Skill Learning and Conceptual Thought: Making a Way through the Wilderness
Often, when philosophers want to emphasize the discontinuity between human and animal cognition, they point to the fact that normal, mature, human adults have the capacity to think abstractly, conceptually, fl exibly, and in ways that are not bound to their immediate surroundings. 1 Notably, humans can contemplate the nature of justice, write a poem about a fi ctional character, plan a dinner party, and construct a fi ve-year plan. In a similar spirit, when trying to locate the continuity between the intelligence of human and nonhuman animals, natural-minded philosophers often avoid talking about abstract, conceptual thought, but rather emphasize action, ability, and skill. It is supposed that it is in the practical realm that human animals and creatures lower on the evolutionary ladder might hold something in common. After all, birds build houses and humans build houses. Squirrels can climb trees and humans can climb trees. It is thought that if there is any place where we might be able to locate the natural springs of human intelligence, it will be in the area of intentional action and ability. 2
Contrary to received wisdom, in order to construct an adequate, naturalized theory of higher-order cognition, I suggest that we should look both to the continuity and discontinuity between human and nonhuman animal intelligence in action . That is, I claim that the discontinuity between human and nonhuman animal cognition is not simply realized in the distinction between action and conceptual thought, but rather that there is important discontinuity between human and animal cognition in the realm of practical ability. Crucially, I claim that discontinuity in the realm of action can be explanatorily powerful in providing us with a naturalized account of human cognition. In what follows, I demonstrate how exploring uniquely human skills provides us with the opportunity to construct an intermediate stage of intelligence, which is both naturally grounded and suffi ciently sophisticated to explain some basic features of conceptual thought.