Books : reviews

Geoffrey Sampson.
Writing Systems.
Hutchinson. 1985

Geoffrey Sampson.
Educating Eve: the 'Language Instinct' debate.
Cassell. 1997

Are we creatures who learn new things? Or does human mental development consist of awakening structures of thought?

A view has gained ground – powerfully advocated, for example, by Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct – that language and other knowledge structures are hard-wired in our genes. Others add that this also holds true for much of the specific knowledge and understanding expressed in language. When the first human Eve evolved from pre-human apes (it is claimed), her biological inheritance comprised not just a distinctive anatomy but a rich structure of cognition.

Despite the impressive roll of converts which these ideas have gained, there is no good reason to believe them. The arguments of Pinker and others depend on earlier and more technical contributions, by writers such as Noam Chomsky. Many readers take these foundations on trust, not realizing how weak they are. This book examines the various arguments for instinctive knowledge, and finds that each one rests on false premises or embodies a logical fallacy. The structures of language show that they are purely cultural creations.

Eve was not born a know-all. She was born knowing nothing, but able to learn anything. That is why we can find ways to think and talk about a world that goes on changing today.