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Review of  Words, Thoughts and Theories

Reviewer: Laura Wagner
Book Title: Words, Thoughts and Theories
Book Author: Alison Gopnik Andrew N. Meltzoff
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 9.1615

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Gopnik, Alison and Andrew N. Meltzoff (1997) Words, Thoughts and
Theories. Cambridge: MIT Press. 268 pages. $14 (paperback)

Reviewd by Laura Wagner, University of Massachusetts.

Gopnik and Meltzoff (G&M) have written a book that is full of
ideas and information. They are interested in what our
representations of the world look like and they are pushing the view
they call the Theory Theory: that our representations are organized
around theories. More than that, they argue that children's
representations of the world are also organized around theories and
that developmental changes children undergo are in fact changes in
their theories. Even more than that, they argue that the theory
revisions that children make are of precisely the same type as
scientific theory revisions. That is, the difference between a 9
month old and an 18 month old is essentially the same as that between
a Newtonian physicist and an Einsteinian physicist: they possess
qualitatively different theories of how the world works. The use of
''words'' in the title refers to two claims that G&M make: one, that
children's early vocabulary reflects technical notions in their theory
du jour and two, that linguistic elements can act as part of the
evidence children use in theory building.

The book is divided into three sections, in addition to the
introduction and conclusion. The first section addresses the
theoretical commitments of the Theory Theory and relates it other
theories of cognitive organization and development. The second
section examines three domains of knowledge for evidence of children's
changing theories. The third section has a neo-Whorfian flavor and
addresses the question of how different languages could effect
children's theory-building.

Part 1: The Theory Theory

In this section, G&M face head on what is certainly the most
difficult of their claims to swallow, namely that children's early
theories about the world are qualitatively the same as scientific
theories and subject to revision in the same ways. While
acknowledging that there are many differences between the ways
scientists and infants operate, they nevertheless maintain that they
both construct the same sorts of theories in the same ways. The
theories of both are abstract and general, and therefore provide a
means for making predictions in a variety of domains. Both groups are
concerned with the match of the theory to the world and will maintain
a theory only as long as the evidence supports it. When evidence
mounts against a theory, the theory holder goes into a transitional
state, actively seeking out new sorts of evidence, conducting
experiments and developing new technical vocabulary as they settle
into a new and better theory. One of G&M's strong claims is that the
standard adult theory (the so-called ''folk-physics'' and
''folk-psychology'', e.g.) is in principle open to revision; it was
developed in response to inadequate child theories of the world, and,
as with all scientific theories, it too will be revised, if the need

The second chapter in this section compares the Theory Theory
to two other prominent cognitive models, modularity and empirical
generalizations (e.g., scripts, connectionism). G&M do not present
the Theory Theory as a substitute for either of these models
completely but as taking over some roles from each. Thus, with
respect to modularity, the Theory Theory accounts well for many
central cognitive processes and some of the less perceptually oriented
modular processes; with respect to empirical generalizations, the
Theory Theory is better equipped to deal with things like causal
linkages and can provide a deeper level of explanation in general, but
such generalizations may still form an important basis for the
creation of theories.

Part 2: Evidence for the Theory Theory

Part 2 consists of three chapters which each take on a
different knowledge domain and show how the Theory Theory can explain
children's development in these areas. Chapter 4 deals with
children's theories of appearances and addresses children's
development with respect to object permanence. Chapter 5 takes on
children's theories of action and causality with animate and inanimate
things. Chapter 5 addresses children's developing theories of natural
kinds. Each chapter discusses what the adult theory in each of these
domains looks like and then marshals experimental evidence that
demonstrates what the infant's initial theory looks like and what
subsequent revisions to their theory the children make. In each
domain, they argue that children make crucial theory changes around
the ages of 9 months and again around the age of 18 months. G&M
report the results from many experiments (a large number of them
conducted by G and/or M themselves) which amply illustrate that
children's competence in these domains changes (and improves) with
age. This experimental evidence is at times augmented with anecdotal
accounts of how infants affectively interact with different tasks at
different ages. G&M are looking for scientific behavior from these
children and it is therefore important not only that children can pass
more tasks as they get older (and their theories get better) but that
they view the tasks differently as they get older. They point to
examples of emotional consternation that infants show around the time
that their theories are putatively changing. Thus, a 15 month old
will fail to find an object that has been secretly moved to a new
hiding place but will be unperturbed by her failure; a 21 month old
will find the object in the new place but will be unimpressed by her
own success. An 18 month old, however, is both deeply disturbed when
she fails (and by the structure of the task as a whole) but is joyful
with success. G&M argue that such affective differences reflect
something like the blase-ness of normal science compared to the eureka
moments that mark a theory in change.

With respect to linguistics, one of the claims from these
chapters is that early utterances may correspond to technical
vocabulary of newly formed theories. G&M's arguments are particularly
intriguing with respect to performative utterances, such as ''gone'' and
''uhoh'' which are quite frequent in the speech of 18 month olds but
have been largely ignored in language acquisition studies. They claim
that, for example, the emergence of the word ''gone'' in child speech is
closely linked with children's ability to solve an invisible
displacement task (when an object is secretly moved to a new hiding
place). ''Gone'' indicates an object that is out of sight for any
reason, and it is in effect a technical term, reflecting a concept in
the infant's new theory.

Part 3: Language and Thought

In the previous chapters, the kinds of evidence that G&M
suggested were driving theory formation and revision arose primarily
from children's interactions with objects, actions and people in the
world. In this chapter, G&M note that language itself is part of the
child's world and different languages could in principle provide
different kinds of evidence. Since the children's theories are not
innately given but are presumed to be constructed on the basis of the
evidence they get from the world, different kinds of linguistic
evidence could lead to different theories, or at least to different
rates of theory formation. They find support for the effects of
language in theory building in a series of longitudinal,
crosslinguistic studies looking at children acquiring Korean and
English. They do not cover the experiments in detail, but the gist of
them appears to be that Korean is more verb-centric while English is
more noun-centric and this linguistic difference translates into
Korean children developing their theories of action more quickly than
their English counterparts, who for their turn, develop their theories
of natural kinds more quickly than the Korean children.


Despite the fact that the Theory Theory informs an active
psychological research program, this book is primarily a book of
philosophy. Thus, the results from a large number of experimental
investigations are discussed but no one experiment is discussed in
sufficient detail to be critically evaluated. Any reader not already
well acquainted with the cognitive developmental literature may find
themselves somewhat confused (and perhaps somewhat unconvinced) about
how G&M are able to draw the conclusions that they do from the
experiments reported. This problem might have been remedied to some
extent by detailed explanations of one or two experiments that could
act as representative examples and the use of diagrams depicting the
sorts of tasks used to test infants. A few more diagrams and/or
summary tables would have been helpful in general. The Theory Theory
is dynamic in form and G&M trace two or three theory changes within
three different knowledge domains. The critical point about theory
change comes through clearly, but many of the details get lost in the
mass of information; a summary table describing the different theories
(and perhaps the evidence that leads to theory revision) would have
been a useful reference.

Although G&M devote an entire chapter to persuading the reader
that infant theory development and scientific theory development are
the same, ultimately this argument remains unconvincing and the
insistence on this point throughout the book has the effect of
lessening the force of their claims, rather than strengthening them.
There are many reasons to be skeptical of the link between the two
sets of theory builders but I think the most compelling reason to
reject their argument is that it seems to do a grave injustice to the
entrenchment of our folk-scientific reasoning. In a nutshell, our
adult folk-science is a stable level of knowledge and may not, even in
principle, be subject to revision. G&M try to argue against this
powerful intuition in two ways. First, they point to the fact that
science has moved beyond our folk theories, so those theories can't be
the last word in what is true. While I agree that Einsteinian physics
is probably more true (i.e., a better model of the world) than my own
folk-physics, I'm still stuck with my inadequate theory. G&M appeal
to the division of knowledge-labor to claim that the theory really has
changed at a societal level, but that only highlights the fact that
for the common person, our folk-science is unrevisable. G&M's second
argument that our folk-science is open to revision is that we can
imagine a world that would require a different theory, and they
frequently invoke the TV show Star Trek as illustrating such a world.
This fantasy argument leaves me entirely cold, partially because I
have no strong intuitions (as G&M seem to) about, for example, the
status of objects in a Star Trek transporter beam, and partially
because I believe that they are placing far to heavy a burden on a
piece of popular fiction.
It should be noted, however, that rejecting the most extreme
of G&M's claims does not fundamentally undermine their arguments that
knowledge is organized around theories and that developmental change
reflects changes in children's theories. Even if children's theories
are not of the same type as scientific theories, analyzing our
knowledge in terms of some kind of theory and children's development
as some form of theory change is still a very intriguing and
compelling perspective to take.

In sum, G&M have raised a number of extremely interesting
questions about the nature of knowledge representation, the nature of
theories, the nature of cognitive development and the relationship of
language to cognitive development. They offer the Theory Theory as a
way to address these questions and, although one might not believe
that the Theory Theory actually has the answers, it is certainly an
important view in the debate.
Reviewed by Laura Wagner, Department of Psychology, University of
Massachusetts - Amherst. My research centers on children's
acquisition of tense and aspect.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0262571269
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 288
Prices: U.K. £ 14.95
U.S. $ 22