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Dogs and Concepts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2012

Alice Crary*
New School for Social Research, New York


This article is a contribution to discussions about the prospects for a viable conceptualism, i.e., a viable view that represents our modes of awareness as conceptual all the way down. The article challenges the assumption, made by friends as well as foes of conceptualism, that a conceptualist stance necessarily commits us to denying animals minds. Its main argument starts from the conceptualist doctrine defended in the writings of John McDowell. Although critics are wrong to represent McDowell as implying that animals are mindless brutes, it is difficult to see what is wrong with this critical unless we depart from McDowell's technical terminology and introduce a notion of a concept flexible enough to apply to the lives of some non-rational animals. The article closes with a discussion of observations that speak for attributing concepts, flexibly understood, to dogs.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2012

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1 Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. A second edition with a new introduction was published in 1996. All references here are to the second edition.

2 See Dreyfus, Hubert, ‘Overcoming the Myth of the Mental’, Proceedings & Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 79 (2005), 4765Google Scholar, esp. 47 and 60–61 and Detachment, Involvement and Rationality: Are We Essentially Rational Animals?’, in Human Affairs 17 (2007) 101109Google Scholar, Gaskin, Richard, Experience and the World's Own Language: A Critique of John McDowell's Empiricism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. Chapter IV, MacIntyre, Alasdair, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1999), esp. 6061 and 69Google Scholar, Vision, Gerald, ‘Perceptual Content’, in Philosophy 73 (1998), 395427, esp. 406 and 420–424CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Wright, Crispin, ‘Human Nature?’, Smith, Nicholas, ed., Reading McDowell: On Mind and World (London: Routledge, 2002), 140173Google Scholar, esp. 147–150 and 163–167.

3 Op. cit., note 1, xi.

4 Ibid., xii.

5 Op. cit., note 1, xiv.

6 For a classic contemporary treatment of these themes, see Strawson, P.F., ‘Imagination and Perception’, Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, 2nd ed., (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008) 5772Google Scholar.

7 See, e.g., McDowell, , ‘Response to Sabina Lovibond’, Lindgaard, Jakob (ed.) John McDowell: Experience, Norm and Nature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008) 234238, esp. 235–237Google Scholar.

8 For passages in which McDowell says that in characterizing perceptual experience as ‘conceptual’ he means that reason is at play in it, see op. cit., note 1, 5, 11–13, 31, 47, 49, 52, 60–1 and 66.

9 Op. cit., note 1, 9, stress in the original; see also 26 and 161.

10 Having the World in View: Essays on Kant, Hegel and Sellars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)Google Scholar, e.g., 10ff. This passage comes from lectures McDowell gave at Columbia University in 1997.

11 See Collins, Arthur, ‘Beastly Experience’ in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58 (1998) 375380CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 This is a central topic of ‘Avoiding the Myth of the Given’ (2008), in Lindgaard, Jakob (ed.) John McDowell: Experience, Norm and Nature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 114CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Op. cit., note 11, 379.

14 Op. cit., note 12, 11–12.

15 McDowell is explicit about this restriction. See op. cit., note 1, 22 and 49–50 and op. cit., note 7, 234–235.

16 In central parts of Mind and World, McDowell formulates this presupposition differently. He speak in reference to the logic of the natural sciences of the ‘realm of law’, apparently thinking of the kinds of law-like, merely causal relations constitutive of explanations in physics (op. cit., note 1, xv), and he says that the presupposition he wants to make is that the intelligibility of the realm of reasons is distinct from that of the realm of law. This formulation takes for granted that talk of ‘the realm of law’ fits all of the natural sciences. More recently, McDowell rejects the idea that the natural sciences have a unified logic, indicating, e.g., that he sympathizes with the view that teleological explanations in biology have a special intelligibility. For McDowell's own remarks on this change in his thought, see ‘Experiencing the World’ and ‘Responses’, Willaschek, Markus (ed.) John McDowell: Reason and Nature: Lecture and Colloquium in Münster 1999 (Münster, Germany: Lit Verlag, 2000), 317Google Scholar and 93–117 and ‘Response to Graham Macdonald’, Cynthia, and Macdonald, Graham (eds.) McDowell and His Critics (London: Blackwell, 2006), 235239Google Scholar.

17 Op. cit., note 1, 64–65, 70–86.

18 Ibid., 36–40 and 89–91.

19 Ibid., 65.

20 Ibid., 78–84, 87–88, 91, 104–105 and 109.

21 I offer a detailed defense of these exegetical claims about McDowell's work in a longer version of the manuscript from which this article is drawn.

22 Op. cit., note 1, 50 and 119.

23 Ibid., 115.

24 For McDowell's remarks on Gadamer, see ibid., 114–115. His remarks draw on Gadamer, Truth and Method, (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1992), 438456Google Scholar.

25 Here he differs, e.g., from Richard Rorty, who moves directly from defending a conceptualist account of the distinctness of human modes of awareness to representing non-human animals as limited to modes of awareness that invite comparison with the functioning of computers and record changers. See Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), 182–6Google Scholar.

26 In note 16, I pointed out that in central passages of Mind and World McDowell characterizes all of the natural sciences as having the same kind of ‘law-like’ intelligibility. Here he leaves no room for the thought that biological categories are logically distinctive and that, when in biology we describe an organism as perceiving its environment and responding to what it perceives, we are concerned with matters that can't adequately be captured in merely causal or mechanistic terms. But, as I also pointed out, in more recent writings he revises his understanding of the logic of the natural sciences in a way that enables him to accommodate a non-reductive account of biology. McDowell is effectively already appealing to such an account in the parts of Mind and World that I am now discussing in which he repudiates an image of non-rational animals as automata.

27 Op. cit., note 1, 182.

28 In suggesting that McDowell has sometimes been unclear, I have in mind passages in his recent papers in which he employs Gadamer's distinction between world and environment in ways that appear to reaffirm the account of non-rational animals he presented in the main text of Mind and World. See, e.g., What Myth?’, Inquiry 50 (2007), 338351CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. 343–344. On a charitable reading, McDowell's point here is not that we should take non-rational animals to be ‘enslaved to biological imperatives’ but only that the characteristically human ways of living he describes as modes of responsiveness to the ‘world’ are special. But a reader might be forgiven for confusion on this point.

29 Op. cit., note 7, 236–237.

30 Ibid., 235.

31 I.e., in a sense that involves the capacity to step back from impulses to believe or do things and ask whether one in fact has a reason to believe or do what one is inclined to.

32 See section 2, above.

33 Op. cit., note 12, 8.

34 Cavell, Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1979), 171Google Scholar.

35 Ibid., 171–172, stress in the original.

36 Ibid., 172.

38 See, e.g., ibid., 170.

39 Ibid., 172.

40 Collingwood, R. G., The Principles of Art (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1958), 227229Google Scholar.

41 One committed conceptualist, viz., Rorty, tries to get us to agree with him that ‘knowledge, awareness, concepts, language, inference, justification and the logical space of reasons all descend on the shoulders of the bright child somewhere around the age of four, without having existed in even the most primitive form hitherto’ (op. cit., note 25, 187).

42 See, e.g., Korsgaard's, Christine remarks on the ‘learning’ of non-human animals, and of dogs in particular, in Self-Constitution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 104105, 109–110 and 113)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Compare Thomas Mann's description of how his dog Bashan behaved when first seeing a man shooting a duck in Bashan (Philadelphia, PA: Pine Street Books), 2003, 236Google Scholar.

44 George Pitcher tells a similar story about how his – older and housetrained – dog Remus protested a strange dog's sojourn in the house by walking up beside the chair in which Pitcher was sitting and ‘empty[ing] his bladder on the rug’ (The Dogs Who Came to Stay (New York, NY, The Penguin Group, 1995), 160)Google Scholar.

45 Op. cit., note 43. The inset quote is from 14. Bashan is described as waiting for Mann at 73–75.

46 (London: Virago Press, 1995), 80–81 and 136–139.

47 (New York, NY: New York Review Books, 1999), 19–20, 110 and 5.

48 Op. cit., note 44, 74–75.

49 Op. cit., note 46, 169–170, 182–183 and 209–210.

50 Op. cit., note 44, 56, 121 and 131.

51 This section's examples tell against the influential case for denying propositional attitudes to animals that Donald Davidson makes in ‘Rational Animals’, Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 95106CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The crux of Davidson's case is an idea of semantic opacity. This is Davidsonian shorthand for the observation that the truth-values of statements attributing propositional attitudes vary when different referring expressions with the same referents are used. (Thus, e.g., while it may be true that my young daughter believes that she has given me a piece of mail, it may also be false, in a case in which the piece of mail is correspondence from the IRS, that she believes that she's given me a bit of tax-related correspondence.) Davidson claims that ascriptions of propositional attitudes to non-rational animals fail to exhibit semantic opacity, and he concludes that we are justified in refusing to attribute propositional attitudes to them. The examples in this section undermine his initial claim. If dogs possess concepts, it is right to describe them as thinking of objects in some ways and not in others. (e.g., it may be both true that my dog believes that he and I are walking on a street and false that he believes that we are walking down a street named after a famous US president, even when we are in fact walking on a street with the name ‘JFK’.) See Finkelstein's, David critique of Davidson's case against animal minds in ‘Holism and Animal Minds’, Crary, Alice (ed.) (Wittgenstein and the Moral Life: Essays in Honor of Cora Diamond (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press), 2007, 251278)Google Scholar.

52 It follows from what I have been saying that there is no reason to antecedently insist that people must be guilty of sentimental projection if they characterize their relationships with particular dogs in moral terms. Think, e.g., of the well-established practice of describing dogs in terms of their loyalty or lack of it. To claim that dogs traffic in concepts in my sense is to characterize them as occupying what might be described as partial stages of rational development, stages distinguished by partial forms of freedom. In cases in which dogs are, e.g., integrated into human household routines, there is no reason to antecedently deny that they have become trustworthy as opposed to merely predictable. That canine behavior may need to be understood in moral terms is a central theme of the writings of the poet and dog-trainer Vicki Hearne. See Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1994)Google Scholar. For a thoughtful commentary on Hearne's work, see Gaita, Raimond, The Philosopher's Dog (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing Company, 2002), 40ffGoogle Scholar.

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