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Concept innatism II: the case of substance Michael Lacewing

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1 Concept innatism II: the case of substance Michael Lacewing

2 Concept innatism Some of our concepts are innate Concept empiricism: all our concepts are derived from experience. ‘Innate’: some concepts are somehow part of the structure of the mind rather than being gained through experience.

3 On substance How do we gain a concept of SUBSTANCE? –Substance: one and the same thing, persisting through change, possessing properties. We have concepts of two kinds of substance, physical (PHYSICAL OBJECT) and mental (MIND) –Perhaps I gain the concept of MIND from reflection – experiencing myself as a substance.

4 Descartes’ wax argument What is my concept of a physical object, e.g. a piece of wax? When I melt a piece of wax, it loses all of its original sensory qualities (the particular taste, smell, feel and shape it has). Yet I believe it is the same wax. Therefore, what I think of as the wax is not its sensory qualities. What I think is the wax is what remains through the changes of its sensory qualities.

5 Descartes’ wax argument This is a body, something that is extended – i.e. has size and shape and takes up space – and changeable, i.e. its sensory and spatial properties can change. I know that the wax can undergo far more possible changes, including changes in its extension, than I can imagine. Therefore, my concept of the wax as extended and changeable does not derive from my imagination (and therefore it does not derive from perceptual experiences).

6 Descartes’ wax argument Therefore, I ‘perceive’ (comprehend) the wax as what it is (as opposed to its sensory qualities) by my mind alone. Only this thought of the wax, and not the perceptual experience of it, is clear and distinct. The wax that I comprehend in judgment is the same wax presented in sensory images.

7 PHYSICAL OBJECT as innate Descartes is not asking how he knows that the wax exists; he wants to understand the concept of it as a physical object. He has argued that the concept does not derive from sense experience. It must therefore be part of the understanding – it is innate.

8 Objection Descartes identifies physical objects as extended –The concept of EXTENSION must derive, by abstraction, from vision and touch. Berkeley: the concept PHYSICAL OBJECT is inherently confused (rather than innate).

9 Hume on substance PHYSICAL OBJECT: concept of something independent of experience, existing in three-dimensional space. But I can’t have an experience of something existing independently of experience –Two experiences of the ‘same’ thing, e.g. a desk, are very similar; but I can’t infer that they are two experiences of the same thing, which existed between the two experiences –Qualitative identity is not quantitative identity.

10 Hume on substance The concept PHYSICAL OBJECT results from confusing similarity with identity –It is the result of the imagination –So although it is not derived from experience in one sense, it is not innate. Objection: Hume’s theory makes our common-sense view of the world wrong –We have no reason to think physical objects exist.

11 The origin of concepts If PHYSICAL OBJECT is innate, how did it come to be part of the mind? Evolution has prepared our minds to form an understanding of the world in terms of mind-independent physical objects –It is genetically encoded that we will develop the concept at a certain point in cognitive development under certain conditions –Developmental psychologists identify the concept of ‘object permanence’ emerging at 3–4 months.


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