Thursday, January 1, 2009

My views on the NATURE-NATURE debate - part 1


I have decided to post my views on this rather contentious topic as there are some interesting developments in the field. I will have to deal with this in parts because the topic is so very vast that there is just too much to write, summarise and post in one go.

The aim of this is to investigate the viability of the Chomskyan paradigm in light of Geoffrey Sampson’s account, as outlined in his Educating Eve. After looking at both arguments, I will conclude that Sampson does rightly criticise the nativists, whose complacency can indeed impede scientific progress. I will do this by critically evaluating some evidence proposed to bolster the Chomskyan account, in addition to that which Sampson offers.

The method here is essentially a negative one. The nativists claim that there is evidence that language acquisition occurs in a special way, which distinguishes it from other kinds of learning. However, this evidence will be shown to be flawed in some way or the other.

Sampson’s paradigm is indeed very useful in that it precludes the kind of complacency that is so dominant in the intellectual climes of today. Nativism needs to be looked at with a more critical eye; we should not take their purports as axiomatic truths. The flaws to be found in Chomsky’s theory are a problem regarding the modus operandi of research done; for example, question begging and looking for confirming evidence are meta-theoretical flaws which permeate much of the research done in the nativist framework, and need to be remedied if scientific progress is to be made. I will illustrate these meta-theoretical short-comings with specific examples from Chomsky and Pinker, and I will provide suggestions as to how the status quo can be improved.

Sampson’s representation of Popper can also be called into question, as Popper did indeed believe in innate linguistic mechanisms. This fact does not damage Sampson’s thesis though, so I will deal with this disparity only at the end.

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