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Perceptual Content and Demonstrative Concepts

Liang, Caleb

It is widely agreed that perceptual experience has representational content- experience represents things in a certain way. Conceptualism, as proposed by John McDowell, is the position that the content of experience is partly constituted by conceptual capacities. In this paper I investigate an important argument against conceptualism-the fineness of grain argument. First, I briefly describe the conceptualist's strategy of using demonstrative concepts to respond to the argument. The core idea is to identify possession of demonstrative concepts with having a kind of recognitional capacity. Then I examine two criticisms against the conceptualist response: (1) Sean Kelly argues that recognitional capacities are constrained by memory, but perceptions are not. One can have perceptual experiences with specific contents without having the relevant demonstrative concepts. More specifically, one can make fine-grained perceptual discriminations but fail to satisfy the re-identification condition for the relevant demonstrative concepts. The content of experience, therefore, cannot be characterized by demonstrative concepts. (2) Richard Heck argues that perceptual experience is explanatorily prior to our possession of demonstrative concepts. It is the having of a certain experience that explains how one comes to have the relevant demonstrative concept, not the other way around. Conceptualism fails to provide a noncircular explanation of the acquisition and the reference of demonstrative concepts.

I propose a low-threshold approach to respond to these criticisms. In reply to Kelly, I argue that if one fails to re-identify a particular shade of color in some particular contexts, it does not follow that one does not have the relevant recognitional capacity. Also, there is actually no sharp distinction between discriminatory and recognitional capacities with regard to the debate. In principle, if discriminatory capacities can be as fine-grained as the content of experience, so can recognitional capacities. If recognitional capacities are considered as conceptual, then discriminatory capacities should be so considered as well. In reply to Heck, I argue that a noncircular explanation of the reference of a demonstrative concept can be given by a version of semantic externalism. Also, the idea of explanatory priority can be accommodated by appealing to the possibility of nonlinguistic innate concepts. Hence, the fineness of grain argument, at least as formulated by Kelly and Heck, has not refuted conceptualism.

I conclude by comparing my approach with McDowell's account of conceptual content. In Mind and World, McDowell advocates a high threshold account of concept possession, according to which only those who are able to engage in active linguistic thinking and to bring their thoughts under rational self-reflection can possess conceptual content. Although not a full defense of the position, what I try to do in this paper is to point out a different direction for conceptualism, according to which it is advisable for the conceptualist to lower the threshold of concept possession.