Doing Without What’s Within; Fiona Cowie’s Critique of Nativism

by Jerry Fodor

Rutgers University

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;
1 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 hereinafter 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 Cowie 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 empiricism. 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 about
something; 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)”.
2 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 has
no 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 (2000.))
        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)”.
3 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!!! 4
        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 (1992)) 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. 5
        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.
6, 7 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 characteristic 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. 8
        A final exegetical remark; according to Cowie, 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.
9 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. 10
        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 specificity 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. 11 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.

  1.     The thesis that UG is innate depends on the thesis that only grammars compatible with UG are `psychologically real’.
  2.     Grammars are psychologically real only if they are mentally represented.
  3.     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.
  4.     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.
  5.     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.
  6.     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.
  7.     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:

  1.     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 success of grammar is on offer. So, all else equal, we should suppose that the information that grammars express is available to speaker/hearers.
  2.     Cognitivism is common ground; a speaker/hearer’s behavior should be explained by reference to his propositional attitudes.
  3.     Taken together, (i) and (ii) license the (nondemonstrative) inference that the information grammars express is part of  the what speaker/hearers know/believe/cognize. 12
  4.     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.
  5.     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. 13 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 represented.
         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 Cowie 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.
14 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.15 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 16 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) 17.) 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 stimulus… 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.18 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?") Pullam 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) 19 " 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? 20
        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 21 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 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’ 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 procedures 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
22, 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 he doesn’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? 23
        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 encounter. 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 24. 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".25
        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 neutral constraint enjoining him (ceteris paribus) always to prefer theories that represent experiential regularities as structure dependent. That would be perfectly all right 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.
26 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] H¬¬¬2").
        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 have such 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.’ Mirabile dictu, Anon could explain the plot of `Simon Boccanegra’, 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 implausible view, 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.
End fable.
        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 the untechnical 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. 27
        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.

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