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The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition

Cowie, Fiona (1997) The Logical Problem of Language Acquisition. Synthese, 111 (1). pp. 17-51. ISSN 0039-7857. doi:10.1023/A:1004975305820.

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Arguments from the ‘Logical Problem of Language Acquisition’ suggest that since linguistic experience provides few negative data that would falsify overgeneral grammatical hypotheses, innate knowledge of the principles of Universal Grammar must constrain learners’ hypothesis formulation. Although this argument indicates a need for domain-specific constraints, it does not support their innateness. Learning from mostly positive data proceeds unproblematically in virtually all domains. Since not every domain can plausibly be accorded its own special faculty, the probative value of the argument in the linguistic case is dubious. In ignoring the holistic and probablistic nature of theory construction, the argument underestimates the extent to which positive data can supply negative evidence and hence overestimates the intractability of language learning in the absence of a dedicated faculty. While nativism about language remains compelling, the alleged ‘Logical Problem’ contributes nothing to its plausibility and the emphasis on the Problem in the recent acquisition literature has been a mistake.

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Additional Information:© 1997 Kluwer Academic Publishers. I am indebted to Alex Byrne, Michael Devitt, Gilbert Harman, David Hilbert, Scott Soames, Kim Sterelny and Jim Woodward for their comments on various earlier versions of this paper. Many thanks also to William Demopoulos and Stephen Pinker for their very helpful referees’ reports. I am grateful also to a third, anonymous, Synthese referee for his or her suggestions.
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