Representational Development Need Not Be Explicable-By-Content

  • Nicholas SheaEmail author
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 376)


Fodor’s radical concept nativism flowed from his view that hypothesis testing is the only route to concept acquisition. Many have successfully objected to the overly-narrow restriction to learning by hypothesis testing. Existing representations can be connected to a new representational vehicle so as to constitute a sustaining mechanism for the new representation, without the new representation thereby being constituted by or structured out of the old. This paper argues that there is also a deeper objection. Connectionism shows that a more fundamental assumption underpinning the debate can also be rejected: the assumption that the development of a new representation must be explained in content-involving terms if innateness is to be avoided.

Fodor has argued that connectionism offers no new resources to explain concept acquisition: unless it is merely an uninteresting claim about neural implementation, connectionism’s defining commitment to distributed representations reduces to the claim that some representations are structured out of others (which is the old, problematic research programme). Examination of examples of representational development in connectionist networks shows, however, that some such models explain the development of new representational capacities in non-representational terms. They illustrate the possibility of representational development that is not explicable-by-content. Connectionist representations can be distributed in an important sense, which is incompatible with the assumption of explanation-by-content: they can be distributed over non-representational resources that account for their development. Rejecting the assumption of explanation-by-content thereby opens up a more radical way of rejecting Fodor’s argument for radical concept nativism.


Conceptual development Nativism Connectionism Parallel distributed processing Representational development 



The author would like to thank the follow for generous comments: David Braddon-Mitchell, Steve Butterfill, Nick Chater, Martin Davies, Jerry Fodor, Paul Griffiths, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Richard Holton, Matteo Mameli, David Papineau, Gualtiero Piccinini, Kim Plunkett, Paul Smolensky, Mark Sprevak, Scott Sturgeon; the referees and audiences in Melbourne, Oxford and Sydney.


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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.King’s College LondonLondonUK

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