The idea that we possess innate understanding of certain things is an interesting one – and one with a long history behind it, going back to Plato and his theory of forms. Is it a sound theory, however?
I’ll say right up front that I don’t have a huge working knowledge of the field – I have a lot of reading to do on the subject. But here’s a few preliminary stabs at the idea.
John Locke put forward the theory that our minds are blank slates, and that all knowledge is acquired by experience. While at first this sounds convincing (an obviously we do learn primarily through our experience) pure empiricism cannot really be supported in the way Locke wanted. Take something like the law of non-contradiction. Is that something that we know from experience, or from sensory data? I’m not convinced that empiricism provides an adequate explanation of such phenomenon.
With regards to language, however, I’m not as certain about innate ideas. To be sure, the idea of an inner language of thought possessed by each person has a long and venerable tradition behind it (thinkers such as Descartes and Augustine come to mind). But is it true? Do we possess inner languages of thought that we slowly learn how to put into public-speech?
Wittgenstein disagreed – he effectively turned the tradition of innate language on its head and declared that the public-speech, rather than the inner-speech, came first. In a nutshell, whereas innate idea theory says that we have inner-languages that we slowly learn how to put into public-speech, Wittgenstein says that public-speech is what we learn how to put into inner-speech. Roughly speaking, we learn language by being in community – we acquire the language and are able to articulate our thoughts. Community is essential for Wittgenstein, because the meaning of words depend entirely depend on context – so on this view, there aren’t any real ‘objective’ meanings for words. It’s purely contextual, as illustrated by Wittgensteins comments about lion-speech:
‘What matters to you depends on how you live (and vice versa), and this shapes your experience. So if a lion could speak, Wittgenstein says, we would not be able to understand it. We might realize that “roar” meant zebra, or that “roar, roar” meant lame zebra, but we would not understand lion ethics, politics, aesthetic taste, religion, humor and such like, if lions have these things. We could not honestly say “I know what you mean” to a lion. Understanding another involves empathy, which requires the kind of similarity that we just do not have with lions, and that many people do not have with other human beings.’ (http://www.iep.utm.edu/wittgens/#H2)
So it seems that there’s no room for innate ideas concerning language, at least on Wittgensteins view. However, there are dissenting opinions – Noam Chomsky and his studies on what appear to be innate understanding of grammar in children come to mind. However, I know next-to-nothing about Chomskys views – for a brief overview, look here: