Innateness: Old and New

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<ul><li><p>Philosophical Review</p><p>Innateness: Old and NewAuthor(s): David E. CooperSource: The Philosophical Review, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Oct., 1972), pp. 465-483Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of Philosophical ReviewStable URL: .Accessed: 28/06/2014 18:20</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Duke University Press and Philosophical Review are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extendaccess to The Philosophical Review.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 28 Jun 2014 18:20:23 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>DISCUSSION </p><p>INNATENESS: OLD AND NEW </p><p>I </p><p>M UCH of the interest that Noam Chomsky's work has for non- linguists derives from his claim that some linguistic research </p><p>is "a study of human intellectual capacities ... a subfield of psychol- ogy."' In his book on Chomsky, John Lyons writes: </p><p>It is for these later views (concerning linguistics as a branch of cognitive psychology) ... that Chomsky is now best known.2 </p><p>For philosophers the most interesting part of the claim is the view that the study of grammar lends support to the old theory that men are equipped with innate knowledge.3 I shall refer to the hypothesis(-es) of various seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rationalists as the old innateness hypothesis(-es). Chomsky and some of his followers, notably Katz, argue that language acquisition would be impossible unless children possessed certain kinds of innate knowledge. This claim I shall refer to as the new innateness hypothesis. </p><p>Chomsky and Katz take it that their hypothesis is substantially similar to the old one. Having sketched his own hypothesis and what he takes to be the Descartes/Leibniz doctrine of innateness, Chomsky writes: </p><p>It seems to me that the conclusions regarding the nature of language acquisi- tion, discussed above, are fully in accord with the doctrine of innate ideas so understood, and can be regarded as providing a kind of substantiation and further development of this doctrine.4 </p><p>1 Chomsky, Language and Mind (New York, I968), p. 24. 2 Lyons, Noam Chomsky (New York, I970), p. 83. 3This interest is attested to by the Chomsky/Putnam/Goodman symposium </p><p>in Synthese (i967) and the dozen or more articles on the topic in Language and Philosophy, edited by S. Hook (New York, 1969). </p><p>4 "Recent Contributions to the Theory of Innate Ideas," Synthzse (i967), p. I0. </p><p>465 </p><p>5 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 28 Jun 2014 18:20:23 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>DAVID E. COOPER </p><p>Chomsky, indeed, devotes a whole chapter of his book, Cartesian Linguistics, to establishing just this affinity with the old doctrine.5 And Katz writes: </p><p>The theory of language ... makes up for the vagueness of classical rationalist attempts to put forth their doctrine. Thus the principle defect of the rationalist position is removed.6 </p><p>My aim in this paper is to show that Chomsky and Katz considerably exaggerate the similarities between their innateness hypothesis and the old one. The new is not, as Katz would have it, a more precise version of the old; on the contrary, it differs on substantial counts. Only by, first, biased selection and misinterpretation of older writings and by, second, employing crucial terms like "universal" or "necessary" in equivocal ways, is it possible to regard the new as a modern-dress version of the old. Once a fairer perspective of older writings is taken, and crucial terms disambiguated, any remaining affinities will not seem impressive. </p><p>I am not suggesting that Chomsky's account of language acquisition loses interest once its lack of similarity with older doctrines is high- lighted. His critique of the inductivist techniques of acquisition proposed by Skinner, Osgood, and others has the interest it does irrespective of what Descartes or Herbert of Cherbury might have said three hundred years ago. It is valuable to examine the relation- ship between old and new hypotheses, however, and not for purely historical reasons alone. For Chomsky and Katz, in their exposition of their own hypothesis, rely heavily on the reader being able to fill out their rather sketchy remarks on innateness through his acquain- tance with the rationalist tradition. If it turns out that there is little resemblance to this older tradition, the reader is not going to be helped, and may be hindered, by reading into the new theory doctrines that belong to a quite different body of thought. Further, seventeenth- century discussions of innateness were paradigmatically philosophical, and if we assume Chomsky is merely resurrecting those discussions we shall also assume that the issues which concern him are essentially philosophical. But once the affinity is seen to be illusory, it might turn out that there is little of philosophical contention contained in Chomsky's doctrine-no more, perhaps, than in Lorenz' account of innate "imprinting" behavior.7 </p><p>5(New York, I966), ch. 5. 6Jerrold Katz, The Philosophy of Language (New York, i966), p. 270. 7For Lorenz, "imprinting" behavior among young animals is behavior </p><p>466 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 28 Jun 2014 18:20:23 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>INNATENESS: OLD AND NEW </p><p>To be fair, Chomsky does have reservations about the affinity between his theory and older ones. He admits that "similarities have been stressed and divergences and conflicts overlooked."8 I shall, however, take at face value his interpretations of past theories and criticize these. No doubt I shall be stressing divergences and over- looking similarities; but this will serve as a useful antidote to the opposite distortion of which Chomsky is guilty. </p><p>II </p><p>Initial doubts over the affinity between old and new set in once it is realized how over-generous Chomsky and Katz are to the rationalists. They attribute both a uniformity and a coherence to their views which these views simply did not possess. In the passages already quoted, we see confident references to the doctrine of innate ideas, or the rationalist position. Yet a cursory glance at rationalist writings reveals no single, uniform doctrine of innateness. Most obviously rationalists disagreed as to which ideas and principles were innate. While the ideas of God and Identity appear on almost all lists, there the uniformity ends. Descartes, for example, seems to claim in the following passage that all ideas are innate, including those of colors and shapes: </p><p>In our ideas there is nothing which was not innate in the mind, or faculty of thinking . . . for nothing reaches our mind from external objects through our organs of sense beyond certain corporeal movements... [which] are not conceived by us in the shape they assume in the organs of sense.9 </p><p>Leibniz, though, opts for a much more restricted list. He employs the criterion that innate ideas are those which permeate all thinking. </p><p>The ideas of being, of possibility, of identity, are so thoroughly innate, that they enter into all our thoughts and reasonings.10 </p><p>which does not result from conditioning, learning, or imitation, and hence is assumed to be something toward which the animals are innately predisposed. The favorite example is the manner in which young geese follow at the heels of the farmer. See his "Der Kumpan in der Umwelt des Vogels," Journal of Ornithology (I935). </p><p>8 Cartesian Linguistics, p. 73. 9 Notes Directed Against a Certain Programme, in The Philosophical Works of </p><p>Descartes, trans. by Haldane and Ross (Cambridge, I93i), I, 442-443. 10 New Essays on the Human Understanding, trans. by Langley (2nd ed.; La </p><p>Salle, Ill., i9i6), p. ioo. </p><p>467 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 28 Jun 2014 18:20:23 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>DAVID E. COOPER </p><p>When we turn to principles, there is even less uniformity. "Ex nihilo, nihil fit" is about the only one that figures on all lists. Lord Herbert, for example, counts only certain "Notitiae Communes" or "First Principles" as innate, whereas Leibniz argues that all necessary truths, including those of mathematics, are innate.11 And once we remember that most of the principles regarded as innate were practical ones, "formulations of the existing values of the society,"12 we indeed find ourselves with a motley list. It is difficult to suppose there can be much uniformity among doctrines which proclaim the innateness of "Ex nihilo, nihilfit" and of "The obscene parts and actions are not to be exposed to publick view."13 </p><p>More important is the lack of uniformity in the various arguments for innateness which were proposed. Chomsky and Katz are both guilty of lumping together rationalists' arguments which are dissimilar and sometimes incompatible with one another. On page 49 of his Aspects of the Theory of Syntax Chomsky quotes a passage from Arnauld in which it is argued that all our ideas are innate since none of them resemble what the senses come in contact with.14 He then says (p. 50) that Leibniz argues "in the same vein." Yet in the relevant passage, Leibniz argues quite differently from Arnauld, to the effect that neces- sary truths are innate because they are universal, and the senses "never give us anything but ... particular and individual truths." The implication that only some truths are innate is incompatible with what Arnauld says, so hardly "in the same vein." Again, on pages 66-67 of Cartesian Linguistics, Chomsky quotes the passage from Des- cartes (quoted above), in which Descartes argues that no idea is derived from the senses since no idea resembles what is provided by the senses. Chomsky then says that "rather similar ideas are developed at length by Cudworth." Yet Cudworth is making the quite separate point that since sight informs us only of the surfaces of things, the ideas of the things themselves have been "actively exerted from within (the soul)." </p><p>Chomsky and Katz equally exaggerate the degree of coherence and intelligibility belonging to any single thinker's writings. Both stress that Descartes and Leibniz did not take innate knowledge to be </p><p>11 Specimen of Thoughts upon the ist Book of the Essay on the Human Understanding, in New Essays, p. 2I. </p><p>12 J.Y. Yolton, John Locke and the Way of Ideas (Oxford, I956), p. 28. 13 Sir Matthew Hale, The Primitive Origination of Mankind, i677; quoted in </p><p>Yolton, op. cit., p. 28. 14 Cambridge, Mass., i965. </p><p>468 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 28 Jun 2014 18:20:23 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>INNATENESS: OLD AND NEW </p><p>"actual," but only "dispositional," so that Locke's "caricature" of the innateness doctrine does not fit them. Katz, for example, writes: </p><p>the rationalist is (not) claiming that all our ideas arise from innate forms in a way that is wholly independent of a selective effect of experience.15 </p><p>But can the "dispositional" view be attributed unequivocally to Descartes or Leibniz? There are passages, which Chomsky and Katz are fond of quoting, which suggest they took this view. For example, there is Descartes's well-known analogy between innate knowledge and hereditary diseases which children are "born with a certain disposition or propensity for contracting."16 And Katz quotes Leibniz as saying: </p><p>ideas and truths are innate in us, as natural inclinations, dispositions, habits or powers, and not as activities.'7 </p><p>Yet it is easy to find other passages of the writers which do not square with those above. Both of them often speak as if men literally and actually know certain truths prior to experience, the only unusual characteristic of such knowledge being that it is unconscious. Descartes replies to Gassendi as follows: </p><p>You have a difficulty, however, you say as to whether I think the soul always thinks. But why should it not always think, when it is a thinking substance? Why is it strange that we do not remember the thoughts it has had in the womb or in a stupor, when we do not even remember most of those we have had when grown up, in good health, and awake.'8 </p><p>Leibniz, too, says at one point that his sole disagreement with Plato's theory of reminiscence in the Meno is over the claim that the knowledge we have at birth has been acquired in a previous life. The theory, he says, is "very sound ... purged of the error of pre-existence.'9 Leibniz sees nothing else wrong with the view that we possess knowledge at birth. Surely, too, it is difficult to square the following passage with the one quoted by Katz: </p><p>I am of the opinion of those who believe that the soul always thinks, although often its thoughts are too confused and too feeble for it to be able to distinctly remember them.20 </p><p>15 Katz, op. cit., p. 243. 16 Descartes, op. cit., I, 442. 17 Katz, op. cit., p. 244. 18 Descartes, op. cit., II, 2IO. 19 Discourse on Metaphysics, trans. by Lucas and Grant (Manchester, I953), </p><p>P. 45. 20 Specimen of Thoughts upon the 2nd Book, in New Essays, p. 24. </p><p>469 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Sat, 28 Jun 2014 18:20:23 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>DAVID E. COOPER </p><p>Only highly selective editing can lend an air of coherence to the views of Descartes and Leibniz. Both are tempted toward the Lockean "caricature" of the innateness doctrine, as well as toward the "dis- positional" view. It is arguable, of course, that no real issue is involved in the "actual" versus "dispositional" debate. Chomsky, indeed, has said that when it comes to formulating his own thesis "no more is at stake than a decision to apply the term 'knowledge' in a rather obscure area."'21 There are two points to make about this. First, Chomsky is, at various points, anxious to defend Descartes and Leibniz against the Lockean "caricature"-in his replies to some of Goodman's criticisms, for example, which, he says, suffer "first from an historical misunder- standing."22 Surely it is a most peculiar tactic to spend time seeking affinity with earlier writers, de...</p></li></ul>