor’s worry. His claim is that having the concept, and hence the inner correlate of that concept in RTM, is necessary not sufficient. He can argue that, whilst things may look bleak, that is just because we have not yet deployed something like his own causal theory of reference to animate the internal mental representations that populate the language of thought in a way that sidesteps either Ryle’s or Wittgenstein’s regress arguments. But it will have to provide the right kind of animation and that prompts a dilemma: either it begs the question of the correctness of the link between concept and instance and invites Ryle’s regress argument. Or it deploys merely causal notions and thus fails to account for the essential normativity of concept use. (That is, when one understands a concept one understands how to use it correctly. There are a number of entries on semantic normativity on this blog.)

So the first worry is enough to make Fodor’s solution to the problem that he raises unattractive. But that may seem to make us worse off. Now we have a problem – the one Fodor persuasively highlights – and no obvious way round it.

The second point to note is that Fodor’s account of concept learning is, in effect, a description of learning a second language. One learns, for example, that ‘est rouge’ means is red. Now this is entirely consistent with Fodor’s view because, as he concludes, all natural languages are second languages, including one’s mother tongue, because one starts out with an innate language of thought (hence the name LOT). But whilst a consistent package of ideas, it is not obligatory and seems to falsify the phenomenology of what one might ordinarily describe as learning a new concept. In such cases, it does not seem that one merely translates the new into ideas that one had antecedently available. Rather, it seems – or it can seem – that one begins to make discriminations that one could not make before. One sees differences to which one had been blind.

Let me give an example. Wittgenstein talks of using words in secondary sense. In Philosophical Investigations he introduces it in the context of seeing aspects such as seeing the duck-rabbit figure now as a duck and now as a rabbit. The key instance he gives of secondary sense is, however, the attitude most of us have towards words. We feel that a word carries its meaning somehow immediately with it. It can loose this kind of meaning if repeated. He describes this kind of immediate perception or experience of the meaning of a word in isolation as a form of understanding meaning. Since Wittgenstein’s official recommendation is to think of understanding as grasp of a practice, the use of the words ‘understanding’ and ‘meaning’ in the case at hand is not straight-forward. It is not a metaphor, however, because nothing can be said to explain why we want to use these words for this kind of experience. But whilst this is not a metaphorical use it is nevertheless a secondary use: one which we find natural given the primary use, but which is discontinuous with, and could not be used to teach, the primary use [Wittgenstein 1953: 216]. Another example Wittgenstein gives is the use of ‘fat’ in the claim that Wednesday is fat. Clearly Wednesday cannot in any ordinary sense be compared with other fat or thin things. And it would be optimistic to attempt to teach the meaning of ‘fat’ by giving Wednesday as an example. Nevertheless, many language users give spontaneous expression to the thought that Wednesday is a fat day.

Teaching the concept of secondary sense to undergraduates does not seem merely to be a case of reminding them (on the platonic view of education) of something they already know in other terms. Wittgenstein’s handful of examples, and those suggested in secondary texts, may be enough to explain the concept but it takes further practical testing to see whether this really is so. And when the concept is grasped, it does not merely seem to present previously grasped distinctions. Rather, it seems as though seeing some examples of word use as instances of secondary sense is seeing something new, spotting a difference of which one was previously both theoretically but also phenomenologically ignorant.

This idea, that learning is a matter of enculturation, of acquiring through teaching and practice a ‘second nature’ in which, for example, one can respond to reasons to which one was previously deaf, is represented in John McDowell’s later work by the German word Bildung: the moulding of character or ‘second nature’ such that one’s eyes can be opened to whole tracts of reality [McDowell 1994: 84 et passim]. It suggests that learning is a matter of developing perceptual sensitivities and intellectual skills, both of which require practice, rather than relating new words back to innate concepts.

An appeal to second nature is no easy solution to the problem raised by Fodor’s argument since it goes hand in hand with the idea that the truths graspable only by those with the right Bildung are not reducible to more basic notions. One learns to respond to moral or aesthetic reasons to which one had been deaf. But equally, one learns, according to Thomas Kuhn’s picture of ‘normal science’ to see the relevant similarities between different physical systems (a subatomic particle and wave on a string; a gas and elastic balls) and them and mathematical formulae. And thus the account of how it is possible to be drawn from having mere animal first nature into an encultured second nature remains underdeveloped. (A full account would require that one can reduce all second nature concepts back to first nature concepts, a view Fodor happily accepts* as part of his reductionist naturalism and McDowell rejects as a piece of scientistic prejudice.)

But the first worry raised above, and the connection between second nature and acquiring skills and perceptual sensitivities, suggests one line of response which echoes a problem that dates back to Kant’s chapter on the schematism, which he called ‘an art concealed in the depths of the human soul, whose real modes of activity nature is hardly likely ever to allow us to discover’ [Kant 1929: 183] though I’ll leave that connection fairly gnomic here (see this).

Fodor takes concept learning to require representing to oneself, for example, the fact that the concept GREEN applies to all and only green things. That is what leads to his nativism. In effect, one is ‘always already’ (as the pesky Continentalists usefully say) at the end of a process of concept acquisition (since one already has a language of thought). Of course, if concept learning were possible, then afterwards one would be able to say what one had learnt by using those very concepts. That’s not the problem. The problem is to say by what rational process one acquired the concepts before one was able to entertain any thought that presupposes one already gasps the green instances. With Wittgensteinian and Rylean thoughts about the primacy of the practical in mind, one solution is to deny that one needs to be able to think that the concept GREEN applies to all and only green things before one has completed one’s learning. Rather, one needs just to be able to think that the concept GREEN applies to this!, this! and that! case and cases like them. Now that invocation of cases like those demonstratively identified is not a piece of magic. Thinking that thought (the thought about what is like these) carries the novice no further than her capacity can take her (cf Wittgenstein’s comments about sameness when following a rule). But during the learning process there is no need to think that novice must have a context-independent grasp of the conceptual structure she will later acquire. The intermediate stage is a practical grasp of practically demonstrated instances. And hence combining Bildung and practical demonstration (or McDowell with Wittgenstein and Ryle) provides a response to Fodor’s reductio.

Fodor, J. (2008) LOT2: The language of thought revisited,Oxford: Oxford University Press
Fodor, J. (1987) Psychosemantics: the problem of meaning in the philosophy of mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 
Kant, I. (1929) Critique of Pure Reason, London: Macmillan
McDowell, J (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press
Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind, London: Hutchinson.
Ryle, G. (1945) ‘Knowing How and Knowing That’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 46: 1-16
Thornton, T. (1998) Wittgenstein on language and thought, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell.

*I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they’ve been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm and charge will perhaps appear upon their list. But aboutness surely won’t; intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep. It’s hard to see... how one can be a Realist about intentionality without also being, to some extent or other, a Reductionist. If the semantic and intentional are real properties of things, it must be in virtue of their identity with... properties that are neither intentional nor semantic. If aboutness is real, it must be really something else. [Fodor 1987: 97]