Beyond Modularity: Innate Constraints and Developmental Change
Annette Karmiloff-Smith MRC Cognitive Development Unit, London
Some years ago, Gleitman, Gleitman, and Shipley ( 1972) made a simple yet very thought-provoking statement, which I used as a colophon to an article published in the same journal some 14 years later ( Karmiloff-Smith, 1986). The statement was: "Young children know something about language that the spider does not know about web weaving" ( Gleitman et al., 1972, p. 160). My chapter is not, of course, about spiders. Rather, my intention is to explore a number of speculations about what it is for a mind to "know" (about language, the physical environment, etc.) and what makes the human mind special in contrast to the innately specified procedures by which the spider produces its seemingly complex web. How can we account for human flexibility and creativity?
Let me begin by suggesting the following: for as long as Piaget's constructivist description of the human infant held, (i.e., an assimilation/accommodation organism with no constraints from built-in knowledge), then it followed that the human mind, acquiring basic knowledge via interaction with the environment, might turn out to be cognitively flexible and creative. However, in the last decade or so, exciting new paradigms for infancy research have radically changed our view of the architecture of the human mind, which is now considered to be richly endowed from the outset.
For many psychologists, accepting a nativist viewpoint precludes constructivism completely. Yet nativism and constructivism are not necessarily incompatible. Together with a now growing number of developmentalists, I have been grappling for some time with a paradox. On the one hand, I was dissatisfied with Piaget's account of the human infant as a purely sensorimotor organism with nothing more to start life than a few