The Innateness Debate & Language Acquisition

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The Innateness Debate & Language Acquisition

Philosophy of language is the reasoned inquiry into the nature, origins, and usage of language. It is a philosophical topic that has a long history and has seen a great deal of interest since the beginning of the 20th century in particular. One of the lasting questions within the philosophy of language is the question of language acquisition. Is it acquired through innate ideas or through experience? There have been many notable discussions and ideas related to this question. A look into this debate will shed some light on what the idea of innate knowledge is and whether or not it is intelligible to believe that humans possess innate knowledge and use it to acquire language.

Is it the case that the mind comes to the world equipped with certain items of knowledge? This question is given a look in Ian Hacking’s book Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy? He mentions two important players in this ever important philosophical debate, John Locke and G.W. Leibniz.

Hacking mentions two examples that were used to illustrate the stances and points of both Locke and Leibniz. The first example employed by Locke is the ‘blank slate’ (or table of wax) example. This example is used by Locke as he compares how an infant new to the world and knowing nothing is impressed upon by the world and thus learns knowledge. This table of wax is then shaped into the knowledge that was impressed upon it by experience. The second example is the ‘block of marble’ example engaged by Leibniz. He describes that the child, like marble, is grained, so that only some shapes can be made from it by experience. The child is born with the form of possible concepts innate within it. These examples are the good illustrators of the debate at hand. This idea of innate knowledge is still of great importance as the foremost linguist, Noam Chomsky, revived it so as to use it to describe how language is acquired. It is thus significant to look more closely at the debate of innate ideas to see if the belief in them is justified.

The first argument one could employ to defend innate ideas is the Argument from Universal Consent. This argument is very simple as follows: There are certain propositions which everyone agrees are true. Hence these truths are innate.

As mentioned this argument is simple and thus it is quite a simple task for one to present objections to it. There are two objections I can think of. One obvious objection is that even if the first premise of the argument is true, that does not show that the truths are innate. One who would present this argument would just assume and jump to the conclusion. Another objection is that there are no truths upon which everyone agrees. There are a multitude of people (i.e. culture, age, gender, race, disabilities, etc.) in the world it would be impossible to find a truth upon which everyone concurs.

There are objections that could develop in response to the second objection that there are no truths that are universally agreed upon. The objection could be that the truths referenced in the first argument are recognized as soon as they are heard or, more importantly, understood. This means that the truths are somewhere in the back of the mind. They are known but a person must first be exposed to these truths in order to recognize them as being truths. Essentially, one would be proposing that there are truths of which we are not aware, but they are known.

It is tricky to proceed to attack the idea that there some kinds of subconscious truths that we are capable of assenting to but are simply not aware of. I think that it is unintelligible to say that something is innately known but one is not aware of it. This is unintelligible to me because how can something actually be known if one is not even aware of it being known. Additionally, my other objection to the claim at hand is that it cannot be said that an unconscious proposition is in the mind, for then we might...
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