What’s wrong with the minimal conception of innateness in cognitive science?

Synthese:1-18 (forthcoming)
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Abstract
One of the classic debates in cognitive science is between nativism and empiricism about the development of psychological capacities. In principle, the debate is empirical. However, in practice nativist hypotheses have also been challenged for relying on an ill-defined, or even unscientific, notion of innateness as that which is “not learned”. Here this minimal conception of innateness is defended on four fronts. First, it is argued that the minimal conception is crucial to understanding the nativism-empiricism debate, when properly construed; Second, various objections to the minimal conception—that it risks overgeneralization, lacks an account of learning, frustrates genuine explanations of psychological development, and fails to unify different notions of innateness across the sciences—are rebutted. Third, it is argued that the minimal conception avoids the shortcomings of primitivism, the prominent view that innate capacities are those that are not acquired via a psychological process in development. And fourth, the minimal conception undermines some attempts to identify innateness with a natural kind. So in short, we have little reason to reject, and good reason to accept, the minimal conception of innateness in cognitive science.
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Archival date: 2020-01-18
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