LINGUIST List 9.187

Sat Feb 7 1998

Books: Language Instinct

Editor for this issue: Anita Huang <>

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  1. Joanne Coen, Language Instinct

Message 1: Language Instinct

Date: Thu, 5 Feb 1998 10:51:45 -0500
From: Joanne Coen <>
Subject: Language Instinct

ISBN: 0 304 33908 3, 
Are we creatures who learn new things? Or does human mental development
consist of awakening structures of thought? A view has gained ground -
powerfully advocated, for example, by Stephen Pinker's book The Language
Instinct - that language in much of its detail is hard wired in our genes.
Others add that this holds too much of the specific knowledge and
understanding expressed in language. When the first human Eve evolved from
pre-human apes (it is claimed), her biological inheritance comprised not
just a distinctive anatomy but a rich structure of cognition. 
Despite the impressive roll of converts that these ideas have gained, there
is no good reason to believe them. Pinker's and other's arguments depend on
earlier and more technical contributions, by writers such as Noam Chomsky.
Many readers take these foundations on trust, not realising how weak they
are. This book examines the various arguments for instinctive knowledge,
and finds that each one rests on false premises or embodies a logical
fallacy. A different picture of learning is suggested by Karl Popper's
account of knowledge growing through 'conjectures and refutations'. The
facts of human language are best explained by taking language acquisition
to be a case of Popperian learning. Eve was not born a know-all. She was
born knowing nothing, but able to learn anything. That is why we can find
ways to think and talk about a world that goes on changing today.
Geoffrey Sampson is a Reader in Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence
at the Unibersity of Essex, UK.

This book is priced 45 pounds and is available at any good bookshop or in
case of difficulty contact Cassell on 01202 665432. 
Thanks very much
Joanne Coen, Cassell
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