Aspects of the Development of Competence

By W. Andrew Collins; Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology | Go to book overview
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2 Two Kinds of Perceptual Organization Near the Beginning of Life

Marc H. Bornstein New York University


In the second edition of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke ( 1690/ 1961, p. 114) recounts an epistolary exchange with his friend, that "very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge" William Molyneux. Molyneux had been provoked by Locke's first edition to ponder the role of experience in thought, and he wrote to Locke asking whether a man born blind, but experienced in touch, and suddenly given the gift of sight as an adult, could distinguish a cube from a globe by vision alone. Molyneux himself reasoned in the negative; being a fellow empiricist, Locke concurred that "the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them, though he could unerringly name them by his touch."

Molyneux's query was framed in terms limited to the literal exchange of equivalent information among the senses; in actuality, Molyneux was asking about the origins of perceptual knowledge and the roie of experience in the acquisition of such knowledge. This being the case, it would have been equally reasonable for Molyneux to have cast his question in terms of infant development. Indeed, Locke inserted this "acute and judicious" proposer's question amidst his dissertation on the origins of ideas, and ever since it has been a typical and continuing activity among philosophers to speculate about the origins of knowledge.

In almost linear descent, philosophers with an interest in epistemology and psychologists with interests in perception and development have put Molyneux's question in the following form: Assuming environmental flux and variety, how does the infant come to organize and make sense of the


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