Putting Thoughts to Work: Concepts, Systematicity, and Stimulus-Independence*


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     Thanks to Jake Beck, Peter Godfrey-Smith, John Hawthorne, Susanna Siegel, and Dmitri Tymoczko for extensive discussion. Thanks also to the MBPA discussion group, and to audiences at talks at the University of Maryland and the Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science from which this paper is drawn.


I argue that we can reconcile two seemingly incompatible traditions for thinking about concepts. On the one hand, many cognitive scientists assume that the systematic redeployment of representational abilities suffices for having concepts. On the other hand, a long philosophical tradition maintains that language is necessary for genuinely conceptual thought. I argue that on a theoretically useful and empirically plausible concept of ‘concept’, it is necessary and sufficient for conceptual thought that a thinker be able to entertain many of the potential thoughts produced by recombining her representational abilities apart from a direct confrontation with the states of affairs being represented. Such representational abilities support a cognitive engagement with the world that is flexible, abstract, and active.