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Who can think conceptual thoughts?

Elisabeth Camp

Thursday, December 01, 2005, 12:00pm - 07:00pm

Harvard University, Dept. of Philosophy

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A venerable philosophical tradition, stretching back at least to Descartes, claims that only language users can possess concepts.  But this makes conceptual thought out to be an implausibly rarified achievement.  A more recent tradition, based in cognitive science and cognitive ethology, maintains that any creature who can systematically recombine its representational capacities thereby deploys concepts.  But this makes conceptual thought implausibly widespread. I argue for a middle ground: it is sufficient for conceptual thought that one be able to systematically entertain the thoughts produced by recombining one's representational capacities, so long as one can do this apart from a direct confrontation with the states of affairs being represented.  This is theoretically possible, albeit empirically difficult, in the absence of language.

Elisabeth Camp