October 20, 2004

The Ur-Durkheimat

Cosma Shalizi has a piece up on Durkheim's theories about categorisation and consciousness, which, from my logs, seems to be bringing in a few hits. He is discussing a paper by one Albert J. Bergesen analysing and, apparently rejecting, Durkheim on the basis of more recent research in infant cognition.

I mostly don't disagree with Cosma on this one - especially since he points out that one shouldn't "[conflate] pre-social conceptual structure with innate conceptual structure."

All the evidence Bergesen reviews is compatible, I think, with infants simply being born with learning mechanisms which always settle on the same structure when confronted with the kind of environments human beings have always inhabited --- one where space is, to the limits of perception, Eucliean and three dimensional, where gravity has a constant direction and magnitude, etc. Conceivably, in a different environment --- say, free falll --- they would acquire different concepts, or perhaps no coherent concepts at all. (At last, a scientific point to the space station!) Anyway, I think that if you pay enough attention to either the nature of statistical learning procedures or the mechanisms of biological development you'll find the usual argument over innate cognitive structures dissolving in your mind.

Indeed, since this is more or less my position, I don't have anything to object to on that count. The degree to which novelty draws infant (and adult) attention and stimulates cognition has been pretty close to the core of non-nativist accounts of development at least since the days of Piaget. In fact, I would tend to push the argument beyond the mind and even further back than birth. Even our physical features, the ones where clear accounts of their heritability are unquestioned, are dependent on pre- and post-natal development environments. If it were possible to let embryos develop radically outside of their expected physical environment, we might not even consider those things that are clearly hereditary to be truly inate. At this point one (or at least I) would begin questioning whether inate actually means that much at all.

Which brings me to his final point, in the footnotes, and the link you clicked on if you got here from Cosma's page:

Of course, the mechanisms implementing those ordinary processes are highly non-trivial, as your friendly neighborhood linguists will tell you. In fact, they're so intricate, and so useful, that it's absurd to believe they're not biological adaptations, no matter what Uncle Noam says. As for coordinated attention, my suspicion, sparked by reading Barbara Ehrenreich, is that it owes a lot to humans being such unusually weak, flabby, small-toothed apes. One of us is "chewy, and good with ketchup", but a lot of us throwing stones at the same thing are trouble. But, again, that doesn't explain how we pull it off (as your friendly neighborhood Vygotskian linguist will tell you).

"Biological adaptation" is, of course, a loaded term in this little corner of social science discourse, but once you find yourself questioning whether something can even be inate, it's not too hard to swallow. I'd prefer one thought of language as biologically adapted more in the sense of the Baldwin effect than, say, the way we understand the opposable thumb to be a biological adaptation. But I do need to slap Cosma's hand gently for thinking that because something is intricate and useful it is a biological adaptation. The bond market is intricate too and quite useful in its own way, but could only be viewed as a biological adaption by extending the term to the point of meaninglessness.

As for Bergesen, he starts in the wrong place by quoting Meltzoff on the fall of Piagetism. Classical Piagetian theory, like classical everything, has serious shortcomings and drawbacks. However, the general assumption that infant cognitive abilities entail biologically fixed, hereditary categories was far more instrumental in the death of Piagetian thought than any actual experimental results. That assumption is vastly more difficult to sustain in the 21st century.

In the same sense, an unmodified Durkheimism is probably not an advisable set of ideas to have. Many areas of his thought have come in for serious reexamination, and obviously Bergesen would like the notion that cognition is acquired through socialisation to also be reexamined.

Since my inclination is to think of cognition as goal-oriented computation, clearly infants undertake cognition from birth or nearly from birth. I would still argue that in the studies Bergesen cites I still do not see a convincing case for pre-natal knowledge; and as Cosma points out, the line between inate and acquired is tough to find given modern knowledge of development. Bergesen's survey of the literature only cites one experiment involving just-born infants, and its one I'm unfamiliar with. Yes, even a one week old infant has seen enough of his or her mother's face to recognise it, but that does not mean they were born with that ability inately.

That leads to the other issue I see left unaddressed: What is socialisation? If it means nothing more than interacting with other people, babies start doing that as soon as some doctor pulls it out by its head and whacks it on the ass. If "pre-socialisation" is meant to mean "preceding any human contact", I don't see much of a challenge here.

Thus, I find myself more critical of Bergesen than Cosma is. Essentially, Bergesen is saying: "Here is a bibliography of people saying babies come into the world with lots of pre-existing knowledge and categorisations that they could never have learned, and here are sociologists, pretending that everything about our minds comes from society. Bad sociologists, no treat for you!" But there is a whole literature questioning those radical conclusions about infant knowledge and hereditary, biologically adapted categories. They are far from universally accepted in psychology, developmental theory, or linguistics. Bergesen is stretching some already quite stretched conclusions still further.

Posted 2004/10/20 15:08 (Wed) | TrackBack

Sub-editing tweak:

But I do need to slap Cosma's hand gently for thinking that because something is intricate and useful it is a biological adaptation.

(I wouldn't have mentioned it except that I needed to concentrate to read the post, and the lack of inflection there did made it that bit harder.)

Interesting post, welcome back.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at October 20, 2004 15:56

Only one serious syntactic or morphological error is pretty good for somehting I only reread once. At least, its pretty good for me.

Thanks. Hopefully, I'll be able to blog more since I can't figure out what I'm doing at the office right now anyway. But, getting used to AZERTY is killing me.

Posted by: Scott Martens at October 20, 2004 16:04

Remap in software, and touch type--in my free-Unix-centric experience, together with occasional visits to foreign-country net caf?s that _all_ had EN (United States) available as a software-only layout--it's really worth keeping your Qwerty together.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at October 20, 2004 18:44

I recently read a book called "How History Made the Mind" by David Martel Johnson. The guy is well-intended, but his history is appallingly thin and slapdash. Considering that he's one of the good guys, I can't even imagine how ahistorically asocially (asociologically) ignorant his professional adversaries must be.

I have written a review which I will post if I ever solve my soft-ware-hardware-financial problems.

Apparently, also, the Churchlands' materialist metaphysics still wastes a lot of time in some areas of psychology.

Posted by: Zizka at October 21, 2004 1:27
Of course, the mechanisms implementing those ordinary processes are highly non-trivial, as your friendly neighborhood linguists will tell you. In fact, they're so intricate, and so useful, that it's absurd to believe they're not biological adaptations, no matter what Uncle Noam says

Or, "All those epicycles - there must be a God!"

Chomsky has a fetish for intricacies, closely tied in to his Greater Glory Of The Human Mind agenda, but on all the planets I've lived on, we don't know what the mechanisms are yet. I'm betting on simple, for an as yet undiagnosed meaning of "simple".

Posted by: des von bladet at October 21, 2004 11:28

Four more years of Bush. Are you accepting any political exiles?

Posted by: Matt Bolton at November 3, 2004 18:04

Matt - I'm writing up a post on that topic for A Fistful of Euros.

Posted by: Scott Martens at November 4, 2004 14:44
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