Why We Talk is a complex, ambitious, original, thought-provoking, and sometimes frustrating book. In it, Jean-Louis Dessalles argues that the critical spur to the development of human language—language’s true biological function—was political. It wasn’t political in any of the senses hitherto floated in the literature, though: language didn’t evolve because it fostered group cohesion or cooperation, or facilitated mind-reading or manipulation. Instead, language originally served more or less the same function as ritualized displays of aggression and submission in many social (...) animals: among early Homo (maybe erectus, maybe only sapiens—p. 333), one’s gifts in the area of gab conferred status (recall Socrates’ gripes about the Sophists) and with higher status came, basically, more and better kids, both for the loquacious themselves and for anyone smart enough to ally himself with them. (shrink)
The Architecture of Mind is an ambitious and informative work, surveying an impressive range of empirical literature and arguing that the mind is massively modular. However, it suffers from two major theoretical flaws. First, Carruthers’ concept of a module is weak, so much so that it robs his thesis of massive modularity of any real substance. Second, his conception of how the mind’s modules evolved ignores the role of niche construction and cultural evolution to its detriment.
Hurford's discussion also vindicates the classical empiricist program in semantics. The idea that PREDICATE(x) is the logical form of the sensory representations encoded via the dorsal and ventral streams validates empiricists' insistence on the psychological primacy of sense data, which have the same form. In addition to knowing the logical form of our primitive representations, however, we need accounts of (1) their contents and (2) how more complex thoughts are derived from them. Ideally, our semantic vocabulary would both reflect the (...) psychological “primitiveness” of these representations and make clear how more complex representations derive from them. (shrink)
In his recent book, Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong, Jerry Fodor retracts the radical concept-nativism he once defended. Yet that postion stood, virtually unchallenged, for more than twenty years. This neglect is puzzling, as Fodor's arguments against concepts being learnable from experience remain unanswered, and nativism has historically been taken very seriously as a response to empiricism's perceived shortcomings. In this paper, I urge that Fodorean nativism should indeed be rejected. I argue, however, that its deficiencies are not so (...) obvious that they can simply be taken for granted. Fodor can counter extant objections by stressing two distinctions: between historicist and counterfactual semantic theories and between explaining reference and explaining concept-acquisition. But, I argue, this victory is pyrrhic. Reformulated as objections to his account qua theory of concept-acquisition, and not qua theory of reference, analogous difficulties are fatal to the Fodorean position. (shrink)
Arguments from the Logical Problem of Language Acquisition suggest that since linguistic experience provides few negative data that would falsify overgeneral grammatical hypotheses, innate knowledge of the principles of Universal Grammar must constrain learners hypothesis formulation. Although this argument indicates a need for domain-specific constraints, it does not support their innateness. Learning from mostly positive data proceeds unproblematically in virtually all domains. Since not every domain can plausibly be accorded its own special faculty, the probative value of the argument in (...) the linguistic case is dubious. In ignoring the holistic and probablistic nature of theory construction, the argument underestimates the extent to which positive data can supply negative evidence and hence overestimates the intractability of language learning in the absence of a dedicated faculty. While nativism about language remains compelling, the alleged Logical Problem contributes nothing to its plausibility and the emphasis on the Problem in the recent acquisition literature has been a mistake. (shrink)