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Psychological nativism

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In the field of psychology, nativism is the view that certain skills or abilities are 'native' or hard wired into the brain at birth. This is in contrast to the 'blank slate' or tabula rasa view which states that the brain has little innate ability and almost everything is learned through interaction with the environment.

When understood as an interdisciplinary field in their own right, nativist approaches are referred to collectively as nativist theorizing.

In PhilosophyEdit

Nativism has a history in philosophy, particularly as a reaction to the straightforwardly empiricist views of John Locke and David Hume. Hume had given persuasive logical arguments that people cannot infer causality from perceptual input. The most one could hope to infer is that two events happen in succession or simultaneously. One response to this argument was to posit that concepts that are not supplied by experience, such as causality, must exist prior to any experience and hence must be innate.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant reasoned in his Critique of Pure Reason that the human mind knows objects in innate, a priori ways. Kant claimed that humans, from birth, must experience all objects as being successive (time) and juxtaposed (space). His list of inborn Categories describes predicates that the mind can attribute to any object in general. Schopenhauer agreed with Kant, but reduced the number of innate Categories to one, namely, causality, which presupposes the others.


Nativism is most associated with the work of Jerry Fodor, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker, who argue that we are born with certain cognitive modules(specialised genetically inherited psychological abilities) that allow us to learn and acquire certain skills (such as language). They argue that many such abilities would otherwise be greatly impaired without this genetic contribution (see universal grammar for an example).

Psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith has put forward a theory known as the representational redescription or RR model of development which argues against such strict nativism and which proposes that the brain may become modular through experience within certain domains (such as social interaction or visual perception) rather than modules being genetically pre-specified.


Nativism is sometimes perceived as being too vague to be falsifiable, as there is no fixed definition of when an ability is supposed to be judged "innate." (As Jeffrey Elman and colleagues pointed out in Rethinking Innateness, it is unclear exactly how the supposedly innate information might actually be coded for in the genes)[1] Further, modern nativist theory makes little in the way of specific testable (and falsifiable) predictions, and has been compared by some empiricists to a pseudoscience or nefarious brand of "psychological creationism." As influential psychologist Henry L. Roediger III remarked, "Chomsky was and is a rationalist; he had no uses for experimental analyses or data of any sort that pertained to language, and even experimental psycholinguistics was and is of little interest to him."[2]

Some researchers argue that the premises of linguistic nativism were motivated by outdated considerations and need reconsidering. For example, nativism was at least partially motivated by the perception that statistical inferences made from experience were insufficient to account for the complex languages humans develop. In part, this was a reaction to the failure of behaviorism and behaviorist models of the era to easily account for how something as complex and sophisticated as a full-blown language could ever be learned. Indeed, several nativist arguments were inspired by Chomsky's assertion that children could not learn complicated grammar based on the linguistic input they typically receive, and must therefore have an innate language-learning module, or language acquisition device. However, it is now known that many of the claims in Chomsky's famous poverty of the stimulus argument are empirically false and that children can employ generalization and statistical learning to learn a wide array of both word forms and word distributions.

Over the last several decades, with the advent of more complex and sophisticated brands of mathematics such as complexity theory and game theory, it has become increasingly apparent that extremely complicated systems can evolve from agents with few (if any) pre-programmed rules. Many empiricists are now also trying to apply modern learning models and techniques to the question of language acquisition, with marked success.[3] Similarity-based generalization marks another avenue of recent research, which suggests that children may be able to rapidly learn how to use new words by generalizing about the usage of similar words that they already know (see also the distributional hypothesis).[4][5]

Further researchEdit

Stephen Lawrence initiated an interdisciplinary nativist theorizing project, entitled Innateness and the Structure of the Mind which ran from 2001-2004 and was funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Board (AHRB).

See alsoEdit


  1. Elman, J.L., Bates, E.A., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Johnson, M.H., Parisi, D. & Plunkett, K. (1996) Rethinking Innateness: Connectionism in a Developmental Framework. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. Roediger, R. (2004) "What happened to Behaviorism." American Psychological Society.
  3. Ramscar, M. & Yarlett, D. (2007) Linguistic self-correction in the absence of feedback: A new approach to the logical problem of language acquisition. Cognitive Science: 31, 927-960.
  4. McDonald, S., and Ramscar, M. (2001). Testing the distributional hypothesis: The influence of context on judgements of semantic similarity. In Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, pages 611-616.
  5. Yarlett, D (2008) Language Learning Through Similarity-Based Generalization, PhD Thesis, Stanford University.

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