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Are Animals Capable of Concepts?

Abstract

Often, the behavior of animals can be better explained and predicted, it seems, if we ascribe the capacity to have beliefs, intentions, and concepts to them. Whether we really can do so, however, is a debated issue. Particularly, Donald Davidson maintains that there is no basis in fact for ascribing propositional attitudes or concepts to animals. I will consider his and rival views, such as Colin Allen's three-part approach, for determining whether animals possess concepts. To avoid pure theoretical debate, however, I will test these criteria using characteristic examples from ethology that depict a broad range of animal behavior. This will allow us to detect a series of gradations in animals' capacities, in the course of which we can think over what would count for or against an attribution of concepts and propositional attitudes to them in each single case.

Self-conceit is our natural hereditary disease. Of all creatures man is the most wretched and fragile, and at once the most supercilious. ... It is by this conceit that man arrogates to himself ... divine properties, that he segregates himself from the mass of other creatures and raises himself above them ...

(de Montaigne)

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Stephan, A. Are Animals Capable of Concepts?. Erkenntnis 51, 583–596 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005509828398

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Keywords

  • Propositional Attitude
  • Alarm Call
  • Vervet Monkey
  • Intentional Stance
  • Animal Capable