Innate Ideas

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.’ (

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:—-.htm


3 thoughts on “Innate Ideas

  1. Witty Ludwig March 3, 2014 / 7:42 am

    If you do explore Chomsky more, I’d also recommend you explore Daniel Everett, his rebellious student, whose work with the Pirahã does seem to support Wittgensteinein approach.

    Sorry for scouring your blog; we seem to have a lot of mutual interests!


    • whitefrozen March 3, 2014 / 1:07 pm

      I’ve read some of his stuff, on language and whatnot – it seems that his ideas are generally regarded as somewhat outdated, but I’m hardly an expert on his thought. No worries, though, I enjoy the discussions!


      • Witty Ludwig March 3, 2014 / 1:34 pm

        Concept of Mind has its own benefits outside of the OLPs tradition– it’s only outdated to the extent Wittgenstein on language is outdated: academics have written further on the subject but how much merit you give their work is debatable. Dennett and Searle have spent decades debating consciousness (particularly from a linguist’s perspective in the latter case) since but I’m sure both would concede to Ryle’s originality on the subject. Dennett I know is a huge admirer. Some parts of the book haven’t stood the test of time well but the ghost in the machine and category error discussions are quite brilliant. And I think you might notice Wittgenstein’s presence / parallels.


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