Nativism, History of

Our understanding of ourselves and of our world rests on two factors: the innate nature of our minds and the specific character of our experience. For 2,500 years there has been an on-again off-again debate over which of these factors is paramount. NATIVISM champions our innate endowment; empiricism, the role of experience (cf. RATIONALISM VS. EMPIRICISM). There have been three significant moments in the historical development of nativism: Plato's doctrine of anamnesis, the rationalist defense of innateness in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the contemporary revival of nativism in the cognitive sciences.

Platonic Nativism Plato presents the first explicit defense of nativism in the Meno, where Socrates draws out a geometrical theorem from an uneducated slave, and argues that this is possible only because the slave implicitly had the theorem in him all along. He had merely forgotten it, and questioning helped him to recollect. For Plato, all genuine learning is a matter of recollecting (anamnesis) what is innate but forgotten. Socrates goes on to argue that because the slave had not been taught geometry, he must have acquired the knowledge in an earlier existence. In the Phaedo, Plato connects innateness to the theory of forms and argues that our grasp of the form of equality could not come from perceived equals, and must therefore also be innate. For Plato, nativism is more than a solution to the epistemological problem of know-ledge acquisition; it also provides evidence for the preexistence and immortality of the soul.

Plato's claims have served as the touchstone for defenders of nativism (so much so that the doctrine is sometimes referred to as "Platonism"), but it is difficult to pin down a specific Platonic innateness "doctrine." The problem is that Plato's nativism is embedded in an epistemological framework that takes transcendent forms to be the only objects of genuine knowledge, and there are unresolved questions about the exact nature of that framework. Plato never definitively says what forms there are, or what role our grasp of the forms plays in ordinary cognition. It is therefore difficult to say confidently what Plato took to be innate, or how he conceived the influence of the innate in thinking. Apart from these uncertainties, his argument seems threatened by a potentially devastating regress: if knowledge acquisition is recollection, how is it that we acquire knowledge in an earlier existence?

Nativism and Continental Rationalism In the Meditations, René DESCARTES argues that concepts such as God and infinity can not be derived from experience and must therefore be innate. At some points he even suggests that no ideas can come to us via experience; all must be innate. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the main rationalist spokesman for nativism, argues that our certain knowledge of necessary truths (of mathematics, logic, metaphysics, and so on) is wholly inexplicable on the empiricist position. Our experience is always particular and contingent; how could our knowledge be universal and necessary? Such knowledge must instead rest on innate principles. Leibniz also argues that even our ordinary empirical concepts contain an innate element. Our concept of a man, for instance, draws upon our innate general concept of substance as well as on the specific features of men that we discover in experience. A priori knowledge about substance is possible because we can mine this innate source, and such knowledge is therefore immune from the contingencies of the specific substances we experience.

Leibniz's position illustrates the fit between seventeenth-century rationalism and nativism. Rationalism holds that the mind can go beyond appearances and provide us with insight into the intelligible nature of things; this insight yields a priori knowledge. But how do we get such insight? Here nativism is invoked: our innate ideas and principles are the source of our a priori understanding. The problem with this package is that even if something is innate, that does not in itself establish its truth; it certainly cannot establish its necessity. René Descartes implicitly recognizes this when he introduces a benevolent God into his epistemology as the ultimate guarantor of our knowledge. The idea is that if something is innate, a benevolent God must have put it there for our edification, and a benevolent God would not mislead us.

The historical result was that nativism became entangled with an excess of philosophical baggage. Plato, as we saw, joined it to a transcendent world of forms and a mystical doctrine of the preexistence of the soul. From rationalism it inherited an exalted conception of the power of pure reason and an epistemology that seemed to ultimately require a theological basis. Whatever the original merits of the basic nativist claim about the initial state of the mind, the position began to seem out of step with the more naturalistic world view of the Newtonian revolution.

Empiricism John Locke's Essay, the first systematic defense of empiricism, is a philosophical expression of this more naturalistic perspective. Locke begins with an extended polemic against nativism, in which he charges that it is either blatantly false, because there are no principles that can claim the "universal consent" that an innate principle would produce, or that it reduces to the trivial claim that we have an inborn capacity to come to know everything we know. Leibniz responds to these preemptive strikes in his New Essays, where a number of innovative ideas are introduced -- for example, the notion of unconscious knowledge, the procedural-declarative distinction, the suggestion of innate biases that may or may not be expressed. But although this part of the debate has had greater visibility, the more important empiricist attack -- and this is the main point of Locke's Essay and of subsequent empiricist theorizing -- is that nativism is an unnecessary extravagance, because our knowledge can be explained with the simpler empiricist hypothesis. The empiricist project exerted a dominant influence in both philosophy and psychology well into the twentieth century. It was widely assumed that the program had to eventually succeed, because nativism was stigmatized as a backward superstition and not a serious "scientific" alternative. Empiricist-oriented psychologists carried over the early associationist thinking of David HUME , John Stuart Mill, and others into the behaviorist analyses of learning, while their counterparts in philosophy pursued technical analyses of INDUCTION and CONCEPT formation.

Chomsky and the innateness of language The reign of this presumptive empiricism ended at mid-century with Noam Chomsky's groundbreaking work in linguistics. Chomsky has revived nativism by arguing that a child's mastery of language cannot be accounted for in terms of empiricist learning mechanisms. His case rests on the POVERTY OF THE STIMULUS ARGUMENTS. Speakers adhere to a complex system of grammatical rules that must somehow be reflected in the speaker's psychological processors; otherwise we cannot explain the adherence. But these rules involve categories and classifications that are abstract and far removed from the linguistic evidence available to the learner, and their specific content is underdetermined by the evidence available. The empiricist's inductive manipulation of the data available to the child cannot produce the rule-information that the child must have. But despite this shortfall, normal children acquire the right set of rules with little or no rule-instruction, and at an age at which they cannot master much else. Chomsky's hypothesis is that language learners have innately specified information that is specifically about the nature of human language ("universal grammar"). The child is not simply dropped into the wholly alien terrain of language; instead she comes to the language-learning task with a "head start" -- a rough map giving her some idea of what to look for. Chomsky's claims have attracted criticism both from within and outside linguistics, but the preponderant view is that as far as language goes, empiricism is wrong and nativism is right.

This nativist revival in linguistics led to the reassessment of established empiricist approaches to development in other areas like mathematics, physical causality, visual perception, and so on. In many of these areas, nativists have developed new evidence to support their positions, and in some cases have argued that older findings were misinterpreted. A case in point is Jerry Fodor's contention that the whole empiricist "concept-learning" paradigm -- the sort of "learning by example" that has been championed from Locke to the present -- has at its core a surprising and unavoidable nativist commitment. Empiricists have of course not given up; new connectionist models of learning have been touted as using only empiricist-sanctioned principles, but as nevertheless being able to learn what nativists have claimed was unlearnable without domain-specific innate structure.

Regardless of how the empirical issues are resolved in any particular domain, nativism has been at least reestablished in contemporary cognitive science as a viable alternative to empiricism. The core question-schema it addresses remains cogent: are our ideas, beliefs, knowledge, and so forth in any particular domain derived solely from experience, or are they to some extent traceable to domain-specific features of the mind's initial endowment? There is nothing obscure or unscientific about nativist answers. They are on the contrary very much in line with our understanding of the way brain adaptations equip organisms to function in their environmental niches. Cognitive ethologists (see COGNITIVE ETHOLOGY) have shown that rats are born with a grasp of their nutritional needs, and that ants do not need to be taught the system of dead reckoning they use in foraging expeditions. Nativists extend this pattern of findings to the higher cognitive functions found in humans. The new field of EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, which adopts a thoroughgoing nativist perspective, focuses especially on the sorts of cognitive and motivational structures that might have developed as adaptations in the original ancestral settings in which humans evolved.

This newly secured scientific respectability has come at a philosophical price. The "transcendental" nativism of Plato and Descartes had significant epistemological and metaphysical ramifications that the new nativism cannot secure with the same ease.

See also

Additional links

-- Jerry Samet


Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of a Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on first philosophy. In E. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, Eds., (1967). The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fodor, J. (1981). Representations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundation of Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Leibniz, G. W. (1704). New Essays on Human Understanding. Translated and edited by P. Remnant and J. Bennett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Locke, J. (1690). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. P. H. Nidditch, Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Plato. (c. 380 B.C .). Meno (key passages: 80a - 86c) and Phaedo (key passages: 73c - 78b).

Further Readings

Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and Problems of Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Edgley, R. (1970). Knowledge and Necessity, Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, vol. 3. London: Macmillan.

Hook, S., Ed. (1969). Language and Philosophy: A Symposium. New York: NYU Press.

Jolley, N. (1984). Leibniz and Locke. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Piattelli-Palmerini, M., Ed. (1980). Language and Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Samet, J. (Forthcoming). Nativism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Scott, D. (1996). Recollection and Experience: Plato's Theory of Learning and its Successors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stich, S., Ed. (1975). Innate Ideas. Berkeley: University of Califor nia Press.