My most recent blog ‘Hurford: Frogs, Flies, Dennett and Fodor’ discussed what I thought were some weakness in Hurford’s discussion of the proto-concepts of frogs. In a response to my blog linguist and philosopher Dr David Pereplyotchik (hence forth David P) offered some criticisms which warrant a detailed discussion as they help clarify my position. I will first discuss a criticism made by David P which I am in agreement with; this criticism reveals some sloppy thinking on my part. Now while a blog isn’t held to the same standards as a peer reviewed paper there is no excuse for the sloppy thinking in this case and I am grateful to David P for pointing it out to me:

David K.

“But talk of meaningful percepts is out of place in both cases. With this in mind one wonders why Hurford speaks of the frog having meaningful percepts this implies conscious awareness of the black dots.”

David P.

“Why would working at the personal level require recognizing only conscious awareness?  Why not just awareness, conscious or otherwise?  Are you assuming that nonconscious awareness is an oxymoron?  Or that it must be sub-personal?  Neither of those assumptions are defensible.”

David K:

“I think you have a point I did presume that personal level descriptions involve conscious awareness. This is unjustified and I will need to rework it.”

David P:

“A lot of people think that personal/sub-personal lines up with conscious/nonconscious and with occurrent/dispositional.  But there are counterexamples to all these claims.  Thoughts and perceptions are personal-level states, but routinely occur nonconsciously, as priming experiments and implicit bias experiments reveal.”


David P’s criticism here was correct; I did incorrectly line up the conscious/nonconscious and the occurrent/dispositional distinctions. This is a pretty elementary mistake by me. As David P correctly notes we often attribute non-conscious thought to people in both experimental and practical areas of discourse. As a guy who has studied Psychoanalysis, Neuropsychoanalysis, and Cognitive Science I should not have made the mistake of assuming that personal level ascriptions are always conscious as opposed to unconscious or nonconscious thoughts. Our folk psychological locutions often make use of unconscious thoughts in explanations[1].

However my sloppy use of language aside I do think that Hurford needs to be clear of what level he is giving his description of the frog’s behaviour at. When Hurford speaks of a frog having a meaningful percept of a fly, he seems committed to viewing the frog’s behaviour in intentional terms; he is using the language of beliefs/desires (whether conscious or unconscious beliefs and desires). He is speaking of the intentional object of the frog’s fly snap being a fly. I see no reason why Hurford thinks that an intentional as opposed to a pure reflex explanation is required. I further do not understand why, even if we did offer an intentional explanation, we would need to assume that the intentional object of the snap was a Fly as opposed to an Ambient Black Nuisance. So in short I don’t think that Hurford justified switching to an intentional locution, nor did he justify the intentional object he claims the frog is aiming at. This is a pretty serious situation. Hurford uses the frog’s proto-concepts as a foundation in his explanation of how concepts arrived on the scene, and how language evolves. So I think he needs to clear up this matter before moving on to an explanation of complex conceptual abilities.

David P also criticised some other claims I made. I will discuss these criticisms below as I think they help clarify my position. Here I think the fault lies with my unclear mode of expression as opposed to my making a mistake in my criticism of Hurford. In my blog I made the following claim which David P disagreed with:

David K:

“When one hears that a frog has a percept of a fly one thinks of a frog forming a meaningful image of a fly. This image is meaningful because it moves a certain way has a certain shape and size etc”

David P:

“This is bizarre, on two counts.  (1) The frog is perceiving the fly, not an image of the fly.  The frog wants to eat the fly, not an image of a fly.  (2) The fly moves and has a shape.  That’s obvious.  Does the image move and have a shape?  Not so obvious. You seem to be relying on a veil-of-ideas view of perception, on which perceiving the material world can only be done via a prior awareness of some mental representation (e.g., an image).  There’s no reason to hold this.  The presence of a mental representation is sufficient; one need not be, in addition, aware of it. You’re also endowing those representations with properties like shape and motion, which they could not plausibly have — particularly if those representations are neurally encoded. Why not say instead that what the frog perceives is the fly, but that how it does so is by using mental representations (of which it need not be aware)?”

David K:

“The frog wants to eat a fly not an image of a fly” You are just helping yourself to pre-theoretic intuitions that the fly can make that distinction. There is no evidence that this is the case. You are helping yourself to a view that no evidence supports.”

David P:

“I didn’t intend to take a stand on whether the frog wants to eat a fly or a small moving black dot.  Whether the frog can make that distinction is, I agree, an interesting question.  What I was saying was that whatever it is that the frog wants to eat, it’s not a mental image.  The reason is that the frog has no concept of mental images.  There is no behavioural or neural evidence that the frog is ever aware of mental images.  There may be evidence, of course, that the frog has such images–i.e., that the format of its representation is (sometimes) imagistic, but that’s a very different claim.  Having a mental image is not the same as being aware of that image, or perceiving it, let alone wanting it. Unless, of course, you assume that all mental images must be conscious, but there is abundant reason to believe that this is not so.”

David K:

I am not presupposing the truth of a veil of ideas theory of perception. Nothing I said indicates this.”

David P.

“You said that when we talk about the frog having a percept of a fly, it’s natural to think that the frog is perceiving a mental image.   This is precisely the veil of ideas view, according to which perceiving a material mind-independent object (e.g., a fly) requires/involves perceiving a mental image.  Perhaps you did not intend this, but your language certainly points in that direction.”


Firstly, contrary to what I said in my reply to David P, my mode of expressing myself did indicate that I was endorsing a veil of ideas view perception. This was not however my intention. The point I intended to make was that people in general pre-theoretically make this veil of ideas assumption (not that I endorse the assumption)[2]. So given the fact that this veil of ideas approach is common it is a natural way to interpret what Hurford may mean by claiming that a frog has a meaningful percept of a fly[3]. In David P’s reply to me he makes the point that the frog wants to eat the fly not the image of a fly. I replied to him that we have no evidence that the frog had a concept of a fly so it would be bizarre to attribute the desire to eat a fly to a frog. He said he didn’t want to take a stand on the frog versus ambient black nuisance issue. He was just arguing that there was no behavioural or neural evidence that the frog had a mental image of a fly. But my point, (admittedly badly expressed), was that there is no evidence that a frog has a mental image of a fly or concept of fly, or a concept of an ambient black nuisance. We can explain the frog’s behaviour entirely interms of unconscious, non-intentional reflexes. It is unclear to me at least why Hurford starts talking of frog proto-concepts, and meaningful percepts of flies. This is why I discussed the debate with Dennett and Fodor on the fly swatting issue. I sided with Dennett’s conception of the selective environment as opposed to some frog mentalese deciding on this issue what the fly was swatting at. I am unclear what Hurford thinks is going on with the frog.

A further issue David P disagreed  with me on was on the nature of phenomenology:

David K:

“You are right representations don’t have shape and motion at the sub-personal level but they can do at the personal level as can be seen by analysing the phenomenology; if you want to ignore the phenomenology that is fine, but the issue needs to be addressed  and Hurford doesn’t address it explicitly. But he needs to.”

David P:

“They don’t have those properties at any level.  They are neural states and processes, which are not the sorts of things that can have those properties.  Perhaps they have analogous or structurally similar properties, but that’s a very different sort of claim. I do not intend to ignore the phenomenology.  Focusing on one’s conscious perceptual states does not reveal them to have colour or shape.  It reveals them as representing colour and shape, and perhaps as having properties by means of which that representation is accomplished.  But my perceptual states are not red, in the way that a tomato is red. Again, though, you’re right that Hurford needed to be clearer.  No doubt about that.”

Again in my haste here I didn’t write as clearly in reply to David P as I should have. I argued that at the personal level people have representations of movement and shape. This was way too vaguely put by me. If I want to generalise as to what people experience at the personal level I will need to provide statistical evidence of their verbal reports in both experimental and naturalistic settings. In my reply I was focusing on a sub-section of the personal level of explanation that of conscious experience. And I made sweeping generalisations about people’s reports on their subjective experiences. This is entirely unjustified. I have long written on the danger of the typical mind fallacy; the fallacy of generalising from your own experiences of mental reality to the claim that all people experience the world this way. People making the typical mind fallacy might think that because they have an inability to form a mental image; other people who speak of having mental images are speaking metaphorically[4].

In my case I wasn’t generalising from my own experiences to the assumption that all people have similar ways of experiencing the world. Rather I was assuming that because a lot of people I have spoken seem to uncritically accept the veil of ideas approach then they would describe their experiences in a similar way to the way I do above. So such people would argue that they experienced mental content of colour, motion etc. This is despite the fact that at the sub-level no such ideas exist.

I should note two things here. (1) A lot of phenomenologists have noted that “the veil of ideas” is not a description of how people actually experience the world but is a theorists claim we have inherited from Descartes and Hume[5]. There is some justification to this claim of phenomenologists and this casts doubt on my claim about how people things at the personal level[6]. (2) If I want to make claims about people’s reports of how they experience the world I need to reference the literature of experimental philosophy. Do people in general report experiencing a veil of ideas with movement or colour, or do they experience representations of movement and colour which are not coloured? Dogmatic claims by me on this topic are out of place. The truth is I haven’t researched the issue sufficiently and will need do further research before commenting further.

When David P says that personal level descriptions do not have properties of movement and colour in general because the neural states and processes are not the sort of things that can have these properties he is making a theoretical claim. I assume he is claiming that there is nothing else for our mental states to be than brain states (unless we want to be dualists). So even if people claim to experience X or Y then if there is no way the brain can implement these experiences then we are justified in treating the person’s verbal report as a theorist’s (inadvertent) fiction. This seems to be a similar view point as the one adopted by Dennett. In a recent mail David P tells me he is influenced by Sellars attack on the myth of the given. So I presume that is why David P won’t accept verbal reports from subjects that contradicts known brain mechanics. I think his approach is a sensible one and I am largely in agreement[7]. What I should have said is that at a personal level people will report experiencing movement and colour in their minds eye[8]. Again this is a lesson on being clearer on what I meant to say and the way that I formulated my view.

In some ways I think that the difficulties I had in discussing the nature of reports of language using subjects views on their own intentional states and conscious experiences underlies the need for clarity in Hurford’s book. Hurford moves to a personal level description of the intentional object of a Frog’s fly snap without any explanation of why this move is justified. I think if his evolutionary explanation of the origin of language is to get off the ground he needs to address this issue before moving on to more complex claims.

Thanks to David P for his helpful criticisms of my last blog. In my next blog I will discuss the following claim by Hurford:

“On the one hand, some, particularly some philosophers, deny non-humans can ever have concepts. For them a concept is essentially bound up with language; only creatures with language, so only humans, can have concepts. This view is now largely eroded.” [9](Hurford: The Origins of Language p.61)

Hurford doesn’t go into the arguments of philosophers who strongly equate having a concept with having a language. In my blog I will present the arguments as put forth by people like Davidson and Brandom and critically evaluate them.

[1][1] David P uses nonconscious as  synonymous with the cognitive scientists unconscious. He doesn’t want to use the word unconscious because of its Freudian connotations. It is worth noting that Neuropsychoanalysts like Mark Solms use the term unconscious in the similar way to modern cog scientists and have dropped the old Freudian view equation of the unconscious with repressed emotion (Freud to be fair did have a concept of the unrepressed unconsciousness which Matte Blanco discusses in detail in his ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’)

[2] Here I am making a claim about how the majority of people interpret the idea of a meaningful percept. The truth is that this claim remains entirely anecdotal. The fact is if I want to justify this claim I will need empirical data. Experimental philosophers are quite good at drawing out what people pre-theoretically believe about the mind. I will need to analyse this data closely to demonstrate that people do indeed presuppose a veil of ideas psychology. On this issue the question is very much open.

[3] It could be argued, that I am being careless in assuming that because it may be the case that people in general make the veil-of-ideas assumption; that Hurford is making the same assumption. A trained scientist will generally have their intuitions to some degree modified by experience. This fact makes it even more difficult to interpret what Hurford means and underlines the need for him to be more explicit of what a “Meaningful Percept” is for him

[4] William James and Francis Galton have both spoken of the dangers of this fallacy. David Berman has demonstrated how the debate between Locke and Berkeley on abstract ideas is because of the different types of mind of both theorists. I have discussed the topic in detail in my  long blog post ‘Dennett and The Typical Mind Fallacy’, and in less detail in my ‘Intellectual Disability and Radical Translation.

[5]  See Evan Thompson ‘Mind in Life” chapter 10 and references there in.

[6] Despite the good work done by a lot of phenomenologists they do not represent the variation in how people report seeing the world in sufficient detail in this authors view.

[7] Obviously this approach is contentious see Evan Thompson, Chalmers, Alva Noe for debates on the topic.

[8] And justified this claim with a corpus analysis of how people actually speak on these topic.


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