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Steven Gross: Questioning the Questioners

Steven Gross, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, teaches a course called Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He says philosophy brings keen insights to the study of learning.

How can philosophy help with understanding aspects of cognitive science?

Philosophers who work on the philosophy of cognitive science can help clarify foundational concepts, raise methodological questions, and consider how results in the area relate to other areas of scientific inquiry.

Can you tell us a little about the course you teach?

My Philosophy and Cognitive Science course has a different theme almost every time I teach it. This is the first time I’ve focused the course on innateness. One of the nice things about teaching a class like this is that I get students from various parts of the university: majors from philosophy, psychology, writing seminars, engineering, you name it. So they bring very different backgrounds to the course and sometimes latch on most to different aspects of it.

Are any aspects of learning innate in humans?

I am among those who wonder whether there’s a sufficiently clear notion of innateness that’s scientifically respectable and scientifically interesting. I do think there are a variety of useful notions nearby, but most of them depart significantly from anything resembling the vernacular notion of innateness. That said, if I may deploy the notion of innateness, I would say that it’s undeniable that there are innate aspects of learning in humans. Even the staunchest anti-nativists accept this. For though it’s generally held that a learned trait is, for that very reason, not innate, one can also ask about the learning mechanism itself, whether it’s innate. Suppose, for instance, learning requires the proverbial “blank slate.” The blank slate is not itself learned. It needs to have various properties for learning to occur (extending the metaphor: it has to be sufficiently malleable to take impressions, and sufficiently rigid to retain them). It’s a common claim that learning, even though it results in the acquisition of non-innate traits, itself presupposes something innate—the learning mechanism itself, or at least aspects of it. A more specific claim of this sort is Chomsky’s notion that language acquisition requires an innate language acquisition device.