Two Ways to (Not) Think About Unicorns

Listening back to the discussion Pete and I had, as well as my previous post on this stuff, and something occurred to me. There really are two different ways of thinking about the concept “unicorn”. One way is the way that I have been thinking about it ad that is as a regular natural kind term like ‘horse’, ‘tiger’, etc. Concepts like this, according to me, are best treated along the lines of a causal-historical account like the Kripkean inspired theory that Devitt produced. But there is another way of thinking about unicorn, one that thinks of it as like ‘bachelor’ rather than ‘tiger’. Terms like that are best treated in terms of a conceptual-role theory. So, it is the relations between the concept ‘bachelor’, ‘unmarried’, and ‘male’ that makes my thought that all bachelors are unmarried males true. If one thought about ‘unicorn’ like this, one might think that it is the conceptual relations between ‘unicorn’, ‘horse’, and ‘horn’ have that make it the case that when I am thinking about unicorns I am thinking about horned horses. That is, one might think of the concept ‘unicorn’ as being defined as ‘horse with a horn’. Now, it seems to me that we employ both kinds of representations in thought so then the question becomes one of which kind features in the content of higher-order thoughts. I claim that it is the former and not the latter and that that matters.


3 thoughts on “Two Ways to (Not) Think About Unicorns

  1. I guess this amounts to a positive answer to my question for Pete: Why can’t representations of non-existent things be combinations of parts of representations of several existent things? My thought is inspired by Descartes of all people, who asserts in the first Meditation that we can only imagine things that are combinations of things we’ve actually experienced. So though we might develop our concepts of existent things through a causal historical representational process, to imagine something is to combine aspects of several of stored representations into a seemingly novel one. This is as much true of thinking of a unicorn as it is of thinking of a brown squirrel. In each case I have the requisite representations in reserve to mentally construct the non-existent thing in question.

  2. Ok. I see some possibilities, though I’m not sure which one the HOT theorist would prefer (My intuition is 2), and I should probably read Pete’s article before going further, but what the hell, I’m in a speculative mood, so here goes… 1) Biting the bullet: representation isn’t a relation, but there is relation that sometimes yields representations, though they can have a non-relational source as well. 2) Plato’s 3 Beds Internalized: Representations of non-existent things are actually representations of representations. I.e. representations of parts of representations of existent things (where representations themselves can be said to exist and parts of representations are themselves representations.) 3) Sour Grapes: Thinking of non-existent things is not representation at all, it is some other non-relational mental process.

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