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Rethinking innateness

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 1999

MATTHEW RISPOLI
Affiliation:
Arizona State University

Abstract

Review essay on: ELMAN, J., BATES, E., JOHNSON, M., KARMILOFF-SMITH, A., PARISI, D. & PLUNKETT, K. Rethinking innateness: a connectionist perspective on development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (1996). Pp. 447.

I believe that the field of developmental psycholinguistics suffers from two major weaknesses. The first is its impressionistic and inexact formulations. The second is its divisive polarizations. One can see the reasons for the first weakness. Developmental psycholinguistics is only about 30 years old (ignoring diary studies which preceded the linguistic and cognitive surge of the sixties). But speculation and hypothesizing on the basis of relatively little data and passing acquaintance with phenomena has reached the level of customary ‘business as usual’. We are skilful at hypothesis construction, yet we are regretfully delinquent at formulating clear tests of our hypotheses. We are fond of conjecture about causal relationships, but our empirical tests progress no further than weak forms of correlation.

With regard to our second major weakness, our knack for polarizing opinion regarding chimerical questions such as the innateness of language can also be understood. After all, are we not following the classical dialectic model of thesis, antithesis and eventual synthesis? I think this is an idealized view of ourselves. In fact, we are driven by hunch and bias far more often than we would like to admit. Following hunches may be a real sign of creativity and vitality in our thinking. However, polarization driven by biases is ultimately detrimental. At some point we must disentangle ourselves from customary dialogue and transcend our deeply rutted patterns of thought.

When I began Rethinking innateness, I had hoped that the book might help us overcome these two weaknesses. I believe that it contributes positively to the goal of increasing the precision of our hypotheses and their empirical substantiation. At the same time, I am afraid that it will have a negative impact by aggravating the degree of polarization in our field.

Type
REVIEW ARTICLE AND DISCUSSION
Copyright
© 1999 Cambridge University Press

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