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Framing The Innateness Hypothesis Essay

1597 words - 6 pages

Framing the Innateness Hypothesis

Perhaps the most traditional way of framing the innateness hypothesis would be in terms of an opposition between rationalism and empiricism. This is an opposition that is frequently encountered in philosophical debates over language acquisition, with the one side arguing that language acquisition is a phenomenon associated with the maturation of a language faculty or "organ," while the other side argues that language acquisition is instead a process of generalization from experience. Underlying these two positions are specific hypotheses regarding the resources the child brings to the task of acquiring language. The rationalist postulates the existence of innate ideas and/or principles, while the empiricist does not. Chomsky's position, as he consistently has acknowledged for decades, is rationalist. As he put it not long after Aspects appeared, his is a theory of " psychological a priori principles that bears a striking resemblance to the classical doctrine of innate ideas " (Searle 1977 p. 121). This general description is as valid for the current Government Binding (GB) theory as it was for the various Transformational-Generative (TG) programs of the 1960s and 1970s.

Does anything consequential follow from this opposition? I believe it does. Prima facie, of course, there is a significant difference between the assertion that there are innate ideas and principles and the assertion that there are not, and it is reasonable to expect that a research program based on either position would hypothesize explanatory agents, frame questions, and categorize evidence in a way that would differ significantly from the other.

Of perhaps more importance, however, is the fact that rationalist and empiricist hypotheses are addressed to fairly different explananda. In terms of developmental phenomena, the generative theory's rationalism can be seen as largely concerned with explaining the activation of the a priori principles determining the adult's attained language state, whereas more or less empiricist theories -- connectionist-inspired theories come immediately to mind -- have been concerned with explaining the dynamic stages understood to be manifested in the child's linguistic development. Consequently, the rationalist and empiricist explanatory programs are aimed at different fundamental questions regarding language acquisition. Whereas the generative program asks

How are linguistic parameters set on the basis of the input stimuli?

the empiricist program asks

How are the rules of grammar inductively generalized on the basis of the input stimuli?

The object of explanation aimed at in the first question is the maturation of a hypothesized pregiven language faculty, while the corresponding object of explanation aimed at in the second question is the " bootstrapping " by which language is learned. (It is worth noting that the generative program appears to be less concerned with developmental...

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