Atomic event concepts in perception, action and belief

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Event concepts are unstructured atomic concepts that apply to event types. A paradigm example of such an event type would be that of diaper changing, and so a putative example of an atomic event concept would be DADDY'S-CHANGING-MY-DIAPER.1 I will defend two claims about such concepts. First, the conceptual claim that it is in principle possible to possess a concept such as DADDY'S-CHANGING-MY-DIAPER without possessing the concept DIAPER. Second, the empirical claim that we actually possess such concepts and that they play an important role in our cognitive lives. The argument for the empirical claim has the form of an inference to the best explanation and is aimed at those who are already willing to attribute concepts and beliefs to infants and nonhuman animals. Many animals and prelinguistic infants seem capable of re-identifying event-types in the world, and they seem to store information about things happening at particular times and places. My account offers a plausible model of how such organisms are able to do this without attributing linguistically structured mental states to them. And although language allows adults to form linguistically structured mental representations of the world, there is no good reason to think that such structured representations necessarily replace the unstructured ones. There is also no good reason for a philosopher who is willing to explain the behavior of an organism by appealing to atomic concepts of individuals or kinds to not use a similar form of explanation when explaining the organism's capacity to recognize events. We can form empirical concepts of individuals, kinds, properties, event-types, and states of affairs, among other things, and I assume that such concepts function like what François Recanati calls ‘mental files’ or what Ruth Millikan calls ‘substance concepts’ (Recanati 2012; Millikan 1999, 2000, 2017). To possess such a concept one must have a reliable capacity to re-identify the object in question, but this capacity of re-identification does not fix the reference of the concept. Such concepts allow us to collect and utilize useful information about things that we re-encounter in our environment. We can distinguish between a perception-action system and a perception-belief system, and I will argue that empirical concepts, including atomic event concepts, can play a role in both systems. The perception-action system involves the application of concepts in the service of (often skilled) action. We can think of the concept as a mental file containing motor-plans that can be activated once the individual recognizes that they are in a certain situation. In this way, recognizing something (whether an object or an event) as a token of a type, plays a role in guiding immediate action. The perception-belief system, in contrast, allows for the formation of beliefs that can play a role in deliberation and planning and in the formation of expectations. I distinguish between two particular types of belief which I call where-beliefs and when-beliefs, and I argue that we can model the formation of such perceptual beliefs in nonlinguistic animals and human infants in terms of the formation of a link between an empirical concept and a position on a cognitive map. According to the account offered, seemingly complex beliefs, such as a baby's belief that Daddy changed her diaper in the kitchen earlier, will not be linguistically structured. If we think that prelinguistic infants possess such concepts and are able to form such beliefs, it is likely that adults do too. The ability to form such beliefs does not require the capacity for public language, and we can model them in nonlinguistic terms; thus, we have no good reason to think of such beliefs as propositional attitudes. Of course, we can use sentences to refer to such beliefs, and thus it is possible to think of such beliefs as somehow relations to propositions. But it is not clear to me what is gained by this as we have a perfectly good way to think about the structure of such beliefs that does not involve any appeal to language.
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Archival date: 2020-11-30
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