Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: October 2006

Understanding Participation in Blogging Communities

Scott Eric Kaufman over at Acephalous is gearing up for his MLA panel on blogging and, having asked his regular readers to email or post on their academic or professional backgrounds, has learned some surprising things: specifically, he was startled at how many people were committed enough to the site to email, even though they had never posted publicly, and he was particularly startled at how many of his lurkers are female, given that public posters are largely male. He is currently asking for theories about why people read blogs without posting, and for theories about the causes of the gender disparity between posters and readers.

It’s always an interesting issue, who reads a blog. This blog has always had regular readers who know me in person (it was originally developed to communicate with my somewhat dispersed research group, as well as to keep in touch with people who knew me from when I was working outside the academy). The blog’s origin meant, among other things, that I never had to worry that I was writing for absolutely no one. Along the way, the blog picked up other regular readers – local readers who prefer to drop into my office for a chat, instead of posting; distant and local readers who email their reactions; and the occasional public poster. And then there are the mysterious recurrent IP addresses – people who seem to find it worthwhile to visit, but who haven’t made themselves known in any way.

I’ve already posted a few thoughts over at Acephalous about why I comment on some blogs, and only lurk on others. For me, commenting at someone else’s blog reflects the feeling that it would be an interesting place to have some kind of ongoing discussion – not just in one thread, but in a number of threads over time. I therefore comment on a very small number of blogs – and generally only after lurking for some time, to get a feel for the community and the conventions of discussion. I almost never post one-off, issue-driven comments on any blog, even if I have relevant expertise in a topic – for me, blogging is a medium for ongoing discussion, and a one-off post doesn’t satisfy that interest.

At the same time, I don’t tend ever to become an all-purpose commentator at any blog – I seem to “specialise” the sorts of comments I make, based on the “relationship” I have to that blogging community – and the patterns of my comments often have very little to do with the patterns of my reading: I like Acephalous for many reasons, but am generally particularly struck by Scott’s theoretical, historical and dissertation-related posts. Perversely, however, I almost never contribute to discussions on these kinds of posts – instead, I tend to respond mainly to more “social” threads… At Savage Minds, by contrast, I respond almost exclusively to theoretical posts – and therefore often go long stints without posting, effectively waiting for an appropriate topic to arise. And yet I read the blog regularly, rather than selectively reading only the sorts of posts to which I tend to reply…

In describing my own commenting style, I’m not at all suggesting that I think this is what everyone else does, or should do: I know people who are clear single-issue (or, in most cases, multiple-issue) posters, who will happily join the fray at any blog if they have expertise on a topic, regardless of whether they’ve spent much time lurking in that blogging community. I know others who never, ever post on any blog, although they read far more blogs than I do… Commenting, like blogging itself, serves a range of interests, and falls into a range of styles. Scott is in the process of trying to theorise some of the commenting trends he sees on his blog – if anyone here is an Acephalous lurker, and hasn’t yet noticed the thread, perhaps head over and contribute to the discussion – if, that is, you comment on this sort of thing… ;-P

Chomsky’s “Language and Mind”

Being an inaugural guest’s post, I hope that, while not up to the usual standards of this blog, the following content is not too far short either. By way of introduction: I am involved in the same reading group as N Pepperell, and have been invited to write some notes on several of the texts we cover. Our reading so far has aimed at doing a potted history of 20th century linguistics, and our path has arrived at Chomsky’s “Language and Mind”.

My apologies in advance for what might seem a naive and anachronistic take – none of our group are linguists by training, and therefore we have stumbling through what is no doubt a fragmentary and selected course. And I apologise for the prolixity of this, an inaugural guest’s post… In any case, what Chomsky presents in this 1968 version of his account of language is roughly as follows: there are 6 lectures, split into 2 groups of 3. The first group of 3 were based on lectures delivered at Berkeley in ’67; the second group were delivered to different audiences at different times. In this light, the didactic purpose of the book becomes clear in moving through it: Chomksy is presenting, to different audiences, in more or less technical detail, 3 distinct ideas.

Firstly, he presents in a number of guises the idea of universal grammar – where grammar is a set of rules which determine the matching of a given sound to a given meaning. Meanings belong, according to the universal grammar thesis, to a deep semantic structure; sounds belong to a surface phonological structure; and what connects the two are syntactic rules.

Secondly, he presents the related but not, in my view, essential idea that such a system is both required by all human languages, and acquired too quickly by human individuals to be accounted for by a range of cultural, social or environmental stimuli. Instead, using the Poverty of the Stimulus argument commented upon elsewhere in this blog, this system must be innate.

Thirdly, the “innateness” thesis connects his, that is to say Chomsky’s view, with a broad, important but largely forgotten tradition of rationalism (long since eclipsed by the rise of empiricism in general, and behavioralism in particular, in the human sciences).

At this stage I want to comment about one aspect of Chomsky’s argument: that semantic deep structures exist prior to their transformation into phonological surface structures. At least in his account here, it seems that every sentence – even assuming for now that in a normative account, sentences can be taken for meaning “informational statements” – must exist in some ready-made semantic form before it can go through some transformational process. However this account seems to me to miss a key aspect of language production – that most sentences develop in time. While a well-formed sentence may be reverse-engineered into into its constituent parts – into noun phrases, verb phrases and so on – it seems unlikely to me that this is how such sentences are always generated in the first place. Such analysis misses the essential fact of language utterances – that they exhibit a linearity, insofar as the start of a sentence is always before the end of the sentence. The following is a tentative stab at how I think this argument could unfold:

When I make a sentence, I can proceed in a number of ways. I can start with some logical proposition I wish to convey, then determine which is the best form for the conveyance (moulding some semantic content into phonetic or othographic form via syntactic transformations, in the Chomskyan way). But this is only one of a number of ways I can proceed. I can start with a particular phrase (“Notwithstanding Chomsky’s insightful analysis…”), then proceed with what may seem a logical extension (“… I disagree with his theory of the innateness of language”). I can also recant: “… well, actually, I agree with his analysis”). I can also forget where I ‘was’, or simply allow my semantic content to remain, perhaps wistfully, unexpressed: “…”. I can perform a number of acts, but none of those acts are irrevocably determined by some original semantic content which remains intact throughout the duration of the act. Even the original phase (“Notwithstanding Chomsky’s insightful analysis…”) does not establish a determinate meaning for the sentence in which it is found – my subsequent words can serve to undercut – with sarcasm or irony; to frame – by quoting or paraphrasing; to emphasise, castigate, or perform a number of acts which alter the meaning of an existing phrase or sentence. Chomsky’s examples always assume that a speaker who has considered what she or he wants to say before saying it, and remains committed to the saying of it at least until the saying is said – but of course there are many examples, mundane and famous, which run counter to this.

It might seem that this sort of criticism echoes those of pragmatists generally, and Searle in particular. However what is striking to me is not that sentences can do things other than make statements of fact, but rather that even when making a statement of fact, I can alter the meaning of the statement significantly at any time during its utterance. This is trivially true, in that I can always proceed as teenagers do when they append “…not!” at the end of sentence. So the point would be that it is empirically contingent for any given well-formed sentence as to whether its meaning had been determined entirely in advance of its utterance – and therefore could have undergone the sorts of sentence-wide syntactic transformations (active to passive, and so on) that Chomsky proposes. On the other hand, it seems equally plausible that for a number of sentences the syntactic form is prior to the semantic content – as in question-and-answers routines, where the answer’s syntax mirrors that of the question (“who saw Bill” – “John saw Bill” versus “who was Bill seen by?” – “Bill was seen by John“). Of particular importance in this regard is that it is possible for me to be committed to the syntax of a sentence I am about to make, before I know what I am going to say. How could I then, consciously or otherwise, apply rules to get to a known syntactic construction (for instance, a passive construction) from some as-yet unknown semantic meaning?

This is not to say, at the level of a phrase, and indeed for many sentences, there may not be processes at work transforming meaning into sound the way Chomsky describes – indeed this may even be the normative case. However it seems to me that there are many other ways sentences can be formed, and these show that a more complex relationship exists between the semantic, syntactic and phonological parts of a sentence than what Chomsky – circa 1968 – will allow.

Quite possibly, later Chomsky or other more recent accounts resolve this problem in some way – if indeed it is a problem. Meanwhile, we are now moving on to How to do Things with Words

The Ruins of Progress

Ruins of one of the demolished Cabrini Green housing project highrises in Chicago.“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (from Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”)

For a change, I thought I might actually write something on planning…

The always-amazing BLDGBLOG has an article up on the demolition of the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago. I’ve mentioned in other contexts that ruins feature somewhat prominently in my memories of Chicago. In a past life, I did some work in and around the Cabrini Green development, so I also have memories of the residents beginning to mobilise as they realised that the housing estate’s proximity to high-value land in Chicago’s North Shore would lead to pressures to displace their community. The BLDGBLOG story prompted me to backtrack through the recent history of the development, with which I had lost touch in the intervening years.

One of the things I always found most striking about the administration of public housing in the US was the way in which the system seemed structurally geared to penalise intact families. To obtain access to public housing, families were often in the position of either hiding the ongoing family involvement of a male partner – or, alternatively, of electing divorce and separation in order to secure stable housing for the mother and children. I notice that similar choices are still being made by families caught up in the Cabrini redevelopment. To qualify for residence in the mixed-income North Town Village development that would be built on some of the housing estate land, Cabrini residents had to pass drug and criminal background tests and agree to complete a “good neighbour” seminar program designed to help them “fit in” in a community they’ll share with much wealthier neighbours. For some families, these requirements have entailed a choice between keeping the family together (and having to choose housing options outside their long-term local community), or excising family members who can’t make the cut. As Vicki Mabrev reports:

Sheri Wade was desperate for a safer community. A run of bad luck landed her at Cabrini-Green eight years ago. And for her two youngest children – Travis, 12, and Jamilla, 9 – the projects have been a prison. In fact, Wade says, she had to keep them indoors in order to keep them safe.

Sargent and Wade both made it to the next stage of the application process, which included attending a meeting with some of the buyers.

Wade seemed a shoo-in, but her application hit a snag. Her on-again off-again husband wouldn’t pass the drug test, and she knew it.

So she found herself in a difficult position: her husband on one hand, a brand-new home on the other, and Howell in the middle. Wade made a wrenching choice. She and her children would leave her husband behind.

“I couldn’t keep having it happen to the whole family,” says Wade. “It wasn’t just affecting him. It affected the whole house.” From Vicki Mabrev (2003) “Tearing Down Cabrini Green”, CBS News, 23 July

The other thing that struck me, from my admittedly very brief look at the Chicago Housing Authority plans for the redevelopment, is the rather narrow and technocratic understanding of “sustaining viable communities”. In my current work, I often express some scepticism about the tacit (and sometimes not-so-tacit) romantic notion of “community” that underlies some community development projects. Reading the CHA document, I found myself reacting even more strongly to the singular focus on physical asset management and top-heavy managerialism, in what is apparently the section of the CHA plan most directly relevant to community building. I’ve been reminded that it is, in fact, possible for something to be too… non-romantic for my taste.

The redevelopment plans for the Cabrini Green site can be found online at the Chicago Housing Authority website.

Some of the backhistory for the redevelopment is provided in articles assembled at the Chicago Tribune, while the Cabrini Green article at Wikipedia, though a bit rough, has a nice list of further resources on the estate and the redevelopment process.

Readers interested in some of the more complex dimensions of Chicago’s public housing history, including particularly the complex intersection of racial segregation and public housing policy, might be interested in the background material on the Gautreaux case – a case that also occupies an interesting place in the sociological literature, for its role in making possible a “natural” sociological experiment into whether dispersing poor households into mixed neighbourhoods would itself have a positive impact on poverty.

Upcoming Events

Just a quick note for local readers that I’ll be presenting at two events in late November.

First, at the semi-annual HDR conference on Wednesday, 22 November, I’ll be presenting a talk on “The Formal and Informal Ethics of Ethnographic Research” – which is intended as a low-key, interactive discussion of some of some of the problems posed for ethnographic research by the formal ethics process, as well as some of the ethical issues that fall outside the formal ethics process. The event will be free, but registration may be required (I’ll post more on the time, location and registration requirements as these become finalised).

Second, at the final Environment & Planning Lunchtime Seminar session for 2006, on Thursday, 23 November, 12:30-1:30, in the conference room in 8.7.6, I’ll be presenting a talk titled “Sentimental Blokes: Development and Heritage in Doreen, Victoria” – which, from the title, I’d guess will have something to do with the heritage dispute over the Doreen Hall – we’ll see whether this is what actually emerges when I put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard, as the case may be)… If this doesn’t inspire confidence in my presentation, I’m not sure what will… ;-P The event is free – BYO lunch – no registration required.

And… Er… Their Space Too…

Just a quick note that we’ve decided to engage in a miniature group blogging experiment during the reading group’s diaspora. Different members of the group will alternate introducing specific texts, so that I don’t monopolise the “framing” of our discussions, and so that the workload of preparing introductory posts (which, at least for me, are generally harder to write than responses) is spread out. Depending on their mood and inclination, perhaps some of the group members can be enticed to branch out a bit – conference blogging? PhD-related thoughts?

But small steps… small steps… ;-P

Since we haven’t completely clarified how anonymous, etc., our guest bloggers want to be, I’ll allow them to introduce themselves as and when they’re ready. Just wanted to explain for regular readers why you may finally see some variety of authors cropping up on the blog over the next month or so.

My Space

It’s always interesting watching people who aren’t familiar with academic blogging try to come to terms for the first time with what an academic might do with such an online space. One of my first-year students heard about the blog for the first time yesterday, and blurted out: “Oooh, cool – so it’s, like, your MySpace site!” (Given how greatly amused other students were by this comment, I gather I’m not commonly perceived by students as someone who might have a MySpace site…) I think some faculty colleagues have similar assumptions – I have the distinct impression that certain specific staff members think a blog is a chat room: they make comments that suggest they visualise text streaming past, and wonder how I could possibly write anything serious in such a format.

What’s a bit more odd to me are the disparaging judgments that periodically crop up on academic blogs themselves – there seems to be a common judgment that discussion that happens on academic blogs can never be properly academic – that academics may happen to blog, but that the notion of an “academic blog” is an oxymoron. I always find these observations somewhat odd – among other reasons, because they imply that only a very specific type of reflection or speech or writing “counts” as academic – specifically, the kind of reflection and writing possible in a lengthy, peer-reviewed academic journal article.

What’s odd to me about this truncated definition of academic speech is that, if anyone were to apply it seriously to contexts outside of blogging, it would exclude the overwhelming preponderance of the kinds of reflection and discussion that academics actually do – journal writing and field notes, water cooler discussions with colleagues, conversation and writing for seminars and many conference presentations, teaching, supervision… I assume that other academics learn and refine their thoughts through these looser, more informal kinds of academic reflection, speech and writing – that these activities are, in fact, part of the way we all prepare for the more formal kinds of writing that is expressed in peer-reviewed journals, part of what helps us lift our game for serious scholarship. It’s fairly easy to see how something like academic blogging “fits” into the context of these more informal, but common and important, academic activities. And yet, for some reason, academic bloggers themselves often single out blogging – of all the less formal media for academic exchanges – for criticism.

I wonder at times whether I react differently from some other academic bloggers because I never expected academic blogging to be anything other than what it is – a medium for less formal intellectual exchange, appropriate for refining draft ideas and writing, which introduces a useful incentive to raise your game a bit because it is possible for unknown and unanticipated readers to comment on your work… I see academic blogging as fitting somewhere between the informal conversations in which we solicit feedback from academic colleagues, and the seminar or less formal conference presentation at which we solicit feedback on draft writing… For this purpose, I think, the medium is really quite good…

Reading Group: Globalised and Hypertexted

I had mentioned previously that the reading group intended to take a break for a month, while two of our members tour the US. At yesterday’s meeting, though, we decided that a month was simply too long to go without a substantive (or, depending on your point of view, insubstantial) discussion of linguistics. We’ve therefore decided that, for the next several weeks, we’ll move the reading group online. We’re still working out the exact details, but the general concept, I think, is that we’ll open periodic threads for discussion of specific works on this site, reading group members (and anyone else who wants to dive in) will contribute and discuss, and general enlightenment will ensue…

The works proposed for the virtualised reading group include some lighter and some heavier material – if only to allow our travelling members some opportunity for light entertainment while they’re away. The specific works proposed, in the order we’re currently intending to discuss them, are:

Austin How to Do Things with Words

Pinker <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Language-Instinct-Creates-Perennial-Classics/dp/0060958332/sr=1-1/qid=1161811475/ref=sr_1_1/002-5294189-5521642?ie=UTF8&s=books&quot; target="_blank"The Language Instinct

And then as much as you care follow of the debate between Pinker, Jackendoff and Chomsky, outlined in this Language Log summary of the state of play. (Note: for brevity’s sake, I’ve posted only the Language Log link here, rather than the more detailed set of recommendations that were circulated via email within the reading group – reading group members will know the more specific recommendations; anyone following from a distance can make their own selections, which I’m sure will be no worse than ours…)

I’ll try to post a few observations on our previous reading selection, Language and Mind, in a separate post, some time during the next couple of days.

Open Time

It’s suddenly hit me that this will be my final day of teaching for four months. While my schedule is not exactly empty – there’s a grant to begin to manage, a conference panel to organise, a couple of papers to write, and that small matter of finishing my fieldwork and doing some very intensive dissertation writing – still, I’ve been so heavily scheduled for the past four months that the amount of time that’s being cleared up feels like a veritable chasm of unstructured life awaits – I experience vertigo just thinking about it.

It’s an interesting thing, the level of overbooking I’ve engaged in during the past several months: I work intensely efficiently when forced and, for the past several months, I’ve literally needed to be… purposive about every waking moment (not to mention considerably condensing the sleeping moments…) to get everything done. It’s felt a bit like an endurance race, and getting to the end of this period, I now feel like the person from the folk tale – the one who complains that his home is too small, and receives the advice that he should move his in-laws into the house, then the cow, then the pig, the chickens, the goat, etc., until, when he can stand it no more, he is advised to evict everyone, and he then finds himself revelling in all this open space… It almost feels decadent, this sudden influx of disposable time…

We’ll see how long this sensation lasts, before I lose the perspective provided by this intensely busy term…

Research Strategies Postmortem

I just wanted to open the “postmortem” thread for the Research Strategies course for this term. To any visiting students, just a quick note that I’ve really, truly enjoying working with all of you this term. I’ve said frequently on the blog that this is my favourite course to teach (no slight on other courses – content-bound courses are intrinsically more predictable than a course organised around individual student research interests), and this term was a particularly dynamic and engaged cohort – you all worked extremely hard, which showed in the discussions and presentations. Please feel free to leave your suggestions for how we could improve the course in the future, and please also keep in touch – I’ll be interested in seeing how your projects evolve. Thanks for a fantastic term.

The Poverty of the Stimulus: Preliminary Questions

Rather than doing something rational like reading the works the reading group will actually discuss this week, I’ve been drawn off onto a tangent, looking at works on what is called the “poverty of the stimulus” argument. Unfortunately, most of the key pieces I want to read are temporarily unavailable – needing to be recalled from other students, or in journals I’ll need to request via interlibrary loan – making the attempt to trace the intellectual history of this argument more frustrating than it otherwise ought to be. The discussion that follows is therefore unlikely to reflect the best possible presentation of the poverty of the stimulus argument – a better understanding of which might well obviate most or all of my questions.

As I understand it, the “cash value” of the poverty of the stimulus argument is to establish that nativist theories of language acquisition, which posit that children possess an innate predilection for grasping key grammatical principles, are more plausible than empiricist theories, which posit that children decode grammatical principles via exposure to speech in practical situations.

The argument relies on the counter-factual notion of how an “unbiased” learner might conceivably approach language acquisition – where an unbiased learner is understood as something like a computer, tackling the problem of language acquisition by brute computational force, without any organising principles at its disposal other than its own observational analysis of statistical patterns: capable of hypothesising all the various ways in which words might conceivably be combined, and having no particular a priori conditioning to organise words in any particular order. (There are prior issues about how an unbiased learner gets to the point that they understand the difference between a meaningful and unmeaningful sound, how an unbiased learner develops an understanding that streams of meaningful sounds can be chunked down into words, etc. – I’ll leave these issues aside for the moment, although they can also be brought into the nativist-empiricist debate.)

The poverty of stimulus argument maintains that the number of hypothetically-conceivable principles that could motivate the observed regularities in any given language is much greater than the number of principles that children appear to entertain, when their process of language acquisition is studied empirically: there are certain hypothetically plausible interpretive errors that children never seem to make, even though, in some cases, these errors might involve simpler “hypotheses” about how language works than the hypotheses that seem to inform children’s linguistic practice. The theory further argues that environmental stimulus is inadequate to account for children’s linguistic practice: that children do not receive sufficient reinforcement, particularly negative reinforcement, to account for their “correct” interpretations of the principles underlying spoken language. The theory can also point to a range of empirical evidence – for example, the observation that children tend to learn their native language (including sign languages) in consistent stages, with characteristic errors and achievements at each stage – that is highly suggestive that children’s language acquisition is not sensitive solely to environmental conditioning. The conclusion is therefore that nativist explanations for language acquisition are more plausible than empiricist ones.

I have a few questions about this argument, but I should perhaps indicate at the outset that I don’t have a dog in this fight – I’m not completely certain that I even understand, at this point, why this fight draws such strong emotions from the opposing positions (I’m sure I’ll learn…). I find empirically persuasive certain key claims about children’s language acquisition (that it progresses in clearly observable stages, with characteristic errors, etc.) because I’ve worked professionally in roles where these sorts of observations could be easily confirmed. To that extent, I suppose I’d be claimed by the nativist side – but only because, and this is where my questions begin, this argument seems to assume that the key opposition is between something like the following positions:

- a form of empiricism that views humans as unbiased learners, with no inbuilt predilection for making sense of their world in one direction, rather than another, and for whom environmental stimulus must therefore account for any regularities we observe in language acquisition;

vs.

- a form of nativism that argues that, because humans can empirically be observed not to be unbiased learners of language, we can therefore draw the conclusion that humans possess an innate, domain-specific facilty for language acquisition.

My curiosity – and I should stress that, at this point, my position is nothing more than a curiosity – is whether these two positions exhaust our options? The version of empiricism presented here seems somewhat straw-mannish to me – and I worry that this straw man element may have the result of obscuring an overbroad conclusion on the nativist side. It sounds superficially impressive to note, for example, that there might be a statistically enormous number of ways that an unbiased learner might choose to order English auxiliary verbs (“50,000 times the number of seconds since the beginning of the universe, and about a hundred billion times the number of neurons in the human brain”, according to one source), but that children somehow manage to hit on precisely the 99 combinations that are grammatically possible in English. But this assumes that the “real odds” of children’s performance can validly be calculated by comparing them to a hypothetical unbiased learner who can freely select any of a number of equally-weighted options from a universe of choices.

While this might sound plausible on first glance – surely you calculate odds against the universe of everything that it possible, etc. – I’m not convinced that this kind of reasoning applies in complex, interactive systems in which the actual choices available might be highly dependent on a wide variety of conditioning factors – one of which, certainly, might be some kind of nativist specialised language acquisition subsystem, but which might equally – since we’re speaking about hypothetical entities that, as I understand it, are not currently considered subject to direct empirical investigation – be hypothesised to include conditioning factors that, while not specialised to language acquisition, nevertheless have the effect, individually or in combination, of making certain kinds of linguistic interpretations more plausible than others: for example, feedback from a wide variety of environmental stimuli, not limited to the “environment” provided by spoken words, but with implications for language acquisition; neurological functions that are not specialised to language acquisition, but that shape language use; cross-fertilisations that result from the fact that children are not working only on a “problem” like auxiliary verbs in isolation, but in conjunction with other kinds of puzzles that must be also sorted during language acquisition – the combined effect of which may be to make certain grammatical extrapolations more likely than others; etc.

I don’t mind, of course, if someone wants to conclude that their preferred option among these choices is a nativist concept of a specialised language subsystem – as long as this is acknowledged as a working hypothesis for a period when we can’t yet have evidence to differentiate among a variety of possibilities. I become uncomfortable only when the argument seems to be framed as though the only conceivable alternative would be some form of hyper-Skinnerian notion of a tabula rasa, whose behaviour is determined in a very straightforward, mechanistic way by environmental stimulus. I admittedly don’t know the field of linguistics very well at all, but I have a difficult time believing that this Skinnerian fever-dream is anyone’s notion of a serious alternative. (But, yes, I’ll acknowledge that the poverty of stimulus argument offers a devastating critique of such a perspective, if anyone out there holds it…) It seems to me, though, that the actual problem is far more complex – and I’m somewhat concerned that the nativist approach might be slicing this particular gordian knot a bit too quickly: how much do we really know, at this point, about the complex array of factors that make us biased learners? About how these factors interact with one another? About how these interactions limit the plausible ranges of learning we are likely to acquire? Do we know how to interpret the empirical evidence we have about children’s language acquisition, until we have looked at these issues in more detail?

I am painfully aware that these questions may be simply naive – I am so early into this reading, and so new to this field, that I’m happy to be pointed to work of which I am all-too-likely to be unaware… These were, however, the questions that struck me, as I was reading things I wasn’t intended to read, for the discussion my reading group is about to have on something else entirely… ;-P So now back to that copy of Language and Mind

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