Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use

Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use

Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use

Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use

Excerpt

For many years, I have been intrigued by two problems concerning human knowledge. The first is the problem of explaining how we can know so much given that we have such limited evidence. The second is the problem of explaining how we can know so little, given that we have so much evidence. The first problem we might call "Plato's problem," the second, "Orwell's problem," an analogue in the domain of social and political life of what might be called "Freud's problem."

The essence of Plato's problem was well expressed by Bertrand Russell in his later work when he raised the question: "How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are nevertheless able to know as much as they do know?" In certain domains of thought and understanding, our knowledge is vast in scope, highly specific and richly articulated in character, and in large measure shared with others who have similar backgrounds and experience. The same is true of systems of belief and expectation, modes of interpretation and integration of experience, and more generally what we may call "cognitive systems," only parts of which qualify as actual knowledge. The problem that arises when we consider the matter with a little care is one of "poverty of the stimulus." Although our cognitive systems surely reflect our experience in some manner, a careful specification of the properties of these systems on one hand, and of the experience that somehow led to their formation on the other, shows that the two are separated by a considerable gap, in fact, a chasm. The problem is to account for the specificity and the richness of the cognitive systems that arise in the individual on the basis of the limited information available. Cognitive systems result from the interaction of experience and the organism's method of constructing and dealing with it, including analytic mechanisms and the intrinsic determinants of maturation and cognitive growth. The problem, then, is to determine the innate . . .

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