Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A borscht-belt John Locke?

Not since the 18th century has there been so much argument about the mind. In that era, philosophers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant argued about the relationships between thought and speech, and between sensation and knowledge, in terms that we still mull over today. Are human beings born with innate ideas, or are we just blank slates, filled up by experience as we grow up? Is language something that uniquely makes us human? Do words really represent things in the world or are they markers of ideas inside our brains? Is there a language of thought itself, or do different languages embrace and shape the world in different ways?
Such questions have been asked afresh in recent years, not only by philosophers and linguists, but also by cognitive scientists and evolutionary biologists seeking the origins of human sensibility. Among the most prolific and most public of the current generation of inquirers into human understanding is the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. In a veritable bookshelf of recently published volumes, he has argued for what might be called a soft innatism: a theory of mind that holds that certain concepts or ways of thinking are hardwired into our brains at birth.
Not everything, Mr. Pinker would claim, comes with the child out of the womb — he rejects, for example, the linguist Jerry Fodor's notion that we are born with some 50 thousand concepts and that every human language has a way of representing, in a core vocabulary, this embedded stock of ideas. Mr. Pinker believes in something he calls "conceptual semantics." As he puts it in his new book, "The Stuff of Thought" "Word meanings are represented in the mind as assemblies of basic concepts in a language of thought." All human beings do not necessarily have all the same structures of language or expression. Rather, we have a "sensitivity to subtle semantic distinctions" — a way of recognizing differences between certain kinds of actions or conditions.(more from nysun via arts&letters)

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