The Resurrection of Innateness

The Monist 85 (1):105-130 (2002)
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The notion of innateness is widely used, particularly in philosophy of mind, cognitive science and linguistics. Despite this popularity, it remains a controversial idea. This is partly because of the variety of ways in which it can be explicated and partly because it appears to embody the suggestion that we can determine the relative causal contributions of genes and environment in the development of biological individuals. As these causes are not independent, the claim is metaphysically suspect. This paper argues that there is a plausible reconstruction of the notion of innateness. This involves defining it sufficiently broadly to cover most of the current usages as well as making it an informational rather than a causal property. This has two consequences. Firstly, innateness becomes a matter of degree. Secondly, we have to abandon the idea, originally proposed by ethologists, that innate traits are necessarily the products of genetic information.

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James Maclaurin
University of Otago


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