Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


Too sick today to write anything substantive, so of course I’ve spent two-thirds of the day dozing, and the remainder digging around for articles on the poverty of the stimulus argument… For those who might have missed this particular obsession, the poverty of the stimulus argument is one of the claims discussed as part of our all-Chomsky-all-the-time reading group discussion. The basic claim is that children learn grammatical rules that are so massively underdetermined by their environments, that the pattern of early language acquisition provides strong evidence for the existence of an innate, specific faculty for language acquisition. Since I’m sure all my readers share my fascination with this argument, I thought I’d post the link to the best article I stumbled across in my admittedly somewhat fever-impaired reading today: Geoffrey Pullum and Barbara Scholz’s “Empirical Assessment of Stimulus Poverty Arguments” The Linguistic Review 19 (2002): 9-50.

The gist of Pullum and Scholz’s argument is that, in the cases most often cited in the nativist literature, the stimulus might, in fact, not be so impoverished after all. They challenge linguists to engage in more extensive empirical investigation before making strong claims about the rarity of children’s exposure to particular sentence structures – and they also point to the need to establish more explicit and well-reasoned statistical measures for how much environmental exposure would be “enough” to undermine the claim that children could not possibly deduce a grammatical principle from their environmental exposure.

The article, it should be noted, is not itself a critique of nativism – it remains agnostic on the issue. The authors’ intention is simply to point to the weak empirical base for existing claims, and to challenge the discipline to become more serious about empirical investigation – and also epistemological clarification – if it intends to persist in viewing the poverty of stimulus argument as pivotal for the cognitive science case for universal grammar.

6 responses to “Overstimulation

  1. Sinthome November 13, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    Hope you feel better soon!

  2. N Pepperell November 13, 2006 at 5:27 pm

    Thanks for this – I think the worst is actually over. I’m past the intense lethargy, and my brain feels like it’s beginning to reconnect with the outside world again… I seem to do this at the end of every term – it’s like my body thinks that, now that I’m not otherwise occupied with teaching, I need something else to keep me busy… (That, and all of the students who plan to hand in late work seem to feel that I won’t believe that they are really ill, unless they come in personally to cough on me…)

    I had been meaning to reply to your post on Desiring Subjects – specifically the final line on:

    The world is a net of signifiers forming reality, while the real is the scream that sometimes emerges through this net, showing that not everything is accounted for and something new is possible.

    But I keep not being sure whether I have an actual question, or am just having trouble thinking coherently because of the cold… ;-P I think I might have a question about whether this is an argument for some kind of “outside” standpoint (which would seem to sit in tension with much of what you outline earlier in the post). But odds are good this question is mainly a product of the floating “brain in a vat” perspective the cold provides… ;-P

  3. Sinthome November 14, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    These days I’m mostly just trying to have some hope and openness to a world that isn’t the world I live in, so I don’t know that I’m presenting an argument at all. I like it that you’re thinking about it, though, and taking it seriously. As for cyclical sickness… We should talk about that. I think there’s something there.

  4. N Pepperell November 14, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    I guess I want to try to take seriously the fact that some of us have dreams of a world different from the one we live in: I’m looking for a language that can express how those dreams are as much a part of our present moment as their denial – by relating them to potentials for transformation… My worry with critique from the “outside” is that it might lack this connection with transformation – it might be “utopian” in a way that means that we are merely dreaming, rather than mourning alternatives because they potentially lie within reach…

    And on the more mundane topic of cyclical illness: yes indeed. I’ve had this pattern for absolute years – it makes me dread vacations (not, strictly speaking, that I’m on vacation now) because I tend to spend the first several days down with some kind of cold… Or perhaps I should say: it makes me dread short vacations – I do perfectly well with vacations that can string on for weeks, as I know I’ll have some actual time I can enjoy. But long weekends and short holidays never seem to work out…

  5. Sinthome November 15, 2006 at 6:00 am

    It sounds like we’re working on very similar issues. I wonder if it’s necessarily utopian to believe there are alternative possibilities. Drawing on analogies to psychoanalysis, I think that overcoming ones belief in the closure of the universe doesn’t so much mean that things become perfect or happy, but rather that one becomes capable of a certain praxis and activity that wasn’t before possible as this sort of praxis was seen as defeated or futile from the beginning. For instance, I might not bother sending anything off to journals as I’m convinced that there’s no place for my work and what I have to say. It seems to me that a similar principle holds politically. Here in the States I suspect that a number of activists won’t entertain a genuine progressive politics at all, as they believe that the United States is just too conservative to accept such a politics. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that renders any sort of emancipatory change increasingly difficult.

  6. N Pepperell November 15, 2006 at 9:51 am

    I should be clearer with my terms: I don’t think it’s utopian at all to believe there are other possibilities. I tend to use the term “utopian” to distinguish approaches that are pitched too abstractly – that point to some very general human inability to be completely subsumed by any form of domination, for example, as the explanation for why critique and transformative social change might be possible. I don’t necessarily disagree with the notion that humans are never fully subsumed – it’s just that, when people stop here in their attempts to understand the possibility for critique, I always feel as though they’re giving current forms of unfreedom too much credit – too much power – to think that all we have to fall back on is some kind of very abstract inability to be completely determined by our social environments.

    I think we can do more than this – and I think this, not as a point of theology, but because I think we can point to specific evidence of determinate potentials for change within our current society. As creatures sensitive to our social context, we can become aware of these potentials (to some degree, I think, we inevitably become aware of them – although we don’t all do the same thing with this awareness, which becomes its own problem for research and for political activism). And, by the same token, we can use our hopes – particularly hopes expressed on a mass scale – as a guide to what might be possible.

    It’s funny you mention the issue of how we self-limit because we interpret our context as more restrictive than it is: just last night, I was trying to work out the main “point” of my thesis – the organising concept that could unite a set of fairly disparate bits and pieces of analysis. What I settled on was: “the ways in which conscious political action is shaped and constrained by political actors’ perceptions of what is possible within a political, social and economic context”…

    The chapter I’ve just been working on relates to a community that, “objectively”, could be expected to struggle to achieve effective political organisation. On top of these “objective” problems, however, the more politically-engaged members of the community are also shouldering the additional burden of believing that very powerful political actors are consciously arrayed against them (including, in this case, at least one political actor who has actually not been involved in this region for over a year now…). Among other things, this creates internal conflict within the community over what is “realistic” to demand, and this internal confusion over the explicit goals of their activism, in turn, has helped to lessen their effectiveness…

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