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The third volume in this series on innate features of minds, Foundations and the Future confronts certain key questions in the area of nativism. Nativism is a multi-disciplinary approach to research or general viewpoint in the area of the mind. It encompasses views on thought, language, and the relationship and development of the two in disciplines ranging from philosophy to cognitive science. Given its wide range, a precise, readily agreed upon, positive definition of nativism is hard to come by. Indeed, nativism’s strongest identifying claim lies in what it opposes: is that it is not empiricism. A good way to think about the competing viewpoints in this debate is to see nativism and empiricism as labels applying to opposite ends of a scale or scales representing a range of views on the nature, structure, and development of mind, rather than simply two opposing and complete theories. Empiricists – insofar as they are considered in this book – are generally thought of as offering rather slim and paltry starting points for mental development: the mind begins its development a blank slate with few tools already in place with which to develop. On the other hand, nativists tend to think that there is an awful lot of structure and capacity in minds right from the start that enable minds to sort out and cope with the vast array of stimuli that all humans are exposed to in life; what nativists need to posit and defend is the existence of certain faculties and abilities as native or in-built to all minds in order to explain certain phenomena.
The issues tackled in this volume do not form a single, fully consistent foundation for nativism. But what the essays do achieve is they show that nativism – broadly construed – is able at the very least to engage in debates that it must engage in in order to be considered a viable approach to the issues involved. The issues tackled in this volume include arguments that deal with the concept of nativism itself, and its compatibility with prevalent scientific theories on genes. Beyond this, essays by, for example, Gabriel Segal try to show that nativism is a better candidate for explaining certain phenomena to do with language and mind than its rivals. Elsewhere, nativists try and show not only that certain minimal abilities can be coherently ascribed to minds in the early stages of development in order to understand how minds can achieve such development but also that these abilities are necessary for the mind’s development.
Some defensive manoeuvres are also performed. One view that seems very much to go hand in hand with nativism is a rejection of fundamental relativism of thought and language of the sort advocated by, for example, Whorf (See Whorf, B.L. 1956. Language, Thought and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). Roughly, Whorf advocates that the results of observations of certain primitive and remote tribes show that human societies can and do develop concepts that are incommensurate with those developed by other human societies; there are no fundamental building blocks or starting points universal to all minds, and it is a philosophical arrogance to think that there are. Nativism looks like it needs to reject such ideas because if humans come pre-engineered with certain concepts and abilities, then it is difficult to maintain that there are different, incommensurate groups of such attributes that lead to radically different routes of human mental development.
This issue is dealt with in one of the essays, by Laurence and Margiolis. However, rather than tackling the general issue head on, Laurence and Margiolis attempt to deal with a study by Gordon which suggests that certain basic numeric abilities to do with quantity are dependent upon natural language (Gordon, P. 2004. ‘Numerical Cognition without Words: Evidence from Amazonia’ Science, 306). In contrast, most nativists will want to say that such basic numeric skills are simply innate. The methodology used by Laurence and Margiolis is specific: it seeks to undermine Gordon’s conclusions from his study, by examining the study itself rather than simply taking an opaque argument structure and offering a contrary viewpoint. While this is satisfying on one level – an in depth and competent dispute over the conclusions to be drawn from certain observations – it fails to convince one that nativists can cope with the more general issues discussed above.
This general methodology is repeated throughout the book. Overall, the routes taken by the essays in the volume are piecemeal and conservative, tackling single key issues that need some nativist response, view or outright rejection
Anyone looking for a primer on nativism will be disappointed in this book. There is little discussion of central tenets and general views on the key issues in the subject areas it overlaps, and the editors make no apology for this. The theory is still establishing itself and its adherents are perhaps not yet confident enough to assert any. However, for those with some knowledge of the debate and issues involved this book will prove informative, not of where all nativists definitively stand, but of what stance they might take, and of how they may approach and answer key questions and challenges from across the array of disciplines that nativism claims to encompass. This book, in bringing together of a number of quality essays on the subject, will help to establish nativism as a serious and rigorous area of research.
© 2009 Timothy Bowen
Timothy Bowen, B.Phil., Oxford