Publication Details

Hutto, D. (2013). Doing without concepts. Philosophy in Review, 33 (2), 142-145.

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Philosophy in Review


The title is apt to mislead. This book does not provide an argument for thinking that we live in a world without concepts. At least, it provides no direct argument for believing any such thing. Rather it argues for the elimination of concepts from psychological theorizing on the grounds that concepts are not natural kinds, where natural kinds are understood as classes of things with many properties in common and the source of many successful scientific generalizations. Machery labels this the causal notion of natural kinds. Arguing that concepts are not natural kinds, in the causal sense, the book concludes that positing concepts is unhelpful in the sciences of the mind – viz. doing so is likely to impede psychological theorizing.

Suppose, for a moment, that all of this is conceded. It would be an enormous inferential leap to conclude that we can do without concepts, across the board, from acceptance that concepts should be eliminated from scientific psychology. Justifying that inference would require buying into the idea that science, and only science, tells us what’s what and what there is. Only then would Machery’s conclusion constitute anything like an argument for the elimination of concepts in general. There are hints that Machery is inclined to accept such exclusive scientific realism, given the pride of place he gives to science and the limited role he earmarks for philosophy. Thus the book’s preface briefly mentions his vision of the proper work of philosophy as playing the part of a Lockean underlabourer. Philosophy’s job – perhaps, its only job – is to clear conceptual rubble so as to enable better science and to allow a better understanding of scientific findings.