Doing Without What’s Within; Fiona Cowie’s Critique of Nativism.
Doing Without What’s Within; Fiona Cowie’s Critique of Nativism.
This is not a cry for help, Lady; this is a stick-up.
(Caption of a New Yorker cartoon)
PROLOGUE: How on earth did this paper get so long?
I started with no goal more ambitious than a critical discussion of Fiona Cowie’s new book about innateness; it seemed to me that her arguments, unless refuted in detail, were likely to affront some or other abstract entity whose cause I favor: The Good, The True, The Beautiful; whatever. But there were so many things that the book struck me as being wrong about that the proposed critique became, in effect, an explication of the kind of nativism I think a rationalist in cognitive psychology should endorse. And the more of that I came to explicate, the more digressions and elaborations suggested themselves. And elaborations of the digressions. And digressions from the elaborations. Things commenced to be out of hand.
A quandary. But one of which an appropriately Gilbertian solution (see `Iolanthe’, Act 2) occurred to me: Construe the project to be mainly an exposition of the kind of nativism that I think a rationalist in cognitive psychology should endorse; and construe the critique of Cowie’s book to be mostly digressions and elaborations. Voila!
The result is before you.
PART 1: Introduction.
Do you want to know how to tell when you have gotten old? It’s when a cyclical theory of history starts to strike you as plausible. It begins to seem that the same stuff keeps coming around again, just like Hegel said. Except that it’s not "transcended and preserved"; it’s just back. So, associationism is back (see Elman et al 1996; for an unsympathetic review, see Fodor 1998b), and likewise the ancient argument about innate ideas. Cowie’s resurrection of the nativism controversy, just when I’d begun to hope that its recent demise might prove permanent, will be the topic in what follows. I’d be glad to report that something new has happened; but, as it turns out, the polemics are almost all familiar. As far as I can tell, it’s just the Eternal Recurrence recurring. I think I must have gotten old.
Cowie claims to rebut arguments for nativism that Noam Chomsky and I have from time to time endorsed. I don’t, in fact, think that she has done so; but then I wouldn’t, would I? Since my sense of what’s the bottom line on all of this is, pretty clearly, preconceived, ---and since I’d guess that yours may be too--- I won’t attempt to change your mind about innateness. But I do want to claim, at length, that if the problems that Chomsky and I have to worry about are only the ones that Cowie’s book raises, then at worst we’re as well off now as we were before she wrote it. Nothing has changed because, quite uniformly, the arguments Cowie has on offer either misconceive the issues or are, in crucial respects, unsound. Or both. So, anyhow, I hope now to convince you.
Cowie’s book has three main sections. The first is her exegesis of considerations that prompt the nativist position (specifically on first language acquisition, but implicitly on cognition at large.) These Cowie takes to be: `Poverty of Stimulus Arguments’ (often herinafter POSAs), and `Impossibility Arguments’ (hereinafter sometimes IAs.) The second and third sections are devoted to criticisms of these arguments, set out in reverse of the order I’ve just mentioned. Except for this reordering, my plan is basically to track the book.
1.1 The polemical situation according to Cowie: Let’s start with a way of viewing the rationalism/empiricism debate that Cowey flirts with but doesn’t in the end endorse; namely "that nativism ---or empiricism, for that matter, is nothing at all… [and] the great controversy over innate ideas is not worth the paper it’s written on… (p. 25)" Eventually Cowie rejects this view since, of course, it can’t both be that the argument about innateness was empty and that the empiricists won it. But Cowie is prone to phrase this `no contest’ reading in ways that suggest invidious asymmetries. For example "The difficulty, in other words, is that the assertion of nativism often seems to be merely the denial of empricism. And if that is so, then nativism is not a theory of the mind at all; it signifies merely our lack of such a theory.(25)". Take home exercise: try rewriting this passage replacing `nativism’ with `empiricism’ and `empiricism’ with `nativism’ throughout. Notice that it works equally well (or badly) either way. That’s because, prior to examining particulars, the polemical situation between rationalists and empiricists is really entirely symmetrical: Nativism is merely the denial of empiricism insofar as we lack a way of saying what `innate’ comes to other than not learned. Likewise, empiricism is merely the denial of nativism insofar as we lack a way of saying what `learned’ comes to other than not innate.
But it doesn’t follow, as Cowie sometimes seems to suppose it must, that empiricism and nativism were tacitly interdefined in the traditional debate; so that, for example, "[the nature/nurture argument] is a battle that is largely fought over, and with, metaphors… [which only] mask the absence of substantive disagreement (17)." It’s worth getting straight, before we plunge into deeper waters, on how the argument could have been fruitful, and the issue substantive (as both clearly were and continue to be) if nobody had any very definite idea what either innateness or learning amounts to.
The metaphors, parade examples, agreed cases and such, in terms of which the issues were largely framed, didn’t "mask" anything; indeed, they were just what made it possible for illuminating discussions to proceed. What happened, unsurprisingly, was that each side elaborated its claims largely by reference to plausible paradigm examples; for the nativists, these included (eg.) bird song, skin color, and the Classical reflex. Their claim was that, when the dust settled, cognition (including learning, perception, memory and thought) would be seen to resemble phenomena like those a lot more than it does such empiricist paradigms as rote learning, verbal association, and the Instrumental reflex. I say this is unsurprising because science often starts in media res, finding out what it’s `really` about as it goes along, thereby discovering the essences of issues.
However, that way of proceeding implies a kind of inductive risk: the danger that the paradigm cases, reference to which defines the common ground of argument, may turn out not to be paradigms of anything. In particular, they may not all exemplify the same natural kind. If so, then the issues have to be framed some other way, or dropped. On both sides of the traditional debate, questions about innateness were widely run together with, for example, questions about a prioricity, necessity, the existence of God and the warrant of moral principles. But despite such conflations, it appears in retrospect that the argument really was about something ---some one thing--- after all: It was about whether there is a characteristic human psychological phenotype (`human nature’ in earlier editions) that can be attributed to a characteristic human genetic endowment.
The constellation of notions that cluster around `genetic determination’, `genome’ `genotype’ and the rest are, to be sure, themselves adequately contentious. But I suppose nobody sensible denies that they are now deeply scientifically entrenched, or that biology is in the process of constructing a concept of genetic specification that is likely to save many of the rationalists’ paradigms. Skin color really is largely innate (/heritable/genetically determined), much as everyone had hazily supposed. Likewise birdsong in a lot of cases; likewise the Babinsky Reflex. And it seems unlikely that the notion of innateness according to which such claims are true will prove dispensable for the larger purposes of biology. Mendel was, presumably, right aboutsomething; presumably what he was right about was the genetic transmission of the phenotypic traits he studied. We have, in short, good reason to take for granted that there’s a substantive notion of innateness because biology needs one however the rationalism/empiricism issue turns out.
I’m going on about this since it’s not at all the view of the polemical situation that Cowie’s exegesis suggests. As she appears to see it, the burden is on nativists to say exactly what doctrine they’re endorsing, thereby avoiding the trivialization of their side of the classical debate. This burden Cowie, in all kindness, offers to take up on the nativist’s behalf; she proposes, as she puts it, to "…find some substance for the nativism debate… to be about. I argue that there are in fact, two substantive issues over which nativists and empiricists clash." The one with which Cowie takes POSAs to be most involved "concerns the natural architecture of the mind: Has nature equipped us with general-purpose, or domain-specifc, learning devices?" The other, which Cowie takes to be what’s at issue in IAs, concerns "the scope [and limits] of natural science: what are our prospects for domesticating the mind and locating it within our overall scientific world view. (26)."
But even this early in the exposition, it seems something has gone badly wrong with Cowie’s geography. For, it’s hard to believe that a serious reconstruction of the argument about whether there are innate ideas could miss the point that it was an argument about whether there are innate ideas; hence, presumably not (or, anyhow, not in the first instance) about whether there are special purpose learning mechanisms, or whether there’s a place for the mind in the scientific world view. These latter issues belong, respectively, to the psychology of learning, and to metaphysics; neither sounds much like asking what ideas are innate. Likewise, as we’ll see presently, neither is what IAs or POSAs are about.
There is also a deeper objection to Cowie’s initial framing of the issues; it’s my excuse for taking this long way `round getting started. Suppose it’s agreed that, as things have turned out, the argument between rationalists and empiricists was `really’ about whether, or to what extent, a species-characteristic human psychological phenotype is genetically specified. That would, as I remarked, vindicate the rationalists’ claim to have all along been holding a substantive view; one that the advance of microbiology now promises to explicate. But no such appeal would vindicate the empiricist side of the debate. So an empiricist still needs what neither Chomsky nor I believe him to have: an independent characterization of "learned"; one that doesn’t amount to just the denial of "innate".
It is, I think, a remarkable feature of Cowie’s exegesis that she never considers the question what, if anything, learning is. To the contrary, remarks like the following are characteristic: "I do not regard it as in any way destructive of my position or arguments… that I do not have on hand any worked-out alternative to the Chomskyan picture of language acquisition (272)" "Humans learn an awful lot, about a bewildering variety of topics… that they can do so… is miraculous and mysterious (216)". Well, Cowie is right that you don’t need a `worked out [empiricism] …on hand’ to deny that nativism is true. But what you do need if you are proposing empiricism as an alternative to nativism (learning as an alternative to innateness) is some reason to suppose that your paradigm cases of learning are indeed mostly paradigms of the same thing. The thoroughly modern rationalist finds in genetics a science where notions like innateness are entrenched. What offers empiricists the corresponding encouragement? There is, after all, no program of research except empiricist psychology that makes play with the notions that cluster around learning. So why (other than a prior commitment to the empiricist program) should one believe that there is any such thing? Empiricists really do have what Cowie takes to be the nativist’s proprietary problem: How to say what they’re endorsing except that it’s not what they’re rejecting. So the question really does arise whether there is a substantive empiricist position for nativists to argue against.
However, what I just said isn’t true. There is, in fact, a sketch theory that purports to provide some idea of what being learned might amount to beside being not innate; which is all one could reasonably demand of an empiricism that is itself in media res. Learning might be association; correspondingly, being acquired by association formation (i.e. by processes that satisfy the laws of association) might be the property that makes most or all of the empiricist’s paradigms instances of learning. It’s thus not an historical accident that empiricists have been, pretty much without exception, associationists as well. Nor is it an accident that, empiricism now being back, associationism is back too.
But, of course, associationism isn’t true; it is, and always has been, an intellectual disaster. Perhaps you don’t agree? Even so, for present purposes, please do suspend your disbelief. It’s fair for me to ask you to do so, because (to her credit) Cowie isn’t an associationist. (She makes occasional references to connectionism as possibly an alternative to Chomsky’s rationalism; but they are guarded and far from an endorsement). I won’t, therefore, digress to rehearse the standard anti-associationist arguments. Suffice it that there is a cost to Cowie for thus exempting herself from the traditional empiricist-associationist alliance. It’s not just that she is left with no `worked out’ psychology of learning (etc.) An empiricist who’s not also an associationist hasno cognitive psychology on offer at all; only the hope that his favorite paradigm cases of not-innateness will prove to be all of a (natural) kind. That does not count as a theory of mind; or even as a properly mongered mystery. At most it’s a propositional attitude in search of an intentional object.
Among Cowie’s recurrent themes is that, whereas impossibility argument nativists (like me) have no positive learning theory on offer, it’s characteristic of empiricists to propose real, testable models of how cognition is achieved. That, however, is true only of empiricists who are also associationists, and it’s true of them in virtue of their associationism, not of their empiricism. If it’s read just as the thesis that very little that’s intentional is unlearned, empiricism offers no positive account of how the mind works. Nor, likewise, does rationalism if it’s read just as the thesis that there’s lots intentional that’s unlearned. What you do to get an honest to God psychology out of empiricism is add the thesis that mental processes are associative; what you do to get an honest to God psychology out of rationalism is add the thesis that mental processes are computational. In principle, the situation between rationalism and empiricism with respect to whether they offer positive psychological theories is thus exactly symmetrical (just like the situation between them with respect to whether they offer positive accounts of the distinction learned/innate, and for the same reasons; see above.) De facto, however, the current situation favors the rationalists since, whereas associationism is certainly false, computationalism might actually be (partly) true. (For which part of it might be, see Fodor (forthcoming.))
But, having thus objected to the way Cowie sets the pieces out, I propose now to waive all further such complaints. As it turns out, most of Cowie’s book floats free of her general analysis of the rationalism/empiricism dispute; mostly it’s about the status of POSAs and IAs, her main thesis being that neither are convincing. So let’s turn to that. I’ll start by considering what Cowie takes it that IAs and POSAs are supposed by their proponents to show. Then I’ll discuss Cowie’s reasons for holding that neither kind of argument is sound. I claim, under the first head, that Cowie misconstrues the conclusions of IAs and POSAs. I claim, under the second head, that although Cowie misreads both POSA and IAs, her doing so doesn’t really matter much. That’s because the objections she raises against POSAs and IAs would be ill-founded even if the intended conclusions of these arguments were as Cowie believes.
What with one thing and another, this will amount to a lot of work in what I take to be the public interest. I do hope somebody is going to thank me for it when it’s over. Profusely, by preference.
PART 2: THE ARGUMENTS.
2.1 What the arguments claim to show:
Cowie observes that versions of POSAs and IAs have both been floating around for centuries, neither displacing the other as the flagship argument for nativism. She speculates that this is because their presumptive conclusions, though both incompatible with empiricism, are mutually independent. By contrast, though I do think Cowie is right that IAs and POSAs serve different polemical intentions, I think she’s got it utterly wrong what their conclusions are supposed to be. When that’s straightened out, they are seen not to be independent after all: Roughly, what follows from POSAs can’t be true unless what follows from the IAs is; but not vice versa.
In a nutshell, here’s how Cowie sees the situation. Insofar as he endorses POSAs, "the nativist’s claim that such and such mental item is innate… means that that item is acquired by means of a task-specific learning device.…" Cowie identifies this version of rationalism as having historical roots in Plato and Descartes; Chomsky, however, is its primary current proponent, and he’s the main target in Cowie’s discussion of POSAs. By contrast, according to Cowie, the conclusion of IA is not a thesis about (for example) language acquisition, but rather a kind of "methodological gloom" about naturalism. The nativism that emerges from IAs is just the claim that "…empiricist boasts to the contrary notwithstanding, we have no idea whatsoever how [an] item was acquired (67)". The historical affinities of this kind of nativism are, according to Cowie, largely with Leibniz and Descartes. However, it’s primary current proponent turns out to be ---of all people--- me.
But though it’s strikingly imaginative, Cowie’s account of what POSAs and IAs are supposed to show can’t be right. On the one hand, for reasons I’m about to try to make clear, it’s very implausible to read Chomsky as holding a thesis about acquisition devices (my emphasis); or, indeed, as holding much of a view about any of the mechanisms that mediate language behavior. On Chomsky’s way of seeing things, such matters fall in the domain of `performance theories,’ a term Chomsky generally uses with invidious intent. I’ve never actually asked him, but I’m prepared to bet a dime that Chomsky really thinks there can’t be serious performance theories, and that people who try to construct them are wasting time that they could much more profitably use studying syntax. If I’m right to read him that way, then that the intended conclusion of the POSAs isn’t about acquisition mechanisms, domain specific or otherwise. To the contrary, what Chomsky proposes is a nativism of domain specific propositional attitudes (=PAs), not a nativism of domain specific "devices." More on this presently.
As to my view about IAs, I have introspected carefully and speak with first-person authority. I do not think they show ---or even suggest--- that naturalism is impossible. I am, to be sure, gloomy enough, metaphysically and otherwise; but not about the kinds of things, or for the kinds of reasons, that Cowie supposes. To the contrary, I am, perhaps more than anybody else I can think of who isn’t actually Australian, a crude, crass, vulgar, old fashioned, simple minded, positivistic Village Reductionist about (token, intentional) mental states. Indeed, I think that token reductionism is a substantive constraint that the scientific world view (or something) imposes on the ontology of all the special sciences; hence on psychology inter alia. I have suffered for thinking this: I have been repeatedly beaten around the head and shoulders by experts, including Tyler Burge, Steven Stich and, come to think of it, Noam Chomsky. But I have kept my ground, and I have not cried for help. That after such stoicism I should be accused of arguing that there can’t be a science of the mind… Well, really! I am seldom moved to exclamation points, but really!!!
So, then, what do the rationalists who propose them take to be the conclusions of POSAs and IAs respectively?
The bottom line of Poverty Of Stimulus Arguments, as Chomsky uses them, is that innate, domain specific information is normally recruited in first language acquisition. A nativism of domain specific information needn’t, of course, be incompatible with a nativism of domain specific acquisition mechanisms; in fact, people who are into `modular’ views of cognitive architecture generally (though by no means always; see, eg. Karmiloff Smith (1995)) hold both. But I want to emphasize that, given his understanding of POSAs, Chomsky can with perfect coherence claim that innate, domain specific PAs mediate language acquisition, while remaining entirely agnostic about the domain specificity of language acquisition mechanisms. Indeed, as far as I can tell, circa Aspects (1965) Chomsky pretty explicitly held to the soundness of POSAs; and to a nativism of propositional attitudes (he supposed Universal Grammar (=UG) to be innate); and to the view that language acquisition is implemented by some hypothesis formation/testing mechanism which could perfectly well be domain neutral for all anybody knows. According to my understanding of Chomsky’s understanding of POSAs, they raise the question whether the innate knowledge that language acquisition exploits is at the disposal of domain specific mechanisms. But they are not in themselves committed on how that question should be answered. Nor is the last word on this currently audible.
However, as previously remarked, the difference between the conclusions that Cowie thinks that Chomsky thinks that POSAs invite and the conclusions that Chomsky thinks that POSAs invite, doesn’t actually matter much in evaluating Cowies objections to POSAs. For, these are mostly arguments that the empirical premises of POSAs aren’t true; or, at a minimum, that there’s reason enough to doubt their truth that one can’t reasonably rely on POSAs whatever exactly their conclusion are supposed to be. But, though distinguishing between a nativism of mechanisms and a nativism of PAs isn’t essential to Cowie’s enterprise, it matters a lot to Chomsky’s. The point that’s involved here is really central to understanding how cognitivist explanations are supposed to work, and so merits one of those digressions.
Here’s how I think the geography goes: Chomsky wants it very much that coextensive, `descriptively adequate’ grammars can differ in truth value., For example, given the way Chomsky has things set up, it could turn out that G1 and G2 are both descriptively adequate, but that G2 is unlearnable because it acknowledges rules that violate universals imposed by UG. Chomsky thus requires there to be a distinction between descriptive adequacy and truth as they apply to theories of language. He gets the distinction by assuming, on the one hand, that grammars are the intentional objects of certain of the speaker/hearer’s PAs (in particular, attitudes of `cognizing’; see below) and, on the other hand, that the intentional objects of PAs are ipso facto `internally represented’ as a matter of nomological or (maybe metaphysical) necessity. This is all he needs to explain why `G is the grammar of L’ is opaque to the substitution of descriptively adequate Gs. Because representations can differ even if their intentional contents do not, the assumed equivalence of G1 and G2 in respect of descriptive adequacy does not guarantee that if either is `psychologically real,’ then both are. And, by assumption, psychological reality is required for the truth of a linguistic theory. QED.
But you can’t, of course, run the parallel argument on psychological devices, mechanisms and the like. For, the distinction between truth and adequacy I just drew depends on assuming that, qua intentional, the objects of PAs are internally represented. But internal mechanisms aren’t (normally) internally represented; they’re just internal tout court. A fortiori, you can’t choose between equivalent theories of an internal mechanism by reference to how it is internally represented. So presumably there’s nothing to choose between equivalent theories of an internal mechanism; nothing, anyhow, that could distinguish between them in respect of truth. So, since it’s important to Chomsky that there can be an empirically motivated choice among equivalent grammars, it’s likewise important that his nativism is about propositional attitudes rather than mechanisms.
Not to attend to this aspect of the mechanism/attitude distinction is to miss exactly the point at which the notion of intentionality gets its grip on psychological explanation in Chomsky’s kind of theory. That would be a great shame whatever you think about rationalism and empiricism, since the ways it plays the notion of content off against the notions of representation and mechanism is, perhaps, the charactersitic feature of contemporary cognitivist theorizing. So, then, to repeat: The intended conclusion of POSAs is that innate, domain specific PAs mediate language acquisition, not (pace Cowie) that innate domain specific devices do. It’s because Chomsky holds that the innate information available in the initial state of language acquisition is ipso facto among the intentional object of the learner’s propositional attitudes that Chomsky’s theory of mind is indeed continuous with the traditional rationalist postulation of innate ideas.
I’ll, for now, be very quick about what’s the intended conclusion of Impossibility Arguments; we’ll presently get to a story that’s more fine grained.
First, if they are sound, IAs imply that lots of concepts are innate. No doubt, among the lots of concepts that are innate if IAs are sound are probably lots of linguistic concepts (ones that express such grammatical properties of linguistic expressions as, for example, being a noun.) But so, according to impossibility arguments, are very many other concepts: TRIANGLE, for one example, and CARBURATOR for another. There’s thus nothing particularly linguistic about IAs; and, unlike Chomsky’s POSAs, they require no empirical premises about the informational environments in which languages are acquired. Also, since IAs imply that many concepts are innate that one would otherwise have thought pretty certainly aren’t (including DOORKNOB forsooth), the conclusions IAs lead to are substantive in a way that cries for help, grindings of teeth and the like are not. The philosophically interesting issue is not whether IAs are arguments of substance; it’s whether they aren’t plain crazy.
A final exegetical remark; according to Cowey, the conclusions of POSAs and the conclusion of IAs, though both incompatible with empiricism, are mutually independent. Perhaps it’s now clear why I think that’s wrong. What POSAs are supposed to show entails what IAs are supposed to show because there can’t be innate PAs unless there are innate concepts. On the other hand, what IAs are supposed to show is independent of what POSAs are supposed to show since there could be innate concepts even if there were no innate PAs.
The upshot, then, is that there might be two kinds of reasons for thinking that there are innate concepts: roughly empirical ones, of the kind that POSAs allege, and roughly a priori ones of the kind that IAs do. As for the logical relations between POSAs and IAs on the one hand, and empiricism on the other, they go like this (according to me): The conclusions both of POSAs and of IAs are incompatible with empiricism if you read POSAs as entailing that there are innate PAs, IAs as entailing that there are innate concepts, and empiricism as denying that there is anything (much) that’s both innate and intentional. If, however, you read POSAs the way that Cowie does (viz. as arguing that learning is mediated by domain specific devices), what they preclude is not empiricism but associationism. So construed, POSAs are compatible with empiricism because empiricists can tolerate the domain specifiity of learning so long as it isn’t itself innate (see Cowie’s own "Enlightened Empiricism," to be discussed below.) But POSAs are incompatible with associationism because, if pretty much all of cognition is associative, then it’s pretty much all domain neutral: Association is supposed to act on concepts `mechanically,’ without respect to their contents. Cowie misses all this because she both misconstrues POSAs, and runs empiricism and association together.
So much, then, for what I take to be wrong with Cowie’s account of what rationalists think that POSAs and IAs are supposed to show. We now start on the main stuff, which is her criticisms of these arguments.
2.2. The empirical arguments: POSAs.
In effect, Cowie has three points to make in Chapters 8-11 of her book:
2.2.1 The inference from empirical linguistic data to the innateness of UG requires as a premise that grammars are mentally represented; and the argument that grammars are mentally represented depends on such dubious ontological and methodological assumptions as that languages are mental objects and that linguistics is `part of psychology’
2.2.2 The empirical data that are supposed to demonstrate the paucity of information in the child’s linguistic corpus are, in fact, inconclusive.
2.2.3 There is no reason to prefer the thesis that UG is innate to the `enlightened empiricist’ thesis which says: `Yes, domain specific information is recruited in language learning; but, no, this domain specific information isn’t innate.’
I’ll consider Cowie’s arguments under these three heads.
2.2.1 What POSAs assume about languages and grammars:
Cowie endorses a criticism of Chomsky’s argument for nativism that I take it goes like this.
i. The thesis that UG is innate depends on the thesis that only grammars compatible with UG are `psychologically real’.
ii. Grammars are psychologically real only if they are mentally represented.
iii. So the empirical case for the innateness of UG depends on assuming that the kinds of evidence linguists offer for the grammars they write is evidence that the grammars are mentally represented.
iv. Whether the kinds of evidence linguists offer for the grammars they write is evidence that the grammars are mentally represented depends on whether linguistics is "a part of psychology;" in particular, on whether the `truth makers’ for grammars are facts about the psychology of speaker/hearers.
v. The thesis that linguistics is part of psychology depends on arguments that are fraught with methodological and ontological premises, many of which a reasonable person might reasonably refuse to grant.
vi. Chomsky should therefore conditionalize his conclusions about the innateness of UG not only upon the empirical evidence for grammars, but also upon the dubious methodological/ontological premises above mentioned.
vii. So conditionalized, the argument for UG’s being innate is weak-to-nil even assuming that the empirical data linguists offer for the grammars they write are often convincing.
In short, according to this line of reasoning, deciding whether the available linguistic evidence argues for UG’s innateness requires first answering such questions as: `What sort of thing is a language?’, `What is the warrant of inferences from a creature’s behavioral capacities to its cognitive states?’, `What is the evidential status of the linguistic intuitions of native informants?’ `How, if at all, should the performance/competence distinction be drawn?’ and so forth. Given that many such matters remain (ahem!) unresolved, the empirical evidence that linguists offer for the predictive/explanatory successes of grammars that satisfy UG has no direct bearing on the issue between rationalists and empiricists. Chomsky’s inclination to suppose ---a priori, apparently--- that the psychological reality of a grammar and its truth are the same thing is at the bottom of this confusion. Likewise, all that’s required to dispel it is to recognize that "a grammar could be true of language… but false of speakers’ psychologies." (244) In any case, "it’s an empirical psychological question whether grammars provide true theories of linguistic competence. (246)."
But, surely, this diagnosis can’t be right? Surely linguists don’t have to do all that philosophy (or, worse yet, have to wait for us to do all that philosophy) before they get to do their science? Surely that would be unprecedented?
No doubt, somebody really should sort out the methodological and ontological (not to say the historical) issues involved in understanding the relations between psychological and linguistic theories. And, quite right, if an empirical assessment of nativism presupposes such a sorting out, then we are in no current position to make one. But, in fact, that is not to the point. For, even if the question whether UG is innate turns on (inter alia) the question whether grammars are mentally represented, the central argument that grammars are mentally represented does not (pace Cowie) invoke methodological premises about the relations between linguistics and psychology; or ontological premises about languages being mental objects. Rather, it turns on the predictive/explanatory success of grammars with respect to behaviors and behavioral capacities of speaker/hearers.
Here’s the argument from the explanatory/ predictive success of grammars to their being mentally represented:
i. It would explain the explanatory/predictive success of grammars if the information they express is available to speaker/hearers. No other explanation of the predictive/explanatory succes of grammar is on offer. So, all else equal, we should suppose that the information that grammars express is available to speaker/hearers.
ii. Cognitivism is common ground; a speaker/hearer’s behavior should be explained by reference to his propositional attitudes.
iii. Taken together, (i) and (ii) license the (nondemonstrative) inference that the information grammars express is part of the what speaker/hearers know/believe/cognize.
iv. Nobody has the slightest idea how a creature’s PAs could predict/explain its behavior unless the intentional objects of its PAs are mentally represented by the creature whose behavior they predict/explain.
v. So, all else equal, we should infer that well-evidenced grammars are mentally represented by speaker/hearers.
Please note the brevity of this argument; also its absolute and endearing freedom from any assumptions particular to the relation of linguistics to psychology, or to the ontology of languages or grammars. It could be run, just as well, on how the information that it’s polite not to dine with your hat on explains your taking your hat off at table. Likewise, it could be run by the most ardent Platonist, according to whom the truth makers for theories of languages are eternal facts about relations among nonnatural objects. Even Platonism is neutral on whether a speaker-hearer mentally represents the grammar of his language; it’s committed only on whether his doing so is what makes the grammar true. That’s just as well, since a Platonist might reasonably wish to explain the empirical success of a grammar in the same way that cognitivists do; viz. by assuming that the information it expresses is known to speaker/hearers of the corresponding language. And (have I mentioned this?) nobody has the slightest idea how what a creature knows could determine its behavior unless the propositional content of its knowledge is mentally represesented.
Cowie’s way of proceeding belongs to a tradition of trying to settle issues about the `psychological reality’ of grammars, and/or of UG, by taking sides on issues about the ontology, methodology and epistemology of linguistics (see papers in Block, (1980); including my own). These issues are of considerable independent interest, to be sure. But the argument that UG/grammar is mentally represented simply does not address them. Indeed, though some of the assumptions of that argument are tendentious, not to say inflammatory, none of them are ones that Cowie disputes. Notably, she concedes all the following:
-the predictive/explanatory successes of grammars that conform to UG;
-a cognitivist construal of the `know’ in `S behaves so and so because he knows that such and such;’
-the `representational theory of mind, ’ according to which the causal consequences of a creature’s propositional attitudes are mediated by mental representations of their intentional content.
The inference from what Cowey concedes to the psychological reality of UG/grammar consists largely of `what else’ arguments: (What else but grammars being mentally represented could explain their empirical successes? What else but UG’s being innate could explain the child’s ability to assimilate the grammars whose predictive/explanatory success the story about grammars being mentally represented is supposed to account for?) Well, on what else if not `what else’ arguments would you expect to ground an empirical inference from data to theory? Empirical inferences are ipso facto not demonstrative.
The possibility of justifying psychological reality claims by using arguments to the best explanation suggests reversing the order of demonstration that Cowie takes for granted: Instead of such claims depending on the prior vindication of the ontological and methodological `dubious assumptions,’ the vindication of the dubious assumptions should rest on the de facto empirical success of theories which require that grammars and UGs are psychologically real. That’s entirely as it should be. One vindicates the ontology and methodology of a science by appeal to the work they do, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.
So the psychological reality of grammars explains their success; and the innateness of UG explains why successful grammars are structurally similar. I’m almost certain that Cowie’s book doesn’t contain a refutation of this line of thought; in fact, as far as I can tell, she says nothing at all about what might be wrong with it . Here is the passage in which she declines to do so: "[According to Chomsky,] since the hypothesis that the [language] learning mechanism respects the [UG] principle of structure dependence enables us to explain and predict many … linguistic phenomena… we should accept that it is our innate knowledge of [for example] UG’s principle of structure dependence that is at work in language-learning… I do not propose to criticize this inference to the best explanation… [since] it is hardly fair to expect the Chomskyan to show that his theory is better than rivals that do not yet exist. Accordingly, I will accept that Chomskyan nativism is the best available theory of language acquisition --- and argue that it provides no real explanation of language acquisition at all. (249)"
The innateness of UG can’t provide the best explanation of language acquisition because it can provide "no real explanation" of language acquisition at all. Why is that? You might expect, at this point, that Cowie would revert to the thesis that UG couldn’t explain language acquisition sans an argument that grammars are mentally represented, and the arguments that grammars are mentally represented turn on methodological and ontological principles both suspect and obscure… etc, see above. But, disconcertingly, she doesn’t; the next long stretch of her polemic isn’t methodological or ontological, but straightforwardly psycholinguistic. It’s about the status of hypothesis-testing and parameter-setting models of first language learning; in particular, whether either could explain how the language learner uses the information in UG to induce a grammar from his corpus. This survey leads, finally, to the conclusion that "parameter setting models are too underdeveloped to be appealed to in support for such a claim… [and] the hypothesis testing model has been amply developed, but in the wrong sorts of ways. As a consequence, Chomsky’s identification of the principles of UG with the information specified [in the `initial state’ of the language learning device] remains unwarranted. (270)"
What on earth is going on? As far as I can make out, Cowie has two different arguments running in this part of her discussion. One turns on the methodological and ontological stuff about dubious assumptions. The other one is this: `UG doesn’t explain language acquisition unless there’s a theory about how the information it expresses is employed to get from a corpus to a grammar. But we haven’t got such a theory. Ergo…’ The present exegetical question is how these two arguments are supposed to fit together.
God only knows, and Cowie doesn’t say; but it does seem clear that the first doesn’t work and the second is unpersuasive if it’s offered as an alternative to the first. No doubt, something is badly wrong with Chomsky’s picture unless there is finally a story about how UG is used to project a grammar from a PLD (= from a corpus of Primary Linguistic Data). But a lot of hard empirical work has been done on this problem over the last several decades; and some pretty good stuff has turned up. Surely, in any case, the plausibility of Chomsky’s story doesn’t require that one crack this nut first. What’s wrong with trying to crack one’s nuts in parallel? I would have thought that was the usual strategy of scientific research.
Why shouldn’t Chomsky say (what, in fact, he is forever saying): UGs are about what information the language acquisition process has access to. They thus invite (but don’t provide) a theory of how that information is exploited when a child infers a grammar from a PLD. It does follow that UG isn’t, all by itself, a "real explanation" of language acquisition. Cowie’s problem, however, is that nothing interesting follows from that; certainly not that postulating a mentally represented UG is other than essential for providing the `real explanation’ that’s required. The long and short is that Cowie needs a principled reason for doubting that the problem about how UGs function in language acquisition can be solved; but all she’s got is that, to date, nobody has solved it.
It often seems that Cowie is tempted by a kind of dialectic that goes like this: Somebody endorses a theory on the ground that it’s the best (available) explanation of some or other evidence. `T because it explains E,’ this guy says. `But,’ Cowie replies, `not T unless D; and maybe not D.’ ( So, for example, maybe UG explains why grammars have such a lot in common; but they can’t be what’s within unless there’s a story about how you get from UG and a PLD to a grammar; and we haven’t got such a story.) `So,’ Cowie seems tempted to conclude, `not `T because it explains E’ after all.’
But that way of arguing is no good. `T à D & maybe not D’ simply does not rebut, or even get a leg up on rebutting, `T because it explains E’. What you need, if you’re to do that, is some reason to believe `not D’ and `maybe not D’ doesn’t, of course, amount to one of those. To the contrary (and this is much of their charm), all else equal, a best explanation argument vindicates those of its own premises that are otherwise moot. If T à D, then if T is the best explanation of E, that is itself a `best explanation’ argument for D. It’s, no doubt, desperately sneaky of best explanation arguments thus to underwrite their own premises; they only get away it because they are so shamelessly nondemonstrative. Be that as it may, it makes them much harder to kill than Cowie seems to have an inkling of. Perhaps, on balance, it’s just as well that they’re so hardy since we’ve very little else to do our science with.
I think Cowie’s failure to understand how best explanation arguments work undermines quite a lot of her book. Still, her claim that there is, de facto, no good empirical evidence for UGs could be true; and, of course, you can’t run a `T because it explains E’ argument if you don’t have any E. So I turn now to Cowies’ second objection to POSAs, which is not that the bearing of their premises upon their conclusions is dubious (as per 2.2.1), but that the empirical data that the premises rely on are unpersuasive. In dispute here is primarily whether, as POSAs suppose, the child’s PLD is so empoverished that it radically underdetermines the grammar he acquires.
2.2.2. The status of the POSA data.
POSA’s strategy is to claim that there is less information in the PLDs from which children acquire language than would be needed if language acquisition were a species of learning. To be sure, such claims are often impressionistic; for who knows what a language learning process would demand of its input if it lacked specific, prior information about the kind of language it is to learn? Who knows, for that matter, anything about empiricist learning processes, unless they are associationistic (a thesis to which, as previously remarked, Cowie clearly does not wish to be committed.)
There are, however, some respects in which the issues can be focused. For example, Chomsky often argues that the corpora children have access to are unlikely to contain evidence that syntactic transformations are `structure dependent.’ (According to Chomsky, `Is the man who is wearing the hat bald?’ is the sort of sentence that shows that question-formation is sensitive to phrase structure rather than ordinal relations; for discussion see Chomsky (1972).) Likewise, a lot of recent theorizing about the `learnability’ of various sorts of grammars proceeds from the assumption that the child has access to little or no `negative evidence’ about what expressions are not well-formed in his language. Much of Cowie’s long discussion of POSAs is about whether, in point of fact, the PLD really is empoverished in these respects. If it isn’t, then the putative "poverty of the stmulus… does nothing to brace the nativist position on language acquisition" (276).
On this reading of her text, Cowie has nothing against POSAs as a form of argument; she just doubts that, in the case of language acquisition, its empirical assumptions are true; even if parents don’t correct a child’s ungrammatical utterance overtly, their behavior may provide him with "subtle cues (228)" to its ill-formedness. And, Jeff Pullam once found, in a corpus drawn from the Wall Street Journal [sic!], "several" sentences that illustrate the structure sensitivity of question formation (including: "How fundamental are the changes these events portend?" and "Is what I’m doing in the shareholders’ best interest?") Pullum also found one in `The Importance of Being Ernest’ where Lady Bracknell wants to know "Who is that young person whose hand my nephew Algernon is now holding in what seems to me a peculiarly unnecessary manner?"
One might reasonably greet such observations with hilarity. It is, after all, Oscar’s little joke that only Bracknellish sorts of people talk in this Bracknellish sort of way. Indeed, in other moods, Cowie is herself very impressed by how much about a language a child might learn by attending to statistical properties of his corpus. "There is dramatic experimental evidence that the statistical properties of the inputs are used by children in order to abstract higher-level concepts for apparently `unobservable’ syntactic properties. (191)" Well, what would you guess is the relative frequency of Bracknell-sentences in speech that is addressed to (or overheard by) children? And if, as one might suspect, it must be vanishingly low, why don’t children who do happen to encounter such sentences prefer the hypothesis that they are ungrammatical to the hypothesis that the regularities in the PLD are structure sensitive?
Nevertheless, Cowie is absolutely right about the state of the data; it is, as she says "surely premature" to endorse a nativist account of language acquisition solely ---or even mostly--- on observations of what is or isn’t in the child’s corpus. Indeed, it always will be surely premature; in linguistics, as elsewhere in serious science, the confirmation of theories rests on an interplay between their explanatory/predictive successes and all sorts of other considerations about simplicity, economy, plausibility, the availability of alternatives, and so on familiarly. At most, one is entitled to wonder aloud why, if negative evidence and instances of the structure dependence of transformations really are essential to language acquisition, does the linguistic community make such data so hard for the child to find? Why make the poor creature search for it in `subtle cues’ or in the back pages of the WSJ? Is there some conspiracy among adults to keep the structure of their language hidden from their children? Perhaps the facts of grammar are like the facts of life: only to be revealed to those who have reached the age of discretion.Pas devant les enfants?
Well, enough of that; I don’t propose to enter into a detailed review of the empirical literature on the typical contents of PLDs. Beyond doubt, every relevant observation is susceptible to rational challenge. It’s an understatement to claim that current assumptions "may be much too strong" and that our current picture of the PLD may be "badly skewed" (263). The trouble is: So what? At the risk of sounding merely pompous, I offer a methodological observation: Linguistics isn’t philosophy. (Neither, I suspect, is philosophy).
According to the standard metatheory, philosophical arguments are supposed to be knock-down; or better, lethal (for some good jokes about this, see Nozick, 1981). This means, in particular, that if you have a dozen arguments that P, all but one of which prove to be unsound, the one that remains should still be sufficient to make the case that P. In this respect, Philosophy is required to be like logic; perhaps, in their most secret fantasies, philosophers dream that it is logic. Probably that’s why so little philosophy works.
Linguistics, in any case, is different. Like any other empirical discipline, it appeals to a balance of plausibility. If, in particular, you consider the whole range of empirical data currently available, it seems pretty plausible that the PLD isn’t as rich as one might reasonably expect it to be if a rich corpus is essential for acquiring a grammar. My point is that attacking this claim the way Cowie does ---by attempting to undermine the experiments one by one--- is simply not appropriate to the polemical situation. What she needs, but clearly doesn’t have, is an argument that the available data suggests, even remotely, a PLD so rich that the child can is, as it were, squeeze through with lots of room to spare. (Notice how, as usual, it’s the counterfactuals that count; see fn. 15). There is, I venture to say, nothing in the psycholinguistic literature that suggests this; and, to my knowledge, empiricist arguments about language learning (Cowie’s definitely included) never so much as claim it; they claim just that the data aren’t apodictic. For the rest, one gets a priorisms: Empiricism should be preferred not because the PLD is independently seen to be saturated with information germane to acquiring a language, but rather on grounds of the simplicity, or generality, or neurological plausibility, or political correctness of the learning theory that an empiricist approach would (/might,/might some day,/might in principle some day) allow us to construct.
If, in short, you wish seriously to evaluate the available data about the poverty of the child’s stimulus, the pertinent question is not `which of them can I perhaps impugn’; rather it’s whether, if they aren’t entirely misleading, a move in the direction of empiricism seems plausibly the way to account for them. Or put it like this: We know what facts about the PLD are alleged to argue for the face plausibility of the nativist picture; well, suppose all of those were to disappear. The question remains: What are the facts about the PLD that are supposed to argue for the face plausibility of the empiricist picture? Answer: As far as I know (and, certainly, as far as Cowie tells us) there are none.
2.2.3. Enlightened empiricism. Suppose it turns out (as I’d expect it to on the balance of the evidence so far) that the PLD isn’t so rich as to make nativist speculations about the language acquisition mechanism patently otiose. Suppose, even, that that it turns out that language acquisition requires a lot of domain specific information of the kind that would be expressed by a motivated formulation of UG. Still, it doesn’t follow that UG is innate. Maybe, rather, children start with principles that are innate but not domain specific (or, anyhow, not specific to the language domain). Couldn’t the integration of such information with the child’s’s nonlinguistic experience get him into a mind set that will, when he finally gets around to learning his language, require his hypotheses about the PLD to conform to UG? "It’s impossible to think that the learner was told that grammatical rules are structure-dependent. But it is certainly possible that she may have had other experiences that would lead her to seek deep rather than surface regularities.(182)." "Enlightened empiricism" (=EE) allows that language acquisition may crucially require prior knowledge of the domain specific sort that UG provides. That’s what makes EE "enlightened". But it insists that this prior knowledge is itself acquired rather than genotypically specified, and that the proceedures by which it is acquired are (eventually) domain neutral. That’s what makes EE empiricism.
I will not dwell at great length on enlightened empiricism; for, though its plausibility is a main thesis of Cowie’s book, just think what is being proposed: Of the three or four years that it apparently takes a child to work out the grammatical structure of his language, some unknown fraction is first devoted to constructing, on the basis of nonlinguistic experience (together with general principles of nondemonstrative inference (assuming there are such things)) a learned UG; viz a theory of what the sentence structures in all the possible natural languages that hedoesn’t have to learn have in common with the sentence structures in the one that he does. What on earth would be the point (to say nothing of the feasibility) of instituting such an indirection? Has God joined the adult linguistic community in its plot to keep the grammar of their language hidden from their children? EE grants to the nativist that, whatever language a child may eventually learn to speak, he must be in prior possession of the very same UG as every other child. That being assumed, why doesn’t God just wire the damn thing in species-wide and let each child spend his time learning to talk the language of his speech community? It explains a lot to suppose that God is sort of stupid (see Hume’s `Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion’); but could he possibly be that stupid?
You will, in any case, not be surprised by now to hear that Cowie offers no account, and no examples, of how a domain neutral learning mechanism could be used to construct a language-specific learning mechanism which could then be relied on to deliver an adequate grammar of whatever language the child happens to encounte. Instead, when this problem starts to loom, Cowie is wont to speak of bootstraps.
`Bootstrapping,’ however, isn’t a theory of language acquisition (or, indeed, of anything acquisition). It’s just a name for whatever the process turns out to be that gets a child first from nonlinguistic experience to knowledge of the domains specific constraints UG imposes; and then from less good theories of the PLD that observe these constraints to better theories of the PLD that likewise observe these constraints; and, eventually, to the right theory of the PLD (which observes these constraints by assumption.) To say that the child solves the language acquisition problem by bootstrapping is to say that he solves it somehow; which is true, but not news. Since, to repeat, `bootstrapping’ is the name of this problem about acquisition, it is a fortiori, not the solution of this problem. It’s extremely depressing to find cognitive science back in a condition in which it is once again necessary to say such things.
Look, is it Cowie’s assumption that the regularities in the child’s nonlinguistic environment are structure dependent? If so, how does the child learn that they are? Since this seems to be another case of the same kind of question that we started with (viz. how does a child recognize that a regularity it encounters is structure dependent?) what has enlightened empiricism bought for us that the old, unilluminated kind did not?
The preceding paragraph gestures in the direction of what Cowie calls an `iteration’ argument: If it’s common ground that a child can’t learn a language unless he knows that P, and if, by assumption, knowledge that P is learned rather than innate, then it just follows that the child can’t learn the language unless he (somehow) learns that P. `Enlightened empiricism’ adds nothing to this truism except the assumption that the child learns P by (first) learning some (unspecified) Q that entails P. There’s a dumb joke about an enlightened empiricist who could count sheep very fast. `How do you do it?’ everyone asked. `I count their legs and divide by four’ he replied. This, apparently, is the situation Cowie has in mind when she admits that enlightened empiricists haven’t a "detailed" alternative to nativism "on hand" "yet".
Considered as a positive theory of learning, the version of EE that Cowie describes is empty. But I wouldn’t want it to seem merely that Cowie has got hold of slightly the wrong kind of EE; so I’ll briefly consider an alternative formulation. I’d like to get it across that Cowie’s research program is, as one might say, robustly empty: tweaking the details doesn’t make it any fuller.
One might try holding some species of nonmodular rationalism, (in effect, what Cowie calls `weak rationalism’), according to which the child’s innate endowment includes a domain neutralconstraint enjoining him (ceteris paribus) always to prefer theories that represent experiential regularities as structure dependent. That would be perfectly alright with empiricists as far as it goes; they take the principles of inductive inference to be innate, and maybe a bias towards hypothesizing structure dependence is one of these.
But notice that this compromise view won’t work unless the experiential regularities in nonlinguistic domains are typically structure dependent in the same way that linguistic regularities are; eg. they approximate to satisfying the formal linguistic universals. There is, however, not the slightest scintilla of evidence that any such thing is true. Indeed, supposing that the kind of structure dependence UG requires of linguistic rules will do for the general case would be a nonsense. The linguistic notion of structure applies only in domains for which a constituency relation is defined and independently motivated. Who knows which such domains there are? Surely some domains have ordinal structure of precisely the sort that (if Chomsky is right) sentences don’t; the months of the year starting with January, for example. That being so, to insist both that the child’s pre-wiring determines a domain-neutral preference for structure dependence of the kind that language exhibits, is to require the child to prefer false theories of such domains as happen not to be language-like. Only a very stupid God ---or a plain crazy one--- would endow the child with a learning rule that’s biased toward a kind of structure that, de facto, lots of domains don’t have.
It is, I suppose, a truism that domains whose structures can be learned are ipso facto structured domains. But if you propose to make hay of this truism, you need to keep in mind that the domains there are, are structured in many different ways. If you don’t keep this in mind, it might occur to you that nonmodular rationalism is (not merely an alternative to Chomskian nativism but) a cognitive architecture for which transcendental justification can be supplied. Cowie often writes as though she is moved by some such thought: A preference for structure dependence is A Good Thing As Such because `prefer dependent regularities’ and `prefer deep, explanatory regularity’ are two ways of saying the same thing. See, eg, p. 189: "a nonpositivist proponent of domain-neutral learning, taking Chomsky’s lesson to heart, would surely endow her learner with a bias towards seeking out the `hidden springs’ (and not the superficial regularities) in the world, a bias that in the domain of language would manifest itself as a preference for rules stated in terms of unobservables over those stated in terms of observables, that is for [the structurally dependent rule] H1 over [the structure independent rule] H2").
If, however, Cowie takes this impulse to transcendental argument seriously, she must be confused about what UG means when it says that linguistic rules are structure dependent. Linguistic rules are dependent on constituent structure; as opposed, say, to ordinal or cardinal structure; or the dimensional structure of visual space; or the Fourier structure of auditory stimulations; or the vector structure that Connectionists appear to think that everything depends on. Each of these kinds of structure seems quite `deep’ enough to be getting on with, so it’s hard to imagine a kind of argument that would choose among them a priori.
The kind of structure dependence UG cares about is just one among an infinity of ways that rules, operations, processes, and the like, might be sensitive to the organization of their domains. There is, as far as anybody knows, nothing that prefers any one such domain structure to any other in general. Nor is it easy to see why a process that is constituent structure dependent should be especially "unobservable;" or, indeed, why it should be endowed with any other epistemically interesting property. That there is nothing especially interesting about constituent structure is exactly why, if Chomsky is right about all grammars having rules that are constituent-structure sensitive, that’s a surprising discovery and it wants an explanation. Nativists havesuch an explanation, though, not one Cowie approves of; namely, that UG is innate. There isn’t, "yet" an empiricist alternative, transcendental or otherwise, to the best of my knowledge.
2.3 General learning mechanisms: Almost everybody thinks that some things must be learned; and almost nobody thinks that the basic mechanisms of belief formation could be among them. Well, if it’s common ground that some things are surely innate and it’s likewise common ground that other things surely aren’t, what (other than matters of degree) could there be left for nativists to argue with empiricists about? One might thus wonder why modern rationalists take so strong a line on acquisition mechanisms being domain specific. Even if, pace Cowie, the domain specificity of learning devices isn’t what they take to be the moral of POSA arguments, it’s clearly true that most nativists are pretty grumpy about domain neutrality. Why is that, do you suppose?
Fair question. I have, however, only a fable with which to answer it.
Fable: Once upon a time, there was this otherwise unremarkable guy (history did not record his name, so let us call him Anon; your local bookstore carries his stuff) who was really extraordinarily good at answering questions about opera. He could, for example, tell you every 19th century Italian composer of operas whose last name ended with `i’ (of which, I assure you, there were many.) He could likewise tell you who was the first violinist at the second performance of `Lohengrin’, and who was the second violinist at the first performance of `Lohengrin;’ and not just at Beyreuth, but also in Salt Lake City. And he could tell you who manufactured the swans. Also: Anon could quote the entire libretto of `Die Freishutz’ on request, and he knew where Callas sang on any evening in July of 1957, and how many elephants Verdi wanted there to be in chamber performances of `Aida.’ Mirable dictu, Anon could explain the plot of `Simon Boccenegra’, a thing that nobody else has ever been able to do. He was, as I say, quite remarkably good at answering questions about opera, even by the standards of opera buffs.
So, of course, sensible people wondered a lot what could account for his prodigious facility. After some consideration, they converged upon the following hypothesis: `The reason,’ they said, `that Anon is so good at answering questions about opera must be that Anon knows a lot about opera. `That,’ they said, `would explain it.’ Having arrived at this not implausibleview, they dispersed, each upon his own affairs.
Or rather, they were just about to when there spoke a philosopher of the empiricist persuasion. `It is not, after all, his knowing a lot about opera that explains Anon’s surprising ability to answer opera questions,’ said , the phthis philosopher. `Instead, it’s that Anon has in his head what I call a `General Purpose Question Answerer’ (of which I have discovered that the acronym is GPQA)’.
`Hmm,’ sensible people replied, `what exactly is a GPQA, and how does one work?’
`I will tell you,’ said the philosopher of Empiricist persuasion. `A GPQA is a black box that takes as its input any of an inordinately large range of questions and provides the corresponding answer as its output. Here is the flow diagram for such a device. It comes from the cutting edge of cognitive science.’
Q à GPQA à A
Figure 1: Flow diagram for a GPQA
`Pshaw!’ the sensible people replied; `for how could such a black box work?’
`It works by applying General Question Answering Principles,’ replied the philosopher of empiricist persuasion.
`And what are these General Question Answering Principles?’ the sensible people demanded.
`As to that, inquiry is proceeding in my laboratory even as we speak.’
Sensible people thought about this for a while. Certain prima objections occurred to them. For example: ‘If, as you say, Anon has a GPQA in his head, what accounts for the domain specificity of his performance? Why is it that, although he is remarkably proficient at answering questions about operas, he is not nearly so good at answering questions about, as it might be, bagels; or about who won The World Series in 1905’?
`The available data to that effect are unapodictic’ said the philosopher of empiricist persuasion with hauteur. `Perhaps Anon is better at answering bagel questions and baseball questions than has thus far appeared. Perhaps, when closely examined, his behavior will exhibit subtle cues which show that he knows the answers after all. Or perhaps there is more information about opera in the environments where opera-questions are put to him than cursory investigations have suggested. Let us not, in any case, close our minds to such possibilities. For,’ said the philosopher of empiricist persuasion (who had perhaps begun to sound a bit like Auntie), "if I could urge just one thing as a `take home lesson’ to be drawn from this discussion… it would be this: …We need to look everywhere we can for relevant insights, data, and techniques (Cowie, 308)." `Further research will therefore be required; as will further funding.’
The philosopher of empiricist persuasion was about to enlarge upon the latter themes when sensible people, having, as they considered, heard enough, commenced to pelt him with small objects. This forced him to retire.
Normal human children are, as far as we know, quite extraordinarily good at answering questions of the form: `What grammar underlies the language of which the following corpus is a sample (insert PLD here)?’ But this competence is, in a number of respects, strikingly narrow. For one thing, they exhibit no corresponding capacity for answering questions about bagels. For another, it appears that children can do their trick only if the PLD is drawn from a language the grammar of which conforms to UG. It thus seems plausible to many sensible people that part of the reason children are so good at answering questions about what grammar underlies a PLD is that they come to the task already knowing a lot about what kinds of grammars conform to UG; specifically, they know UG. And since there is no proposal on offer about how a child could possibly have learned UG before he learned his native language, many sensible people think that UG must be innate. And even sensible people who don’t think that it’s exactly UG that’s innate are inclined to think something must be that is at least equally dedicated and equally complicated. A fortiori, they think that what’s within isn’t a General Purpose Learning Machine.
Wherein does the symmetry fail? If postulating a General Purpose Question Answerer is not a reasonable alternative to the theory that Anon knows (innately or otherwise) a lot about opera, why is postulating a General Purpose Learning Mechanism a reasonable alternative to the theory that children know (innately) a lot about UG? One wanders through the empiricist landscape, holding one’s little lantern aloft, asking this question of the locals one encounters. And never getting a sensible answer. That’s what makes nativists so grumpy.
2.2.4 Essentialism: I remarked, at the beginning of the discussion of POSAs, that quite a lot of Cowie’s polemic amounts to reiteration of points that are familiar from the linguistic and psycholinguistic literature. She does, however, offer one line of pro-Empiricist argument that is, as far as I know, quite without precedent: "[According to Chomsky] Linguistic Theory characterizes the essential properties of languages; it delimits the set of possible natural languages. But it is in general false that we need to know about the essential properties of a thing in order to learn about it. … a child’s grip on cathood predates her excursions into zoology…. Reflection on the nature of learning tout court, I’m suggesting, should have alerted us .. to the possibility that Chomskyan theories of language learning are on the wrong track. (273)"
I do think that is confused. For one thing, acquiring the concept CAT does, of course, require learning what property is proprietary to cats as such; namely, being cats. Likewise, in theuntechnical sense in which a monolingual Russian speaker can perfectly well have the concept ENGLISH SENTENCE, his having it doesn’t (according to Chomsky or anyone else) require his cognizing the grammar of English. It requires only that he understand that whatever ENGLISH SENTENCE applies to is, ipso facto, an English sentence. Or (a formulation I prefer on balance) it requires only that he be able to think about English sentences as such.
By contrast, Chomsky puts in play a quite technical notion of concept possession according to which mastering ENGLISH SENTENCE requires becoming a speaker/hearer of English (and hence, by assumption, cognizing English grammar.) Whether Chomsky’s technical sense of concept possession actually applies to anything is, of course, a Very Deep Empirical Issue. If it doesn’t, then he and I have both wasted quite a lot of our time over the years. In any case, according to Chomsky’s usage, the typical consequence of having the concept SENTENCE OF L is being able to recognize and construct arbitrary sentences that belong to L. Since, to repeat, nothing of the sort is true of concept possession in the vernacular, learning CAT does not (Pace Cowie) provide a model for learning ENGLISH SENTENCE.
Once that is straightened out, it’s really quite plausible that when having a concept of X requires being able to make and recognize Xs, coming to have the concept of X will require mastering a metaphysical theory about Xs. That’s why, though people have had the concept WATER for simply ages, it was only when we learned what the property of being water is (only, as one says, when we got the `technical’ concept WATER) that we were able to make some in the laboratory, and to distinguish arbitrarily close approximations to water from the real thing. Likewise, though we’ve had cats and their concept ever since we lived in Egypt, it’s only quite recently that we’ve begun seriously to contemplate building a cat from scratch.
So much for Part 2. Let’s turn to the impossibility arguments.
PART 3: THE IMPOSSIBILITY ARGUMENTS.
I’m afraid I am now required to set out some background. I must trace the course of an argument I’ve been having (mostly with myself) for the last twenty five years or so, as to whether, given plausible empirical premises, it is even coherent to hold that there is such a process as concept learning. And, if it’s not, what nativistic alternatives there might be.
I managed some time back to convince myself that Impossibility Arguments show that the received account of concept learning is indeed incoherent. But it has recently occurred to me that the implications of this can perhaps be made to sound a little less preposterous than, for example, that the concept CARBURATOR (or the concept CURRY) is innate. Contrary to what I had at first supposed, there is a way of saying things like `no concepts are learned; a fortiori, the concept CARBURATOR isn’t learned’ that makes it not also require saying things like `no concepts are learned; a fortiori the concept CARBURATOR is innate.’
That strikes me as, if perhaps not awfully important in the long run, still a good thing tactically. For some reason, philosophers, who are often prepared to swallow the most outlandish views ----that there aren’t any tables or chairs; or that there aren’t any numbers; or that there aren’t any minds; or that, (to the contrary) there is nothing but minds; or that there is nothing butnumbers; (I haven’t heard of a philosopher according to whom there is nothing but tables and chairs, but my knowledge of the ontological literature is fragmentary); or that we made the stars; or that there is no distinction between confirmation and truth; or that the only good is the greatest happiness of the greatest number; or that the goal of physics is to predict the state of excitation of one’s sensory neurons… and so forth, practically endlessly--- philosophers, who have learned to gaze on all of that and not to boggle, tend to become quite hysterical at the thought that the human conceptual repertoire, CARBURATOR included, might be innately specified. Their view, apparently, is that human ethology (unlike, say, spider ethology, or fish ethology) is an a priori science, primarily responsible to what strikes philosophers as plausible from a genetic or an evolutionary point of view.
That being so, and what with the notion of concept learning being incoherent (according to an argument I find convincing) it would be nice if one could somehow endorse the Impossibility Argument without having to say that CARBURATOR is innate
Cowie, of course, thinks that IAs are unsound, hence that we needn’t worry about what form of concept nativism the philosophical community might be prepared to tolerate. Partly she thinks this on methodological grounds, but mostly on the ground that a key premise of IA isn’t true. As it turns out, I’m comprehensively unmoved by the considerations she raises; I’ll tell you why in just a moment. First I’ll have to give you a sketch of how IA is supposed to run. Then I’ll tell you what kind of concept nativism I think we ought to endorse if IA is sound; and why I think that kind of concept nativism is independently plausible. Then I’ll tell you why Cowie rejects (not just the Impossibility Argument but, also and independently,) the kind of concept nativism I’m proposing. Then I will tell you why her grounds for rejecting it are insubstantial. Then, I think, we can call it a day.
IA runs on the following assumptions, from which, it claims, the incoherence of the received view of concept learning follows:
3.1. Environmentally caused alterations of a creature’s conceptual repertoire count as concept learning only if they are mediated by processes of hypothesis formation and confirmation; if one were somehow to acquire the concept DOORKNOB by surgical insertion, that would not count as learning it. I take it that this is actually not in dispute. Surgical insertion is not a species of hypothesis formation; and to my knowledge, no alternative to the hypothesis testing account of concept learning has ever been proposed. (There are, to be sure, many different vocabularies that this hypothesis has been couched in, and people who espouse it thus often fail to notice that they’ve done so.)
It thus bears emphasis that, if you accept 3.1, you already have good reason to doubt that the notion of concept learning is coherent. What hypothesis confirmation eventuates in confirming is, after all hypotheses; and concepts are not hypotheses (a muddled Pragmatist tradition to the contrary notwithstanding). You can, for example, (dis)confirm the hypothesis that dogs bark; but you can’t (dis)confirm the concept DOG or the concept BARK. That concepts aren’t hypotheses should hardly seem surprising since concepts are the constituents of hypotheses; concepts are what hypotheses are made of and are thus prior to hypotheses, in much the ways that bricks are prior to brick houses. Since concepts are prior to hypotheses, they are a fortiori, concepts are prior to the (dis)confirmation of hypotheses. Empiricists have been confused about these priority relations between (what used to be called) `Ideas’ and `Judgements’ for several centuries, and the end of this also is not in sight. Just as Kant and Frege both warned it would, confusing Ideas with Judgements got empiricists into endless trouble, including their egregious failure to understand that theories of concept acquisition must differ in kind from theories of belief fixation; in particular, that the former can’t be learning theories as 3.1 understand that notion.
3.2. `Most’ of our concepts are primitives; i.e. they have no internal structure; i.e. they haven’t got other concepts as constituents (in the way that, for example, it’s often supposed that the concept DOG has the concept ANIMAL as one of its constituents, and that the concept BACHELOR has the concept UNMARRIED as one of its constituents.)
Whereas 3.1 is more or less untendentious (presumably because its unsettling implications have not been widely recognized), 3.2 very clearly isn’t. I take it, however, that 3.2 is licensed by the following subsidiary argument:
3.2.1 Not all concepts could have other concepts as parts (at least some concepts must be `primitive’). This I take to be common ground.
3.2.2 Broadly empirical considerations (from cognitive psychology and elsewhere) show that `most’ concepts could have internal structure only if most concepts are (something like) stereotypes or prototypes. (For discussion of some of this literature, see Fodor (1998a))
3.2.3 There are decisive reasons why `most’ concepts can’t be (anything like) stereotypes or prototypes.
Cowie has two main lines of attack on the soundness of the Impossibility Argument, one of which centers on 3.2.3; we’ll turn to that presently.
3.2.4 Primitive (unstructured) concepts can’t be learned by the formation/ confirmation of hypothesis.
The basic argument for 3.2.4. is that its denial leads to circularity. Consider a concept like RED (which is pretty widely agreed to be primitive if any concept is.) How would a hypothesis testing account imagine that RED is learned? Well, presumably learning RED would involve confirming some hypothesis about which concept RED is (about its `individuating properties’); as, for example, that it’s the concept that expresses the property of being red. But, clearly, that can’t be right; for any hypothesis of the form X is the concept that expresses the property of being red ipso facto contains the concept RED among its constituents. A fortiori, it’s not a hypothesis that could be formulated by someone who lacked that concept. A fortiori it’s not a hypothesis that could be (dis)confirmed by anyone who lacked that concept. Since the same reasoning goes through, mutatis mutandis, for any concept that is supposed to be primitive, it follows that primitive concepts can’t be learned (where learning means what 3.1 says that it does). Hume got this right: "…whenever we reason, we must antecedently [my emphasis] be possest of clear ideas, which may be the objects of our reasoning. The conception always precedes the understanding… (214)." You can’t reason with a concept you don’t already have. So `most’ primitive concepts can’t be acquired by reasoning. But, taken together, 3.2.2 and 3.2.3 imply that `most’ of our concepts are primitive. So `most’ of our concepts are unlearned.
Just a word about the shudder quotes around `most’. Clearly we have infinitely many structured concepts (ones that have other concepts as constituents) Thus my concept A FRIEND OF MY AUNT contains, among its parts the concepts FRIEND and AUNT, as do infinitely many concepts that belong to the same family: A FRIEND OF A FRIEND OF MY AUNT… and so on. This is, once again common ground. But what of the concepts FRIEND and AUNT themselves? Are they primitive, or do they have parts? And if the latter, what parts do they have? It’s clear, in any case, that if AUNT has constituents, the corresponding English expression (viz. `Aunt’) doesn’t display them; (unlike, of course, the English expression that corresponds to A FRIEND OF MY AUNT, (viz ` a friend of my Aunt’) which, as it were, shows that FRIEND and AUNT are parts of the complex concept that it expresses.) All that being so, we can now take the quotes off `most’. The conclusion of the Impossibility Argument is supposed to be that the set of unlearned concepts is approximately coextensive with the set of concepts whose structures are not displayed by the corresponding English expressions. (It therefore likely includes FRIEND and AUNT, but not FRIEND OF MY AUNT.) This is all very approximate, to be sure, but it will do for the purposes of hand since I suppose that, if anything of even approximately this sort is true, then empiricism isn’t.
So now, at last:
3.3 Cowie’s objections to the impossibility argument.
In an earlier draft of this paper, I allowed myself a little grumble about Cowie’s tendency to offer, against some proposition she has under attack, a fardel of arguments the conjunction of whose premises is not consistent and some of which must therefore be unsound. It’s hard on the weary exegete that Cowie generally doesn’t say which arguments she proposes to give up in case she can’t have them all. In the event, however, I decided to delete that passage. (I think it is good for my character occasionally to resist the temptation to grumble. Very occasionally.) But the reader should be advised that we’ve now come to a polemical situation of this kind.
Cowie has two objections to impossibility arguments. One is that (pace 3.2.2) most concepts are prototypes, and it’s common ground that prototypes are complex statistical structures and can be learned by assembling them from their constituents. The second argument, however, takes a much stronger line in that it seems to reject, a priori, the very idea that a concept might be innate. Now, I really don’t think Cowie can have this both ways. Prototypes are ipso facto constructions out of a primitive conceptual basis; and, as far as I can tell, Cowie accepts that primitive concepts have to be unlearned (as per 3.2.4). But if that is so, she can hardly claim to be possessed of a general and principled argument that no concepts are innate.
In short: Cowie’s empiricist account of how concepts are acquired applies only to concepts that have (or are) prototypes. But if prototypes are ipso facto learnable, that’s because they are ipso facto structurally complex, hence not primitive concepts. So, it looks to me that, qua friend of prototypes, Cowie needs there to be a bona fide set of innate primitives. So, conceive of my puzzlement upon encountering such passages as this: "Fodor talks of [innate, primitive] concepts `becoming available,’ as if acquisition were the activation by a triggering stimulus of some sort of preexisting conceptlike object. We come into the world equipped with a stock of `protoconcepts,’ mental structures of some sort that become fully fledged concepts once they are triggered by an appropriate stimulus… I’ll argue that this… picture is seriously confused. For there’s simply nothing for protoconcepts to be [sic] (83). " Well, I am confused; I don’t see how it could both be that learned concepts are ipso facto complex and nonetheless that no concepts are innate. That’s why not just paradigm rationalists, but also paradigm empiricists (Locke, Hume, William James) have always agreed that primitive concepts must be innate (for some references see Fodor, (1981)). How could a creature that has no concepts learn anything?(Say "bootstrap" and I’ll scream.)
So, I don’t think that both Cowie’s objections to the impossibility argument could be sound; the positive (prototype based) view of concept acquisition towards which she gestures seems to me not to cohere with her claim that proto-(viz. innate) concepts are ipso facto corrupt. I won’t, however speculate on how she might seek to reconcile these two sorts of argument. Sinceboth of Cowie’s objections to IAs are unsound, it doesn’t matter, for our purpose, that their premises aren’t compatible.
3.3.1. Cowie’s argument against protoconcepts. (This is a short argument.) Innate concepts (like concepts that aren’t innate; for that matter, like anything at all) are in want of principles of individuation. Now, patently, concepts are individuated by their contents inter alia; viz `semantically’. Let’s assume some or other sort of `externalist’ metaphysics of content (eg. that the content of a concept supervenes on world-to-mind causal interactions.) Well, unactivated innate concepts ---those that are, as it were, waiting around to be triggered--- are presumably ipso facto not causally connected to anything in the world. So, according to externalism, they can’t have any contents; so they can’t be content-individuated; so they can’t be concepts. "There is simply nothing for protoconcepts to be" compatible with, on the one hand, concepts being necessarily semantically individuated and, on the other hand, protoconcepts being de facto causally inert.
So, the question comes down to: Could an externalist believe that there are innate ideas? Pace Cowie, the answer is: `Sure.’ For example, an externalist could hold that the semantic properties of `protoconcepts’ supervene on their dispositions to enter into causal world-to-mind relations. Maybe what makes a mental representation a token of the protoconcept type CAT is its disposition to be triggered by cats.
It is, I think, very puzzling that Cowie doesn’t seriously consider the possibility of an externalist nativism that is dispositionalist about the semantic properties of concepts (all the more so since she does, briefly, consider the possibility of a dispositionalist internalism; see the footnote before last.) Unless there are passages I’ve overlooked, the closest she gets is her remark (on p. 91) that "on one … model … experience serves to trigger innate protroconcepts, transforming preexisting mental objects … into fully fledged intentional objects. [However]… the assertion that protoconcepts are triggered by experience boils down to the observation, with which no one would disagree, that there’s something about our minds such that our experiences lead to our getting concepts." But no argument is provided that the former thesis does indeed `boil down’ to the latter; and a moment’s reflection suggests that it couldn’t possibly. On all standard ethological accounts of triggering, part of what’s innate in a triggered concept is a specification of its proprietary trigger. Since the trigger of an innate concept is both proprietary and innately specified, such concepts can be unvacuously individuated by reference to what would trigger them; which is to say, by reference to their characterisic dispositions to enter into world-to-mind relations.
Cowie thinks that postulating innate concepts should be avoided because it raises a pseudo-question to which no answer can be forthcoming: What constitutes the content of a concept when the concept is causally inert (eg. before it is triggered)? I’ve just argued, to the contrary, that the content of protoconcepts is no particular problem for a semantic externalist, so long as he assumes that it supervenes on (possibly unactualized) dispositions. But there is also a less narrow point to make; one that I think is sufficiently interesting as to merit (sigh, another) digression. The question about content that Cowie thinks that the postulation of innate concepts raises is of a kind that has familiar avatars outside nativist psychology. And it’s one which, in consequence of the so-called `informational revolution’ in biology, we now have some idea how to answer.
Put innate ideas to one side, and consider the structural similarity between two problems, the solution of each of which was crucial in determining the course of a science that raised it:
Mendel’s problem: What becomes of the properties of organisms when they aren’t phenotypically expressed?
(J.B.) Watson’s problem: What becomes of the intentional contents of propositional attitudes when they aren’t the objects of thought?
In both cases, there is the same crucial constraint on the answer. Unexpressed phenotypic properties needn’t just `go away’; they can skip generations and cause the offspring of heterozygotes to be more similar to their grandparents than they are to their parents. Likewise, the behavioral (etc.) expressions of one’s propositional attitudes are typically discontinuous; often, you can remember your name even across an interval of dreamless sleep. By contrast, however, causal chains can’t skip links; they require that something going on all the timebetween the first component cause and the last component effect. So, what’s to do? How can it be that mental contents that aren’t being thought, and phenotypic traits that aren’t being instantiated, are nonetheless among the links in causal chains? These questions must have answers, whatever you may think about innate ideas and such.
As indeed they do. Unexpressed traits (unattended contents) can be coded for by microstructures that persist even through time stretches when the traits (/contents) don’t manifest themselves. So, one’s `genes for’ blue eyes can persist in one’s brown-eyed children, who may then themselves have children with `blue eyes just like Granny’s’. So too, the neural `engram’ that encodes your knowledge of your name may continue to do so even while you’re asleep. Prima facie, these sorts of explanation of (what would otherwise appear to be) temporal gaps in causal histories are extremely persuasive. Watson himself went half bananas trying (and failing) to reconcile them with his behaviorism. (At one point, he was tempted by the thought that a sleeper who remembers that P is perhaps saying `P’ to himself, soto voce, all through the night.) Mendel, being less methodologically inhibited, invented the gene.
Well, the protoconcept problem belongs to the same family as Watson’s problem and Mendel’s problem; and the indubitable successes of the encoding notion in the latter cases suggests its adoption to vindicate innate ideas. You can have an (eg. innate) concept that is (de facto) causally inert because there are, literally in your head, neural structures that encode the content of such concepts. If semantic externalism is assumed, then a neural structure encodes the content it does in virtue of its disposition to enter into certain world-to-brain causal interactions (eg. in virtue of its disposition to be activated by certain kinds of things-in-the-world.) The methodological moral is this: If Cowie has an a priori argument to show that protoconcepts can’t have contents because they are de facto causally inert, she needs to make sure that it doesn’t also show that neural structures can’t encode the contents of causally inert mental states or that genetic structures can’t encode unexpressed phenotypic properties. I don’t, myself, see how she is going to split these differences; and if she’s unable to do so, prudence suggests that she withdraw her a priori objection to protoconcepts. The `informational revolution’ is currently blowing a full gale in several of the biological sciences; and it is, as sailors say, inadvisable to spit against the wind.
3.4 Cowies argument for prototypes.
It’s common ground that some such premise as 3.2.1 appears essentially in Impossibility Arguments For, suppose that most concepts are prototypes after all. Then most concepts are complex, and could be learned by confirming hypotheses that identify the prototype. If the concept FISH is the prototype `wet, lives in the ocean and has scales’ then learning that fish are (typically) wet, scaly and ocean dwelling is all there need be to learning FISH. So sans an argument that most concepts aren’t prototypes, IA fails.
But there is such an argument, and it’s short. Let C1 be a complex concept, of which the constituents are C2 … Cn (each of the latter may be either primitive or complex.) Then: nothing belongs to the content of C1 except what belongs to the content of C2 or C3 or…Cn. Call this the Compositionality Constraint (=CC.) It says, in effect, that that the identity of a complex concept is entirely determined by the identity of its constituents. Since Cowie doesn’t deny the compositionality of concepts, I won’t bother to argue for CC except to remark that, as far as anybody knows, explaining the productivity and systematicity of conceptual repertoires depends on it. That makes CC not negotiable.
We arrive at Cowie’s second objection to the Impossibility Argument.
I hold that concepts can’t be prototypes, hence that `most’ concepts must be unstructured, hence that most concepts must be unlearned. My argument for the crucial first step is that prototypes don’t satisfy CC. Patently (to cite some of the classic examples) the prototypical pet fish is neither a prototypical pet nor a prototypical fish; the prototypical male nurse may be a prototypical male but is not a prototypical nurse. And so on through productively many cases. (For much more discussion, and for the argument that if concepts are prototypes, the set of counterexamples to CC is productive, see Fodor 1998a, Ch. 4.)
To this line of thought, Cowie offers the following reply. Perhaps the possession conditions for `most’ primitive concepts have two parts: they require both a prototype and something that determines the concept’s extension. Since the prototypes of a concept is, ipso facto, the intentional object of some of that concept’s owner’s propositional attitudes, learning its prototype can be a possession condition for having even a primitive concept. However, by assumption, prototypes do not satisfy CC; accordingly complex concepts need not have prototypes (and if a complex concept does, its prototype needn’t be inherited from its constituents.) The situation is otherwise for the extension-determiners. Externalism being assumed, the extension of a concept is determined by causal (world-to- mind) relations; so concept possession requires the appropriate such relations to be in place. But nobody need know what they are, or even thatthey are, in order to have the concept in question. This is Cowie’s version of the familiar externalist maxim that meanings `ain’t in the head.’ (The general picture derives, of course, from Putnam (1975).) Cowie expresses her two-factor account of the individuation of primitive concepts by saying that there are two senses of `meaning’ (circa p. 145): meanings "in the technical sense" are required to compose. Meanings "in the intuitive sense" are what prototype theory gives an account of, and CC doesn’t apply to them.
So everything’s fine; for `most’ concepts, including most primitive concepts, the possession conditions can after all include some learning that P. IAs to the contrary not withstanding.
This is a way out of impossibility arguments that a lot of people have suggested (including Stephen Schiffer, Christopher Peacocke, Jessie Prinz, Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence among others). The key idea is that, although nothing belongs to the individuation of a complex concept except what it inherits from its constituents (per CC), it doesn’t follow that nothing belongs to the individuation of a constituent concept except what it contribute to its hosts. This means that there can be possession conditions for a constituent concept that are not ipso facto among the possession conditions of its hosts., and knowing the prototype for the concept might be one of these, So it could turn out that, although you can’t have DOG unless you know the DOG prototype, nevertheless, you can have the DOG FROM NEBRASK even though there is no prototype that corresponds to it; all that’s required, for the latter, is that the corresponding mental representation have the right semantic value.
But this two factor story won’t do. For extended discussion, see Fodor 1998b, Chs. 3.4; but here’s the gist: If the possession conditions on a constituent concept C are not inherited by its host H, then it should be perfectly possible to have the latter without having the former. So (eg.) it should be perfectly possible to have the concept DOG FROM NEBRASKA without having either the concept DOG or the concept NEBRASKA. (A fortiori, it should be possible that someone is able to think DOG FROM NEBRASKA but not able to think either DOG or NEBRASKA and so does not find `compelling’ either the inference that dogs from Nebraska are dogs, or that they are from Nebraska, or that if something is a dog and from Nebraska, then it’s a dog from Nebraska.) I take that to be about as decisive as reductios get in this part of the woods.
The upshot is that CC needs to hold in a biconditional form: P is a possession condition on a constituent concept iff it is a possession condition on that concept’s hosts; nothing belongs to the content of a primitive concept except what it transmits to its hosts. If this is right it is very important quite aside from the innateness issues. Practically all the standard theories of conceptual content (mutatis mutandis lexical meaning, assuming that the meaning of a word is the concept it expresses) fail this strong version of CC. In particular, all theories fail according to whichepistemic capacities are among the conditions on concept possession. Probably that leaves only theories that identify conceptual contents (/lexical meanings) with semantic values. These are, however, Very Deep Matters, best discussed elsewhere. (See, once again, Fodor 1998b (Chs. 4 and 5). I do wish you would read those papers. Perhaps if I were to offer a small reward? )
Where does this leave us? Well, if CC holds in its strong form, then the Impossibility Argument is presumably ok; anyhow, it’s ok for all that Cowie has to say against it. If the Impossibility Argument is ok, then `most’ such concepts as CAT. DOORKNOB and CARBURATOR aren’t acquired by a learning process, which is what I’ve been trying to tell you all along.
But now there’s really is a quandary since, if most concepts aren’t learned by hypothesis formation and confirmation, why is it that so many concepts are acquired from experiences of things that fall under them? Why is it, for example, that DOORKNOB is typically acquired from experiences of doorknobs (and not, say, from experiences with cats, carburetors or pet fish?) If , as IA appears to require, the processes underlying concept acquisition are more like triggering than they are like induction, almost anything might turn out to be the trigger for DOORKNOB.
That is what Concepts called the `doorknob/DOORKNOB’ (=d/D) problem. The main theme of Concepts is that you have a d/D problem as soon as you accept the Impossibility Argument:for, whereas IA says that concept acquisition can’t be a kind of induction, the fact that concepts are typically learned from their instance suggests that it has to be. The Impossibility Argument wants concept nativism, and the d/D problem wants concept empiricism. You can’t have both so something’s gotta give.
Concepts offered a way of splitting this difference; one I rather like (though. of course, Cowie doesn’t.) A word on this and then we really are finished. Promise.
3.5 The `Constitution’ Thesis.
Concepts suggests an alternative to inductivist solutions of the d/D problem. True, we generally acquire DOORKNOB from doorknobs (indeed, from good (roughly, paradigm) instances of doorknobs). So be it. But maybe that’s not after all because concept acquisition is hypothesis confirmation; maybe it’s because of what property being a doorknob is. The idea is that being a doorknob is mind-dependent. To be a doorknob is to have that property that minds like ours `lock’ to in consequence of the kinds of experiences from which our kinds of mind learn the doorknob prototype. In effect, the proposal is to do for (or to) being a doorknob what Locke did for being red (and what Hume’s `second definition’ proposes to do for being a cause(Treatise, Bk. 1 Sect. XIV)); namely make it a property that’s defined relative to us. If one takes this line, then `how come DOORKNOB is generally learned from doorknobs?’ is to be answered in the same way that Locke dealt with `How come it’s typically red-sensations that red things cause us to have?’ The answer, in both cases, is `that’s of the essence of the properties concerned’.
As I say, this strikes me as rather a good idea; I intend, in fact, to spend a couple of more years having it. If it works, then empiricists and rationalists are both partly right about where concepts come from. The acquisition of DOORKNOB, for example, has two phases: One of them maps from (eg.) doorknob experiences to (something like) a doorknob prototype. Since prototype formation is generally held to be a species of statistical inference, this phase of concept acquisition approximates to being a rational process, just as empiricists would like. But, as we’ve seen, prototypes don’t compose, so they aren’t the right kind of mental representations to be concepts; or even to be components of concepts, given that CC holds in the strong form. So there has to be another stage of DOORKNOB acquisition; one that starts from a doorknob prototype and yields a mental representation that is of the right kind to be the concept DOORKNOB; namely a mental representation that is `locked’ (see above) to an extension that includes all and only the doorknobs. I suppose it’s just a brute fact about minds like ours that experiences of the sort that eventuate in doorknob-prototype-formation also eventuate in locking to doorknobhood; if we had different kinds of minds, we’d (as one used to say) `generalize’ differently from our experiences of prototypical doorknobs. Likewise, if we had different kinds of eyes, we wouldn’t generalize from experiences of tomatoes to a mental representation that’s locked to being red. So said Locke, and so say I.
Well, of course there are lots of problems with this picture; and of course the odds are that nothing of the kind will work; those are overwhelmingly the odds on any theory of mind that’s been thought of so far. But I’m unmoved by what Cowie has against it. So deeply unmoved, in fact, that I’ll take only a moment in going through her objections.
The first is that Cowie doesn’t like Lockean essences; she doesn’t like properties being individuated in terms of the effects things that things that instance them have on us. She says she suspects that this kind of metaphysics must always turn out circular. (Cf. the traditional worry about Lock’s story about being red: that it presupposes the notion of a red-sensation). But, as Cowie herself remarks, the discussion of this point has now had a couple of hundred years of being inconclusive. Perhaps it will eventually come out my (and Locke’s) way after all. Since Cowey admits to having no argument to the contrary that amounts to more than voicing a suspicion, how about if we all agree to give me the benefit of this doubt?
Cowie’s second objection begs the main issue. She says that my story about the constitution of doorknobhood and the like doesn’t really give us what we want. What Cowies says we want is a psychology of concept acquisition; in particular, a theory of the mechanism whose operation explains it. Whereas, Cowie complains, I haven’t provided anything like such a theory; only a (dubious) metaphysics for being a doorknob. It is a "serious mistake" to confuse a piece of metaphysics (dubious or otherwise) with a theory of cognition. To offer the one where the other is wanted would be a typical example of philosophical a priorism.
Indeed it would; but in fact I don’t. The `constitution’ story isn’t supposed to be a theory of concept acquisition; it’s supposed to be an answer to the d/D problem. The whole point of the strategy in Concepts to argue that d/D for distinguishing the d/D problem from the concept acquisition problem. According to Concepts, d/D is a metaphysical problem that’s been misidentified as psychological. What really is psychological (according to me) is not d/D but concept acquisition. Nobody knows how concept acquisition works, and I’m not expecting that anybody will find out in the next couple of weeks. But at lest we can avoid a paradox that had seemed to threaten: on the one hand, d/D gives us good reason to believe that something inductive (like prototype formation) is part of concept acquisition; and, on the other hand, the Impossibility Argument shows that concept acquisition can’t be inductive. This looks like a dilemma, hence a serious embarrassment for anybody who runs a concept-based theory of mind, whichever side of the rationalist/empiricist dispute he favors. It seems, in fact, to show that there’s something wrong with RTM per se.
But, thank goodness, the constitution story shows that it doesn’t. So, like the man in Kierkegaard, we’re alright so for.
Now, really: Did that sound to you like a moan? Or a cry for help? According to Cowie, "Fodor’s position is of a kind with the mystery-mongering of Descartes and Leibnitz… Fodor makes it admirably explicit that his `bottom line’ … is that acquiring concepts is a psychologically inexplicable process… none of the psychologist’s business. (106-107)."
Actually, if I can have Leibniz and/or Descarts for company, I’m quite prepared to monger mysteries till the cows come home. Still, the present objection is another case of Cowie’s failing to grasp the polemical position. If concept formation includes a brute causal process (like the triggering of a concept by a prototype) then to that extent it is none of the (intentional) psychologist’s business. But it doesn’t follow that it’s a mystery, or that it’s `inexplicable’ tout court. (While we’re at it, it also doesn’t follow that it isn’t.) What follows is just that concept acquisition is not a phenomenon in the domain of (intentional) psychology. Contrary, to be sure, to what intentional psychologists have generally supposed. Maybe concept acquisition is a phenomenon in the domain of neurology; or physiology; or, for all I know (and for all Cowie does), geology. Any of those would surely be compatible with `the scientific world view’. Most, indeed overwhelmingly most, things that happen in the world aren’t phenomena in the domain of intentional psychology. What’s so interesting about the mind, as cognitive science has come to understand it, is that it appears to be atypical; some of the things that happen in it apparently are. The research issue (not to be answered a priori) is which ones?
`All right, all right; so maybe your constitution story isn’t a cry for help. But isn’t it still Radically Nativist? Are you a rationalist or aren’t you? Damn it, why don’t you `fess up?’ "Regardless of what Fodor wants to call himself, the question still arises: Is he a nativist….(Cowie, p. 106)" Actually, what I’m trying for is something in the middle: Empiricism is right about the relation between one’s experiences and the prototypes that having them lead one to construct. Nativism is right about the relation between the prototypes that one’s experiences lead one to construct and the concepts that constructing the prototypes trigger. Does that make Fodor Still A Radical Nativist After All? If, you positively insist that I come out of the closet here’s my very last word:
Science is hard, theory is long, and life is short. Still, we should all do our best not to think in headlines.
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