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
major weaknesses. The first is its impressionistic and inexact formulations.
The second is its divisive polarizations. One can see the reasons for the
weakness. Developmental psycholinguistics is only about 30 years old
(ignoring diary studies which preceded the linguistic and cognitive surge
the sixties). But speculation and hypothesizing on the basis of relatively
data and passing acquaintance with phenomena has reached the level of
customary ‘business as usual’. We are skilful at hypothesis
we are regretfully delinquent at formulating clear tests of our hypotheses.
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
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
is ultimately detrimental. At some point we must disentangle ourselves
customary dialogue and transcend our deeply rutted patterns of thought.
When I began Rethinking innateness, I had hoped that the book
us overcome these two weaknesses. I believe that it contributes positively
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.