Thursday, May 19, 2011

consciousness not necessary for concepts

OCBBM | A further major confusion about consciousness is the belief that it is specifically and uniquely the place where concepts are formed. This is a very ancient idea: that we have various concrete conscious experiences and then put the similar ones together into a concept. This idea has even been the paradigm of a slew of experiments by psychologists who thought they were thus studying concept formation.

Max Muller, in one of his fascinating discussions in the last century, brought the problem to a point by asking, whoever saw a tree? “No one ever saw a tree, but only this or that fir tree, or oak tree, or apple tree . . . Tree, therefore, is a concept, and as such can never be seen or perceived by the senses.” [7] Particular trees alone were outside in the environment, and only in consciousness did the general concept of tree exist.

Now the relation between concepts and consciousness could have an extensive discussion. But let it suffice here simply to show that there is no necessary connection between them. When Muller says no one has ever seen a tree, he is mistaking what he knows about an object for the object itself. Every weary wayfarer after miles under the hot sun has seen a tree. So has every cat, squirrel, and chipmunk when chased by a dog. The bee has a concept of. a flower, the eagle a concept of a sheer-faced rocky ledge, as a nesting thrush has a concept of a crotch of upper branch awninged with green leaves. Concepts are simply classes of behaviorally equivalent things. Root concepts are prior to experience. They are fundamental to the aptic structures that allow behavior to occur at all.8 Indeed what Muller should have said was, no one has ever been conscious of a tree. For consciousness, indeed, not only is not the repository of concepts; it does not usually work with them at all! When we consciously think of a tree, we are indeed conscious of a particular tree, of the fir or the oak or the elm that grew beside our house, and let it stand for the concept, just as we can let a concept word stand for it as well. In fact, one of the great functions of language is to let the word stand for a concept, which is exactly what we do in writing or speaking about conceptual material. And we must do this because concepts are usually not in consciousness at all.
7. Max Muller, The Science of Though: (London: Longmans Green, 1887), 78-79. Eugenio Rignano in his The Psychology of Reasoning (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1923), p. 108f., makes a similar criticism to mine.