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  • Cited by 180
  • Print publication year: 1994
  • Online publication date: August 2010

7 - Domain-specific knowledge and conceptual change



We argue that human reasoning is guided by a collection of innate domain-specific systems of knowledge. Each system is characterized by a set of core principles that define the entities covered by the domain and support reasoning about those entities. Learning, on this view, consists of an enrichment of the core principles, plus their entrenchment, along with the entrenchment of the ontology they determine. In these domains, then, we would expect cross-cultural universality: cognitive universals akin to language universals.

However, there is one crucial disanalogy to language. The history of science and mathematics demonstrates that conceptual change in cognitive domains is both possible and actual. Conceptual change involves overriding core principles, creating new principles, and creating new ontological types. We sketch one potential mechanism underlying conceptual change and motivate a central empirical problem for cognitive anthropology: To what extent is there cross-cultural universality in the domains covered by innate systems of knowledge?

Domain-specific cognition

The notion of domain-specific cognition to be pursued here is articulated most clearly by Chomsky (1980a). Humans are endowed with domainspecific systems of knowledge such as knowledge of language, knowledge of physical objects, and knowledge of number. Each system of knowledge applies to a distinct set of entities and phenomena. For example, knowledge of language applies to sentences and their constituents; knowledge of physical objects applies to macroscopic material bodies and their behavior; knowledge of number applies to sets and to mathematical operations such as addition. More deeply, each system of knowledge is organized around a distinct body of core principles.