Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Bootstrapping conceptual normativity?

Both anti-reductionist and reductionist accounts of linguistic meaning and mental content face challenges accounting for learning a first language. Anti-reductionists cannot account for a transition from the pre-conceptual to conceptual without threatening to reduce the latter to the former. Reductionists of a representationalist variety face the challenge of Fodor’s argument that language learning is impossible.
This paper examines whether Ginsborg’s account of primitive normativity might provide some resources for addressing these issues. Rejecting her ‘no conception’ account of normativity in favour of a demonstrative, local conception provides one response to Fodor’s argument which is available to an anti-reductionist and at least a further hint as to how context-independent linguistic concepts can be developed from context-dependent local conceptions of how to go on.
The problem of concept learning
One of the challenges for an anti-reductionist account of linguistic meaning and mental content is making space for an account of concept learning. If, following John McDowell for example, one takes the space of reasons to answer to a distinct constitutive ideal from that of the realm of law, it is hard to see how the route from the latter to the former can be articulated. Any such articulation would threaten to provide – what the anti-reductionist denies – a reduction of the concepts of the space of reasons to those of the realm of law.
McDowell himself suggests that Wittgenstein’s phrase ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’ provides a natural metaphor for learning a first language ‘for one’s dealings with language to cease to be blind responses to stimuli: one comes to hear utterances as expressive of thoughts , and to make one’s own utterances as expressive of thoughts’ [McDowell 1998: 333]. But he suggests that this process cannot be limited to a few sentences but involves working one’s way ‘into a conception of the world’. Suggestive though Wittgenstein’s phrase is, it does little to shed light on how the process of language learning might come about so much as summarise, albeit neatly, the fact that some such process does come about.
Whilst anti-reductionists face a principled problem, the most striking recent philosophical argument about language learning comes from one of their reductionist opponents. In LOT2: The language of thought revisited, Jerry Fodor sets out a specific argument for the difficulty of accounting for concept acquisition [Fodor 2008]. Or rather, he argues that such language learning must be impossible.
Fodor’s argument has four steps:
1.       Concept learning is a rational process.
2.       The only plausible rational process is hypothesis formation and testing.
3.       But that requires the conceptual representation of the hypothesis, which presupposes possession of the concept to be learnt.
4.       So concept learning is impossible.
The first step contrasts learning as a rational process with any form of non-rational process of concept acquisition such as by surgical implantation, swallowing a pill or hitting one’s head against a hard surface. Fodor then argues that the only plausible candidate for such a rational process is a ‘process of projecting and confirming hypotheses about what the things that the concept applies to have in common’ [ibid: 132].
The argument for the third step is couched in the terms of Fodor’s ‘Representational Theory of Mind’ (RTM) and is, initially at least, restricted to primitive, that is non-definable, concepts.
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. [ibid: 137-8]
And hence, he argues, no primitive concepts can be learnt. (He goes on to lift this restriction but I will ignore that move here.)
Fodor’s RTM is implicit in the way he sets out the third stage: that a token of the concept is a constituent of the belief about the extension of the concept. This reflects his idea that concept possession is explained by inner vehicles of content: mental representations. But even without RTM, it is plausible to argue that the capacity to have such a belief – however realised – presupposes possession of the concept, ascribed at the level of the person, and so the argument floats free of Fodor’s particular views.
The principled problem of describing a process of concept learning from an anti-reductionist perspective and Fodor’s specific argument that concept learning is impossible presents a two-fold challenge. Can Fodor’s argument be blocked and if so can the materials used to do that shed light on concept learning even from an anti-reductionist perspective?
Ground rules
In what follows, I will make two substantial but related assumptions. First, that concept learning is normative. Second, that it is, in some sense, a rational process.
The view that concept learning is normative might follow from the view that concept use is normative. Such a view has been espoused by Blackburn, McDowell and others. But it has recently been contested by philosophers also responding to Kripke’s argument for meaning scepticism which starts – or, at least, seems to start – by assuming that meaning is normative and then using this to undermine its factual base. McDowell’s response is to agree that the claim that meaning is normative is itself philosophically innocuous and thus seek to show how that escapes Kripke’s argument. Anti-normativists such as Hattiangadi agree that meaning is connected to a notion of correctness but deny that correctness need be a normative notion. For example if R states a rule for the correct use of a term t which applies in virtue of features f
R             (x)(t applies correctly to x ↔ x is f)
then Hattiangadi argues that this ‘simply states the correctness conditions of an expression; it does not tell me what to do’ [Hattiangadi 2007: 223]. A mere descriptive sorting does not appear to raise the problems for an account for meaning that the claim that it is normative appears to.
One of the key arguments deployed by anti-normativists is that meaning yields no clear prescriptive norm in itself. Correctness conditions, for example, do not prescribe that a true (or more broadly correct) use should be made unless also combined with a prescriptive norm that one ought to speak the truth (or more broadly correctly). And that additional norm seems too strong for specifically semantic normativity.
Nevertheless, however that debate pans out, a rational process of concept acquisition or learning does look to be normative. In this context, correctness conditions are not merely a neutral way of sorting subsequent utterances but rather constitute the aim or goal of developing linguistic competence. (This is not to say that learning must always involve practising with only true utterances, customary though that may be. Parents may, and in my experience often do, teach correct use indirectly be deliberately calling out the wrong names of objects as a kind of game.) If an anti-normativist wishes to argue that the relevant prescriptive ought applies not directly in virtue of the rules of correctness of words but an adoption of those rules as the goal of concept learning, so be it.
The second assumption is that concept learning is, in some sense, a rational process. McDowell calls the acquisition of a first language a matter of being ‘cajoled’ [ibid: 333]. It is possible that being the recipient of such cajoling is not so much a rational response as being brutely changed in such a way that one can become a rational subject and make subsequent rational responses. But I will assume that it is possible to say something about rationality of the proto-linguistic responses of a subject in such a position.
My stalking horse will be Hanna Ginsborg’s account of ‘primitive normativity’.
Ginsborg on primitive normativity
Ginsborg’s account of primitive normativity is – like many of the anti-normativists - designed as a response to Kripke’s meaning scepticism [Kripke 1982]. As Ginsborg interprets the dialectic, Kripke assumes that grasp of what one meant by a word in the past sets the standard for the correctness of one’s current use of it. Part of what justifies giving the answer ‘125’ to the question of what ‘57 plus 68 equals’ is what one has previously meant by ‘plus’. Kripke then mounts a sceptical attack on how we can now know what we did earlier mean. Perhaps by ‘plus’ we really meant quus which tracks the plus function for past usage but not the two current numbers.
In response, Ginsborg denies that to claim that one ought to say ‘125’ one needs first to establish that one previously meant addition. That one ought to say ‘125’ is independent of any assumption about past meanings. She claims: ‘I maintain that there is a sense in which you ought to say “125,” given the finite list of your previous uses, independent of what meaning, if any, those uses expressed’ [Ibid: 232-3]. Given this context, ‘primitive normativity’ is a normativity independent of, and prior to, grasp of meaning. It is located below the level of facts about meaning though still irreducibly normative. She sets out an example of a child who is able to recite numerals and has learnt to count up in twos conuting from ‘40’ with ‘42’. Ginsborg characterises a conceptual-normativist account of the child’s saying ‘42’ as follows:
[T]he child says “42” after “40” because she recognizes, although without being able to put that recognition into words, that she has been adding two and that 40 plus two is 42. Her sense of the appropriateness of what she is saying thus derives from her recognition that it fits the rule she was following: a rule which she grasps, even though she is unable to articulate it. [ibid: 238]
On this higher level view, the correctness of the move – saying ‘42’ – depends on gasping a rule governing it. Primitive normativity involves less than that. But, at the same time, it involves more than the merely reliable dispositional reactions of a suitable trained parrot. By contrast with such a parrot, that the child does not respond ‘blindly’ to her circumstances.
Even though she does not say “42” as a result of having grasped the add-two rule, nor a fortiori of having “seen” that 40 plus two is 42, she nonetheless “sees” her utterance of “42” as appropriate to, or fitting, her circumstances. [ibid: 237]
So even though the child lacks full blown conceptual mastery, she has a sense of appropriateness, fitting or belonging which merits the label ‘normativity’. The parrot lacks any such sense and hence is merely governed by dispositions not norms.
Ginsborg gives a second example of the kind of middle level behaviour. She describes a child sorting coloured objects before she has acquired determinate colour concepts.
As she puts each green object in the designated box, it is plausible that she does so with a sense that this is the appropriate thing to do. She takes it that the green spoon “belongs” in the box containing the previously sorted green things and that the blue spoon does not, just as the child in the previous example takes 42 and not 43 to “belong” after 40 in the series of numerals. But her sense of the appropriateness of what she is doing does not, at least on the face of it, depend on her taking what she is doing to accord with a rule which she was following, for example, the rule that she is to put all the green things in the same box. For her grasp of such a rule would presuppose that she already possesses the concept green. [ibid: 235]
There are two sorts of general consideration to support the idea of some sort of primitive normativity. One relates to Ginsborg’s specific dialectical context. Mere dispositions will not provide a satisfactory response to Kripke’s sceptical argument whilst full blown conceptual normativity will be vulnerable to his original argument. (This is not to say that these are clear cut but they provide a rationale for attempting to articulate a middle ground.)
The other relates back to Fodor’s argument. Mere dispositions seem to leave too much of a gap still to cross to explain how a dispositional stage might be an intermediary en route to conceptual mastery. By contrast, invoking full blown conceptual mastery to characterise the counting child is to provide no answer to the question how basic concepts can be learnt.
Nevertheless, there are two options for characterising primitive normativity based on two distinct things Ginsborg says. She says of the counting child both that:
1: ‘she lacked any conception of what her saying “42” after “40” had in common with her having said “40” after “38”’ [ibid: 234 italics added]
but also:
2: ‘it seems plausible to imagine her insisting, with no less conviction than a child who was able to cite the add-two rule, that “42” was the right thing to say after “40”: that it “came next” in the series, or “belonged” after 40, or “fit” what she had been doing previously’ [ibid: 234 italics added]
The former states that the counting child has no conception of what one move has in common with a previous move. The second allows for the possibility of some conception that the next move fits or belongs (ie does have something in common) with the previous one in context. The latter allows for a conception albeit a local one. Which does Ginsborg hold?
‘No conception’ primitive normativity
There is reason to think Ginsborg believes in the more radical, minimal version. One suggestive passage runs:
The utterance, from [the counting child’s] point of view, is not appropriate to the context in virtue of its conforming to a general rule which the context imposed on her, for example, the add-two rule. Rather, she takes it to be appropriate to the context simpliciter, in a way which does not depend for its coherence on the idea of an antecedently applicable rule to which it conforms. [ibid: 234-5]
Now one way to interpret the phrase ‘antecedently applicable rule’ is a context-independent general specification of a rule. In the context of a mathematical series, that is a plausible way of cashing out full blown conceptual normativity. And hence its rejection might allow for a merely demonstratively specified local conception of the demands of a rule. On this alternative view, whilst the child does not have a general conception of what it is to add two, cannot grasp its relation to other aspects of arithmetic for example, she can, nevertheless, recognise in some particular context that saying ‘42’ is the right move.
But the phrase ‘antecedently applicable rule’ might equally be taken to mean, and hence to rule out, any conception of a rule. If so, the context imposes a sense of what move belongs with previous moves, of what next move is right, independently of any conception the child has of what she is doing. The way the quotation continues adds to this latter impression:
This is not to deny that the normativity depends on any facts about the context, since the appropriateness of “42” depends on her having recited that particular sequence of number words. But it is to deny that her claim to the appropriateness of “42” depends on her recognition of a rule imposed by the context in virtue of the relevant facts, or a fortiori on her recognition of “42” as a correct application of the rule. [ibid: 235]
This suggests a picture according to which facts about the context external to the child’s conception of the demands of the rule nevertheless make normative demands on her. The context of having counted up to 40 makes saying ‘42’ appropriate independently of her conception of what she is doing. ‘42’ belongs to what has gone before, is thus normatively connected to it, but she does not recognise that this is the demand that the rule makes in the context.
A second passage provides a distinct argument for the ‘no conception’ view of primitive normativity on the assumption that even a local conception of what the next move is requires some grasp that this is relevantly the same as previous moves.
[T]he child’s recognition of similarity is not sufficient to account for her taking herself to be going on appropriately. She must not merely take herself to be going on the same way; she must also take it that going on the same way is the appropriate thing to do in the context, which is to say that she must grasp a rule with a content like go on the same way or do the same thing you were doing before. We are thus left with the problem of how to account for her grasp of this rule... [ibid: 240]
The argument is that grasp of sameness is insufficient for knowing how to continue. One would need to grasp the further rule that one should go on in the same way, that this is what the relevant normative demand is.
There is something to this worry. There seems little prospect of factoring grasp of a rule into grasp of sameness plus grasp that sameness is what one ought to aim at. Wittgenstein stresses that agreement is internal and relative to the particular rule [cf Wittgenstein 1953 §224]. Thus grasp of the rule and grasp of what agrees with it and hence what is relevantly the same in virtue of according with the rule goes hand in hand.
But this point applies equally to what Ginsborg does make explicit: that the child grasps that the next move fits, belongs or is appropriate to the context. Those notions are equally insufficient for going on correctly. (A rule could dictate that the next move should stand out from, rather than fitting, what has gone before.)
It seems on balance, however, that Ginsborg does subscribe to a minimal ‘no conception’ version of primitive normativity (I will return to a further strategic reason why this is so shortly). Further, she seems not to be alone. In a passage in which she discusses how little may be necessary for rule following, Julia Tanney considers the conceptual possibility of rule following without the ability to cite higher level rules, or to repeat the performance or without training. She comments:
[I]f we agree with the thought that someone might be able to solve Rubik’s Cube even if she had never been trained by anyone, then this gives us a reason to reject the idea that there must be an internal connection between the rules that govern an activity and the individual who makes the moves. We can say that it is sometimes enough to credit someone with playing the game if she acts in accordance with the rules. Knowledge (implicit or otherwise) has dropped out of the picture. To insist that someone cannot solve the puzzle unless she somehow conceives the rules (even if she cannot articulate them, even to herself) and acts in the light of her conception of the rules is simply dogmatic. What would justify such insistence? If this person were suddenly entered in a contest and produced the cube with the colours in the right places, we would not withhold the prize because she merely acted in accordance with, but did not follow, the rules. Acting in accordance with the rules is solving the puzzle in certain cases. [Tanney 2013: 85-6]
On this account, having rejected a number of potentially necessary substantial claims as in fact unnecessary for rule following, Tanney concludes that, in the right context, mere accord with a rule constitutes rule following. Further, this does not seem to be merely a claim about the epistemology of the ascription of rule following – which, indeed, in the right context, apparent accord warrants the further ascription of intentional rule following – since Tanney connects it to the rejection of an internal connection between rules and agent. An epistemological interpretation, by contrast, is consistent with maintaining that accord in performance is evidence for such a connection, amounting to the grasp of the rule by the agent. Instead, and in response to a number of bogus explanations of rule following which fail because they presuppose precisely the abilities they purport to explain, Tanney offers a kind of deflationary approach. The failure of cognitivist explanations of rule following leads to a rejection of cognition. ‘To insist that someone must conceive the rules somehow – even if what it would be for her to conceive these rules is inaccessible to us – is misguided; it fails to explain anything’ [ibid: 86].
Despite this support, the ‘no conception’ version of primitive normativity faces a key objection. It severs the connection between primitively rule-governed behaviour and intentional action and the blurs the distinction between mere accord with a rule and intentionally following it. It is this distinction which marks the difference between a merely dispositional parrot, whose behaviour may accord with a rule available to a third person description, and a human subject with some sense of her new moves fitting or belonging with what went before, some sense of normative correctness.
But there is no need to get into such difficulty if the aim is merely to fit an intuitive description of the phenomenology of the child’s early performance in, as we might say, counting in twos or grouping by colour. The middle ground between dispositional accord with a rule and full-blown conceptual normativity is not the primitive normativity of someone with no conception of what she is doing but with a merely local conception. Such a conception is not tied to the local context of counting or sorting objects brutely or merely externally in virtue of an ascription of rule-accord by an observer. Rather, it is expressed by the demonstrative judgements of the child and her capacity to demonstrate and explain by example what fits with what she has been doing.
This idea runs counter to one of Ginsborg’s explicit claims: ‘I maintain that there is a sense in which you ought to say “125,” given the finite list of your previous uses, independent of what meaning, if any, those uses expressed’ [Ibid: 232-3 italics added]. On the local conception this is wrong. Correctness is tied via a local conception to what a speaker’s past utterances expressed even if the speaker is unable to offer a context-independent linguistic codification of her actions as instances of following the plus-two rule or the sorting of green objects. Her conceiving of her actions might not extend very far up the natural numbers (eg beyond 100) or to cover darker or lighter shades of green (by contrast with the vivid colours of children’s toys). So it is potentially doubly local: expressible only in some particular context of practical demonstration (by contrast with context-free linguistic codification) and covering only some particular instances and thus not actually extensionally equivalent to our concepts of plus two, or green but rather a primitive version of them.
I suggested that there is a further strategic reason why this view is unavailable to Ginsborg. She deploys the idea of primitive normativity as a novel response to Kripke’s sceptical argument. Her aim is to sidestep the arguments Kripke deploys against any justification one can currently offer for knowing what one meant in the past by one’s words, thus to undermine a standard of correctness for current use. Primitive normativity has, for those strategic purposes, thus to be independent of any conceptual conception. A local conception is, however, a form of conceptual conception and its expression in a pattern past, finite examples is just as much subject to Kripke’s argument as a full blown linguistic concept. That is to say, that is not part of a new defence of meaning against Kripke’s argument.
‘Local conception’ primitive normativity and language learning
Primitive normativity guided by a local conception of what a speaker is doing promises a partial answer to the initial two-fold challenge of describing language learning. One aspect of Fodor’s challenge was to sketch a rational mechanism for concept acquisition (hence learning). On the assumptions that a) the only plausible option is hypothesis formation and testing and b) hypothesis formation presupposes the very conceptual mastery in question, no rational mechanism seems possible.
Primitive normativity guided by and expressive of a local conception is a plausible intermediary between mere dispositional accord with rules and full blown linguistic mastery. The intermediate stage involves testing the hypothesis that a new linguistic concept expresses a content previously grasped in some local demonstrative manner. As suggested above, the grasp of a full blown linguistic concept may requires the piecemeal extension of a more primitive, merely local conception of a rule. But there may be some gradations of understanding between having no and a first language.
Of course, the very idea of an essentially situation-dependent conceptual understanding does not fit within the basic idea of Fodor’s representational theory of mind according to which content always has an inner vehicle. So no such middle ground is available to Fodor himself. Thus for anyone uneasy with Fodor’s innativism, his argument against language learning remains a powerful reductio of his representationalism. But the idea does provide a way to address the version of his argument mentioned at the start framed in terms of prior concept possession but agnostic about Fodor’s account of inner vehicles.
What of anti-reductionism? A local conception offers only partial progress here. By contrast with Ginsborg’s own account of primitive normativity, the idea that normativity always presupposes that the subject has some albeit local conception according to which she acts provides no middle ground between the ‘space of reasons’ and the ‘realm of law’ or the ‘manifest image of man in the world’ and the ‘scientific image’. Even a local conception belongs in the space of reasons or the manifest image. So it cannot be part of a route into those spaces from without. But it does help put a little flesh on the bones of the idea that ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’.
‘The whole’ need not merely be understood to be the gradual acquiring of a world view, as Wittgenstein describes in On Certainty (from where the phrase comes) [Wittgenstein 1969 §141]. It can also include mastery of primitive albeit still conceptually structured rules. This is no account of how conceptual normativity can be bootstrapped from non-conceptual dispositions but does suggest how more complex and abstract concepts cane be developed from more primitive local forms.
Fodor, J. (2008) LOT2: The language of thought revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ginsborg, H. (2011) ‘Primitive Normativity and Skepticism about Rules’ The Journal of Philosophy 108: 227-254
Hattiangadi, A. (2006) Oughts and Thoughts: Rule-Following and the Normativity of Content. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kripke, S. (1982) Wittgenstein on rules and private language. Oxford: Blackwell
McDowell, J. (1998) Meaning knowledge and reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tanney, J. (2013) Rules, Reason and Self Knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Wittgenstein, L. (1969) On Certainty. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.