This powerfully iconoclastic book reconsiders the influential nativist position toward the mind. Nativists assert that some concepts, beliefs, or capacities are innate or inborn: "native" to the mind rather than acquired. Fiona Cowie argues that this view is mistaken, demonstrating that nativism is an unstable amalgam of two quite different--and probably inconsistent--theses about the mind. Unlike empiricists, who postulate domain-neutral learning strategies, nativists insist that some learning tasks require special kinds of skills, and that these skills are hard-wired into our (...) brains at birth. This "faculties hypothesis" finds its modern expression in the views of Noam Chomsky. Cowie, marshaling recent empirical evidence from developmental psychology, psycholinguistics, computer science, and linguistics, provides a crisp and timely critique of Chomsky's nativism and defends in its place a moderately nativist approach to language acquisition. Also in contrast to empiricists, who view the mind as simply another natural phenomenon susceptible of scientific explanation, nativists suspect that the mental is inelectably mysterious. Cowie addresses this second strand in nativist thought, taking on the view articulated by Jerry Fodor and other nativists that learning, particularly concept acquisition, is a fundamentally inexplicable process. Cowie challenges this explanatory pessimism, and argues convincingly that concept acquisition is psychologically explicable. What's Within? is a clear and provocative achievement in the study of the human mind. (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.
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)
Based on lectures developed for an audience ignorant of analytic thought, Carruthers’s clearly and elegantly written book introduces many central issues in modern philosophy, including knowledge, justification, truth, the a priori, Platonism, learning, the evolution of mind, explanation. Its organizing principle being the rationalist-empiricist controversy from the 1700s onwards, it also offers an intriguing reinterpretation of that debate and mounts a lively defense of a hybrid position that eschews the a priori while allowing the existence of innate mental structure. Carruthers’s (...) work is thus in the best tradition of philosophical writing, instructing the novice while engaging the expert. (shrink)
Recent years have seen a renewal of the perennial debate concerning innate ideas: Noam Chomsky has argued that much of our knowledge of natural languages is innate; Jerry Fodor has defended the innateness of most concepts. ;Part One concerns the historical controversy over nativism. On the interpretation there developed, nativists have defended two distinct theses. One, based on arguments from the poverty of the stimulus, is a psychological theory postulating special-purpose learning mechanisms. The other, deriving from arguments entailing that learning (...) from experience is impossible, is the meta-psychological view that we can hope for no real explanation of how learning occurs. ;In Part Two, the views of contemporary nativists are discussed against this background. Fodor's claim that our concepts are 'triggered' rather than 'learned' provides no account of concept-acquisition. Instead, it expresses his view that concept-acquisition resists any psychological explanation. But while 'brute-causal' interaction with the world may be necessary to the fixation of reference--and hence to the attainment of concepts--it is insufficient. Mind-world interaction is 'cognitively mediated' and it is in explaining the nature of this mediation that psychology will play a role. ;Chomsky holds that we have a special-purpose faculty for learning language. His 'a posteriori' arguments from the poverty of the stimulus, being based on unsubstantiated empirical claims about the pld and the course of learning, are rejected. Another 'a priori' argument exists, however, involving only the general observation that since the pld contain little information about what is not a sentence, a special mechanism is required to prevent overgeneration. But negative data are lacking in every learning domain. So since it is implausible that all learning requires special faculties, there must be a general-purpose strategy that can skirt the 'negative evidence' problem. Whether it is used for language-learning remains moot. But what really motivates the Chomskian is his awe at what children achieve, namely, 'cognizance' of a grammar. Grammars prove, however, to be 'psychologically real' in such a weak sense that the phenomena of language mastery provides little grist to the nativist's mill. (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)
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)
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)