On Learning New Primitives in the Language of Thought: Reply to Rey


  • Thanks to Georges Rey for many discussions of the points that articulate our debates, to Ned Block and Jake Beck for comments on earlier drafts of this reply to Rey, and to Samuel Guttenplan and a blind reviewer for helpful criticisms and suggestions.


A theory of conceptual development must provide an account of the innate representational repertoire, must characterize how these initial representations differ from the adult state, and must provide an account of the processes that transform the initial into mature representations. In Carey, 2009 (The Origin of Concepts), I defend three theses: 1) the initial state includes rich conceptual representations, 2) nonetheless, there are radical discontinuities between early and later developing conceptual systems, 3) Quinean bootstrapping is one learning mechanism that underlies the creation of new representational resources, enabling such discontinuity. I also claim that the theory of conceptual development developed in The Origin of Concepts addresses two of Fodor's challenges to cognitive science; namely, to show how learning could possibly lead to an increase in expressive power and to defeat Mad Dog Nativism, the thesis that all concepts lexicalized as mono-morphemic words are innate. A recent article by Georges Rey (Mind & Language, 29.2, 2014) argues that my responses to Fodor's challenges fail, because, he says, I fail to distinguish concept possession from manifestation and I do not confront Goodman's new riddle of induction. My response is to show that, and how, new primitives in a language of thought can be learned, that there are easy routes and hard ones to doing so, and that characterizing the learning mechanisms involved is the key to understanding both concept possession and constraints on induction.