Linguistic footnote : as far as I can tell, linguists just take it for granted that the data that set a parameter in the course of language learning should generally bear some natural, unarbitrary relation to the value of the parameter that they set. It’s hearing sentences without subjects that sets the null subject parameter (maybe); what could be morereasonable? But, on second thought, the notion of triggering as such, unlike the notion of hypothesis testing as such, requires no particular relation between the state that’sacquired and the experience that occasions its acquisition. In principle any trigger could set any parameter. So, prima facie, it is an embarrassment for the triggering theory if thegrammar that the child acquires is reasonable in light of his data. It may be that here too the polemical resources of the hypothesis-testing model have been less than fullyappreciated.
Well, maybe. But, of course, that’s cold comfort if what you want is a non-nativist version of SIA. You can only trigger a concept that’s there, genetically specified, waiting to be triggered. So the Darwinian/ethological story about conceptacquisition does no better than the old-fashioned hypothesis-testing story at making DOORKNOB not be innate. Outof one frying pan but into another; ethologists are nativists by definition.
And, anyhow, even if the doorknob/DOORKNOB relation is selected for by evolution, what, if not inductive learning, could be the mechanism by which it is implemented? If concept acquisition isn’t inductive, then how doesMother Nature contrive to insure that it is instances of F-ness (and not of G-ness) that trigger the concept F in the courseof ontogeny? After all, if Mother N wants to select for the doorknob/DOORKNOB type of relation betweenconcepts and their experiential causes, she has to do so by selecting a mechanism that produces that relation between one’sconcepts and their causes. This is a special case of the entirely general truth that whenever Mother N wants to selectfor any phenotypic property she has to do so by selecting a proximal mechanism that produces it. The obviouscandidate to select if one wants to ensure that concept acquisition exhibits the d/D relation is inductive learning. Butwe have it on independent grounds that primitive concepts can’t be learned inductively. There may be a way for aconceptual atomist to get out of this dilemma, but waving his hands about Darwin certainly isn’t it.
The preliminary moral, anyhow, is that radical nativism is very hard for a conceptual atomist to avoid. If he starts out thinking about concept acquisition the way Empiricists do—as a kind of hypothesis testing—radical concept nativismfollows; and if he starts out thinking about concept acquisition the way that ethologists do—as a kind oftriggering—radical concept nativism still follows. It looks like a conceptual atomist ends up being a radical conceptnativist pretty much however he starts out thinking about concept acquisition. So maybe conceptual atomism is justfalse.
Or maybe radical concept nativism is true, despite its wide unpopularity in the philosophical community. Speaking just as a private citizen, I’ve always sort of thought it wouldn’t be all that surprising if radical concept nativism did turn outto be true. So it didn’t much embarrass me that all the roads from concept atomism seemed to lead there. It is, after all,God and not philosophers who gets to decide what creatures have genotypically built in. That is surely much the bestarrangement from the creature’s point of view.
So, in any case, it seemed to me in 1975 or so. But maybe this relaxed stance won’t do after all. The problem with the theory that the primitive concepts are learned inductively was that it’s circular. But now we seem to
have an apparently respectable argument that they must be learned inductively: nothing else appears likely to account for the content relation between the concept that’s acquired and the experience that mediates its acquisition. But look,it can’t be that inductivism about the acquisition of primitive concepts is both circular and mandatory.