Review of What's Within? Nativism Reconsidered [Book Review]

Philosophical Review 110 (1):91-94 (2001)
Fiona Cowie’s _What’s Within_ consists of three parts. In the first, she examines the early modern rationalist- empiricist debate over nativism, isolating what she considers the two substantive “strands” (67)1 that truly separated them: whether there exist domain-specific learning mechanisms, and whether concept acquisition is amenable to naturalistic explanation. She then turns, in the book’s succeeding parts, to where things stand today with these issues. The second part argues that Jerry Fodor’s view of concepts is continuous with traditional nativism in that it precludes a naturalistic story of concept acquisition. Cowie objects, however, to Fodor’s path to this conclusion and thus sees no reason to endorse it. The third part assesses Chomskyan nativism as a contemporary instance of positing domain- specific learning mechanisms. Though she is highly critical of how “poverty of the stimulus” arguments and the like have been used to lend credence to stronger conclusions, she holds that such arguments do indeed support the nativist’s domain-specificity claim. Cowie’s reconsideration of nativism thus limits itself to concepts and language (a few exceptions aside: there are two brief forays into face recognition and a mention of pathogen response). The terrain she does cover, however, is vast; and Cowie’s illuminating discussions will stimulate anyone interested in the area. As I focus on a few large-scale qualms in what follows, let me mention in particular that much of what is of interest in Cowie’s book is to be found in her detailed consideration of specific arguments.
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