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particles collapsing into a single visible track in modern high-energy laboratories:
the event that actually happened; the one which we, the organizers, thought
would happen; the one Jean Piaget hoped would happen, and the one that
Chomsky urged everyone not to let happen.
Let me digress for a moment and sketch al so these other "virtual" debates.
Piaget assumed that he and Chomsky were bound to agree in aH important
matters. lt was his original wording that there had to be a "compromis" between
him and Chomsky. In fact, this term is recurrent throughout the debate. During
the preparatory phase, Piaget made it clear that it had been his long-standing
desire to meet with Chomsky at great length, and witness the "inevitable"
convergence of their respective views. As Piaget states in his "invitation" paper /
he thought there were powerful reasons supporting his assumption. 1 will outline
these reasons in a simple sketch.
Reasons for the "compromise"
Piaget's assessment of the main points of convergence between him and
- Anti-empiricism (in particular anti-behaviorism)
- Rationalism and uncompromising menta lis m
- Constructivism and/or generativism (both assigning a central role to the
subject's own internal activity)
- Emphasis on rules, principIes and formal constraints
- Emphasis on logic and deductive algorithms
- Emphasis on actual experimentation (vs. armchair theorizing)
- A dynamic perspective (development and acquisition studied in real time,
with real children)
Piaget's proposal was one of a "division of labour", he being mostly concerned
with conceptual contents and semantics, Chomsky being (allegedly) mostly
concerned with content-independent rules of syntactic well-formedness across
different languages. Piaget considered that the potentiaHy divisive issue of
innatism was, at bottom, a non-issue (or at least not a divisive one) because he
also agreed that there is a "fixed nucleus" (noyaux fixe) underlying all mental
activities, language included, and that this nucleus is accounted for by human
biology. The only issue, therefore was to assess the exact nature of this fixed
nucleus and the degree of its specificity.
The suggestion, voiced by Cellérier and Toulmin, was to consider two
"complementary" strategies: the Piagetian one, which consisted of a minimization
lIn Language and Learning: The Debate between lean Piaget and Noam Chomsky (hereinafter
abbreviated as LL), pp. 23-24.
318 M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
of the role of innate factors, and the Chomskian one, consisting of a maximization
of these factors - once more, a sort of division of labor.
It was interesting for a11 participants, and certainly unexpected to Piaget, to
witness that, during the debate proper, the constant focus of the discussions was
on what Piaget considered perfectly "obvious" ("allant de soi"): the nature and
origin of this "fixed nucleus". He was heading for severe criticism from the
molecular biologists present at the debate (especially from Jacob and Changeux)
concerning his views on the origins of the fixed nucleus. And he was heading for
major disagreements with Chomsky concerning the specificity of this nucleus.
It can be safely stated that, while Piaget hoped for a reconciliatory settlement
with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) contingent about particular
hypotheses and particular mechanisms concerning language and learning (and, in
particular, the learning of language), he found himself, unexpectedly, facing
insuperable disagreement about those very assumptions he hardly considered
worth discussing, and which he believed were the common starting point - more
on these in a momento
Piaget's imperception of these fundamental differences was, in essence,
responsible for the vast gap between the debate he actually participated in, and
the virtual debate he expected to be able to mastermind. One had the impression
that, to the very end, Piaget was still convinced he had been misunderstood by
Chomsky and Fodor. In Piaget's opinion, had they really understood his position,
then it would have been unthinkable that the disagreement could still persisto One
of Piaget's secrets was his deep reliance on the intuitive, unshakeable truth of his
hypotheses directrices (guiding hypotheses). These were such that no reasonable
person could possibly reject them - not if he or she actua11y understood what they
meant. One could single out the most fundamental of Piaget's assumptions
(Piaget, 1974) in words that are not his own, but which may we11 reflect the
essence of what he believed:
Piaget's guiding hypothesis (hypothese directrice)
- Life is a coritinuum
- Cognition is an aspect of life
- Cognition is a continuum
This is a somewhat blunt rendition, but it is close enough to Piaget's core
message. Sorne of his former collaborators in the Geneva group, in 1985,
expressed basic agreement that this was "a fair rendition" of Piaget's hypothese
directrice (as expressed, for instance in his 1967 book Biologie et Connaissance)?
2Barbel Inhelder, personal communication.
M. Piattelli-Palmarini I Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 319
As any historian of medieval logic could testify, if literally taken this version is a
well-known logical fallacy (compare with the following):
- New York is a major metropolis
- Central Park is part of New York
- Central Park is a major metropolis
Decidedly, one does not want to impute to Piaget and his co-workers assent to
a logical fallacy. Thus stated, it cannot pass as a "fair" reformulation. That would
be too devious. A better reformulation, one that passes the logical test, would be
the following:
A better heuristic version of Piaget's core hypothesis
- Life is (basically) auto-organization and self-stabilization in the presence of
- Cognition 'is one of life's signal devices to attain auto-organization and
- Cognition is best understood as auto-organization and self-stabilization in the
presence of novelty
This much seemed to Piaget to be untendentious and uncontroversial, but also
very important. He declared, in fact, that this central hypothesis had guided
almost everything he had done in psychology. In order better to understand
where the force of the hypothesis lies, one must remember that he unreservedly
embraced other complementary hypotheses and. other strictly related assump-
tions. Here they are (again in a succinct and clear-cut reformulation):
Piaget's additional assumptions
I Auto organization and self-stabilization are not just empty metaphors, but
deep universal scientific principIes captured by precise logico-mathematical
II There is a necessary, universal and invariable sequence of stepwise
transitions between qualitatively different, fixed stages of increasing self-
III The "logic" of these stages is captured by a progressive hierarchy of
stage contains the previous one as a sub-set).
IV The necessary and invariant nature of these transitions cannot be captured
by the Darwinian process of random mutation plus selection.
V Another theory of biological evolution is needed (Piaget's "third way" ,
differing both from Darwin's and Lamarck's).
Piaget believed that there is a kind of evolution that is "unique to man", and
which grants the "necessity" of the mental maturational stages? These are what
they are, and could not be anything else; moreover they follow one another in a
strict unalterable sequence. The random process of standard Darwinian evolution
is unable in principIe (not just as a temporary matter of fact, due to the present
state of biology) to explain this strict "logical" necessity.
One the last two points the biologists, obviously, had their say, as we will see
in a momento
Within this grand framework, it is use fuI to emphasize what were Piaget's
specific assumptions concerning learning and language:
Piaget's crucial assumptions about learning
The transitions (between one stage and the next) are formally constrained
by "logical necessity" (fermeture logique) and actually, "dynamically", take
place through the subject's active effort to generalize, equilibrate, unify and
systematize a wide variety of different problem-solving activities.
The transition is epitomized by the acquisition of more powerful concepts
and schemes, which subsume as particular instances the concepts and schemes
of the previous stage.
Piaget' s crucial assumptions about language
The basic structure of language is continuous with, and is a generalization-
abstraction from, various sensorimotor schemata.
The sensorimotor schemata are a developmental pre-condition for the
emergence of language, and also constitute the logical premise of linguistic
3LL, p. 59.
M. Piatte/li-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 321
structures (word order, the subject/verb/object construction, the agent/pa-
tient/instrument relation, and so on).
Conceptual links and semantic relations are the prime movers of language
acquisition. Syntax is derivative from (and a "mirror" of) these.
It was inevitable that Piaget should meet strong opposition on each of these
assumptions, on their alleged joint force and on the overall structure of his
argumento In a sense, the whole debate turned only on these assumptions, with
Piaget growing increasingly impatient to pass onto more important and more
technical matters, but failing to do so, on account of the insurmountable problems
presented by his core tenets. Chomsky and Fodor kept mercilessly shooting down
even the most "obvious" and the most "innocent" reformulations of the basic
assumptions of the Piagetian scheme, notably in their many spirited exchanges
with Seymour Papert, who boldly undertook the task of systematically defending
Piaget against the onslaught.
The debate was not the one Piaget had anticipated, and it became clear to
everyone, except possibly to Piaget himself (see his "Afterthoughts"),4 that no
compromise could possibly be found.
3. Another virtual debate: the one the organizers thought they were organizing
There was, as I said, another virtual debate, the one which the organizers-
molecular biologists with a mere superficial acquaintance of cognitive psychology
and linguistics - believed they were organizing. It was closer to what Piaget had in
mind than to the debate that actually too k place, because they too anticipated
sorne kind of convergence.
How could that be? How could we, the biologists in the group, believe for a
moment that sorne form of compromise could be reached? The simple answer to
this, in retrospect, is: ignorance. What we thought we knew about the two systems
was simple and basic. I think I can faithfully reconstruct it in a few sentences:
What we (the biologists) thought we knew
About Piaget:
- There is a stepwise development of human thought, from infancy to
adulthood, through fixed, qualitatively different stages that are common to
all cultures, though sorne cultures may fail to attain the top stages.
- Not everything that appears logical and necessarily true to us adults is so
4LL, pp. 278-284.
322 M. Piatte/li-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
judged by a child, and vice versa. Suitable experiments show where the
differences lie.
- Constructivism, a variant of structuralism, is the best theoretical framework
to explain the precise patterns of cognitive development. Unlike be-
haviorism, constructivism stresses the active participation of the child and the
role of logical deduction.
- Set theory and propositional ca1culus are (somehow) central components of
the theory.
About Chomsky:
- There are linguistic universals, common to aH the different languages the
world overo
- These are not superficial, but constitute a "deep structure".t
- This deep structure is innate, not learned, and is unique to our species.
- Formallogic and species-specific computational rules are (somehow) involved
in determining deep syntactic structures.
- Syntax is autonomous (independent of semantics and of generic conceptual
- There are syntactic transformations (from active to passive, from declarative
to interrogative, etc.) that "preserve" the deep structure of related sen-
tences. Semantics "links up" with syntax essentially at this deep leve!.
- Behaviorism is bad, while innatism and mentalism are OK.
- The expression "mind/brain" is OK. Linguistics and psychology are, at
bottom, part of biology.
The organizers, in fact, knew very little, but they liked what they knew, on
both sides. There was every reason (in our opinion) to expect that these two
schools of thought should find a compromise, and that this grand unified meta-
theory would fit well within modern molecular biology and the neurosciences.
Both systems relied heavily on "deeper" structures, on universals, on precise
logico-mathematical schemes, on general biological assumptions. This was music
to a biologist's ears.
AH in aH, it was assumed that the debate would catalyze a "natural" scientific
merger, one potentially rich in interesting convergences and compromises.
4. Chomsky's plea for an exchange, not a "debate"
Commenting on a previous version of the present paper, Chomsky has insisted
that he, for one, had always been adamant in not wanting a debate, but rather an
tThere was at the time sorne confusion among non-experts between the terms "deep structure"
and "universal grammar".
M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 323
open and frank discussion, devoid of pre-determined positions and pre-set
frontiers: "1 am a little uneasy about presenting the whole thing as a 'Chomsky-
Piaget debate'. That's not the way 1 understood it, at least, and 1 thought that
Piaget didn't either, though I may be wrong. As far as I understood, and the only
way I would have even agreed to participate, there was a conference (not debate)
on a range of controversial issues, which was opened by two papers, a paper by
Piaget and my reaction to it, simply in order to put forward issues and to open the
discussion. ,,5
Chomsky then adds: "Debates are an utterly irrational institution, which
shouldn't exist in a reasonable world. In a debate, the assumption is that each
participant has a position, and must keep to this position whatever eventuates in
the interchange. In a debate, it is an institutional impossibility (i.e., if it
happened, it would no longer be a debate) for one person to say to the other:
that's a good argument, I will have to change my views accordingly. But the latter
option is the essence of any interchange among rational peopIe. So calling it a
debate is wrong to start with and contributes to ways of thinking and behaving
that should be abandoned."
After pointing out that, as is to be expected in any ongoing scientific activity,
his views are constantly changing and are not frozen into any immutable position,
Chomsky insists that neither he, nor Fodor, nor the enterprise of generative
grammar as a whole, are in any sense an institution, in the sense in which in
Europe Marxism, Freudianism, and to sorne extent Piagetism, are institutions.
The following also deserves to be quoted verbatim from his letter: "There is,
thank God, no 'Chomskyan' view of the world, or of psychology, or of language.
Somehow, 1 think it should be made clear that as far as 1 was concerned at least, 1
was participating by helping open the discussion, not representing a world view".
These excerpts from Chomsky's letter should make it very c1ear what his
attitude was. But it is well beyond anyone's powers now to un-debate that debate,
partIy because it is the very subtitle of the book ("The debate between Jean
Piaget and Noam Chomsky"), and partIy because the community at Iarge has
be en referring to the event in exactIy those terms for almost two decades. So,
after having made clear which kind of virtual non-debate Chomsky assumed one
should have organized, let us finally return to what actually happened.
s. The real debate
From now on, Iet's faithfully attempt to reconstruct, from the published
records, from the recorded tapes, and from the vivid memory of sorne of those
SWith Chomsky's permission, this, and the following, are verbatim quotes from a letter to M.
Piattelli-Palmarini, dated May 8, 1989.
324 M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
who were present, how all these imaginary, unlikely, virtual debates precipitated
into the real one.
Chomsky's written reply to Piaget,6 made available a couple of months before
the debate, rightly stressed, among other things, the untenability of Piaget's
conception of evolution. Not until the first session of the debate proper had
anyone realized that Piaget was (Heaven forbid!) a Lamarckian. It was, however,
already clear from his distributed "invitation" paper that he had a curious idea of
how genes are assembled and of how evolution acts on gene assemblies. Chomsky
clearly had got it right and Piaget had got it wrong. This was the first important
point in favor of Chomsky. Moreover, Chomsky stressed the need for specificity,
while Piaget stressed the need for generality. The concrete linguistic examples
offered by Chomsky seemed indeed very, very remote from any generalization of
sensorimotor schemata. Sorne participants already felt sympathetic to Chomsky's
suggestion that one should not establish any dualism between body and mind, and
that one should approach the study of "mental organs" exactly in the way we
approach the study of the heart, the limbs, the kidneys, etc. Everything he said
made perfect sense and the concrete linguistic examples (which Piaget and the
others never even began to attempt to de al with) made it vastIy implausible that
syntactic rules could be accounted for in terms of sensorimotor schemata.
Chomsky's arguments against learning by trial and error were compelling - very
compelling. One c1early saw the case for syntax, but one may still have failed to
see the far-reaching import of his arguments for learning in general. For this, the
participants had to wait until Fodor made his big splash at the meeting. But let's
proceed in chronological order.
Most important, to sorne of the biologists, was the feeling, at first confused,
but then more and more vivid, that the style of Chomsky's argumentation, his
whole way of thinking, was so deeply germane to the one we were accustomed to
in molecular biology. On the contrary, Piaget's biology sounded very much like
the old nineteenth-century biology; it was the return of a nightmare, with his
appeal to grand unifying theories, according to which life was "basically" this or
that, instead of being what it, in fact, is. Chomsky's call for specificity and his
reliance on concrete instances of language were infinitely more appealing. It
became increasingly clear to the biologists at Royaumont that Chomsky was our
true confrere in biology and that the case for syntax (perhaps only for syntax) was
already lost by Piaget.
As the debate unfolded, the participants were in for further surprises and much
more startling revelations. In order not to repeat needlessly what is already in full
length in the book itself, let's recapitulate only the main turning points of the
6LL, pp. 35-52.
M. Piatte/li-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 325
5.1. The mishaps of "phenocopies"
Upon deeper probing into his rather peculiar idea of "phenocopy", Piaget
indeed turned out to be a Lamarckian. He actually believed in some feedback,
however devious and indirect, from individual experience to the genetic make-up
of the species. The biologists were aghast! Jacob made a marvelous job of politely
and respectfully setting the record straight on phenocopies, aided by Changeux
(Monod was not present, and maybe he would have been carried away by the
discussion, behaving slightly less courteously to Piaget than Jacob and Changeux
did. Monod, haunted by the memory of the Lyssenko affair, always reacted to
Lamarckism by drawing his gun!)
Well, believe it or not, Piaget was unruffled. He had the stamina to declare
himself "tres surpris" by the reactions of the biologists, and reject Jacob's
rectifications, quoting a handful of pathetic heretics, obscure Lamarckian biolog-
ists who happened to agree with him. The alienation of Piaget from mainstream
biology was consummated there and then; patently, he did not know what he was
talking about. (The young molecular biologist Antoine Danchin undertook, after
the meeting, the task of making this as evident as it had to be made).8
Subsequent exchanges with Cellérier and Inhelder showed that they had no
alternative explanation to provide for the linguistic material brought in by
Chomsky. When they mentioned linguistic examples, these were of a very peculiar
generic kind, nowhere near the level of specificity of Chomsky's material. They
pleaded for an attenuation of the "innateness hypothesis", so as to open the way
to the desired compromise. But Chomsky's counter was characteristically un-
compromising: first of all, the high specificity of the language organ, and,
therefore its innateness, is not a hypothesis, it is a fact, and there is no way one
may even try to maximize or minimize the role of the innate components, because
the task of science is to discover what this role actually is, not to pre-judge in
advance "how much of it" we are ready to countenance in our theories. Second, it
is not true that Chomsky is only interested in syntax, he is interested in every
scientifically approachable aspect of language, semantics and conceptual systems
included. These too have their specificity and there are also numerous and crucial
aspects of semantics that owe nothing to sensorimotor schemata, or to generic
logical necessity - no division of labor along these lines, and again no compro m-
The salient moments of this point in the debate can be summarized as follows:
7LL, pp. 61-64.
8LL, pp. 356-360.
326 M. Piatte/li-Palmarini I Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
Counters to Piaget from the biologists
Jacob's counter:
- Autoregulation is made only by structures which are there already and which
regulate minor variations within a heavily pre-determined range of possibles.
- Regulation cannot precede the constitution of genetically determined regula-
tory structures.
- (Gentle reminder) Individual experience cannot be incorporated into the
Piaget simply did not see the devastating effect of Jacob's counters on his
private and idiosyncratic conception of evolution by means of autoregulation.
Cellérier was visibly embarrassed by Piaget's anti-Darwinism and tried, I think
unsuccessfully, to disentangle the personal attitudes of Piaget in matters of
biological evolution from the objective implications of the Darwinian theory for
psychology proper.
5.2. The mishaps of "precursors"
During the· next session, when Monod was also present, carne another major
counter, on which Fodor quickly and aptly capitalized:
Monod's counter
- If sensorimotor schemata are crucial for language development, then children
who are severely handicapped in motor control (quadriplegics, for instance)
should be unable to develop language, but this is not the case.
- Inhelder's answer: Very Httle movement is needed, even just moving the
- Monod's and Fodor's punch-line: Then what is needed is a triggering
experience and not abona fide structured "precursor".
Once again, it was the impression of several participants that the weight of this
counter was not properly registered by the Piagetians. Yet the Monod-Fodor
argument was impeccable, and its conclusion inevitable. One thing is a triggering
input, quite another a structured precursor that has to be assimilated as such, and
9LL, pp. 70-72.
lOLL, p. 140.
M. Piattel/i-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 327
on the basis of which a higher structure is actually built. A trigger need not be
"isomorphic" with, and not even analogous to, the structure it sets in motion.
Admitting that this precursor can be just anything you pie ase (just moving your
eyes once) is tantamount to admitting that it is nothing more than a "releasing
factor", in accordance with the innatist model of growth and maturation and
against the literal notion of learning. Papert, for instance, went on at great length
in offering the virtues of "indirect", "implicit" learning and of the search for
"primitives". These, he insisted, and only these, can be said to be innate, not the
highly specific structures proposed by Chomsky. These "clearly" are derived from
more fundamental, simpler primitives.
For this illusion, Fodor had a radical cure
up his sleeve, as we will see in a momento (Healthy correctives to Papert's, and
Piaget's notion of implicit learning in the specific domain of lexical acquisition are
to be found in Atkins, Kegl, & Levin, 1986; Berwick, 1985; Grimshaw, 1990;
Jackendoff, 1983, 1990, 1992; Lederer, Gleitman & Gleitman, 1989; Lightfoot,
1989; Piatelli-Palmarini, 1990a; Pinker, 1989.)
Before Fodor's cold shower a lot of the discussion turned, rather idly, around
the existence, in language, of components which are not specific to it, but are also
common to other mental activities and processes. Again, a division of labour was
proposed along these lines. Chomsky had no hesitation in admitting that there are
also language factors that. are common to other intelligent activities, but rightly
insisted that there are many besides which are unique to language, and which
cannot be explained on the basis of general intelligence, sensorimotor schemes,
communicative efficacy, the laws of logic, problem-solving, etc. These language-
specific traits, Chomsky insisted, are the most interesting ones, and those most
amenable to a serious scientific inquiry.
5.3. Chomsky's plea for specificity
Here is an essential summary of the line he defended:
Chomsky's argument for specificity12
The simplest and therefore (allegedly) most plausible rule for the formation of
The man is here.
Is the man here?
llLL, pp. 90-105.
12LL, pp. 39-43.
328 M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
is the following (a "structure-independent" rule): "Move 'is' to the front".
But look at
The man who is tall is here.
*Is the man who tall is here? (bad sentence, never occurring in the child's
Is the man who is tall here? (good sentence)
The "simple" rule is never even tried out by the child. Why?
The correct rule, uniformly acquired by the child is not "simple" (in this
transparent and shallow sense of the word) and involves abstract, specifically
linguistic notions such as "noun phrase".
Therefore it is not learned by trial and error and is not derivative on
sensorimotor schemata. (What could the motor equivalent of a no un phrase
conceivably be?)
This is, somewhat bluntly put, the core of the argumento If the process were
one of induction, of hypothesis formation and confirmation, we should expect to
see the simplest and least language-specific rules being tried out first. But this is
not what we observe.. More specific data on language acquisition in a variety of
languages and dialects (Berwick & Wexler, 1987; Chien & Wexler, 1990; Guasti,
1993; Jusczyk & Bertoncini, 1988; Lightfoot, 1989; Manzini & Wexler, 1987;
Wexler, 1987; Wexler, 1990; Wexler & Manzini, 1987) by now make the case
against learning syntax by induction truly definitive. We will come back to this
Chomsky's argument against any derivation of syntactic rules from generic
constraints 13
We like each other = each of us likes the others
We expect each other to win = each of us expects the others to win
Near-synonymous expressions:
"each other" = "each ... the others"
*We expect John to like each other
13LL, pp. 113-117.
M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 329
is NOT well formed and is NOT synonymous with
Each of us expects John to like the others
WHY? There is no obvious logical or communication-theoretical explanation.
(There aren't even non-obvious ones, at that).
The linguistic rule is of the following kind. In embedded structures of the
... X ... [ ... Y ... ]
where X and Y are explicit or understood components (names, pronouns,
anaphoric elements etc.) no rule can apply to X and Y if the phrase between
brackets contains a subject distinct from Y.
The nature of this rule is specifically linguistic: the rule has no conceivable
sensorimotor counterpart, nor any justification in terms of general intelligence.
Further confirming evidence (just apply the rule):
The men heard stories about each other.
*The men expect J ohn to like each other.
Who did the men hear stories about?
*Who did the men hear John's stories about?
John seems to each of the men to like the others.
* J ohn seems to the men to like each other.
Evidence from another language:
J'ai laissé Jean manger X.
J'ai laissé manger X aJean.
(both OK)
These are apparentIy freely interchangeable constructions, but the symmetry is
broken in the next example:
J'ai tout laissé manger aJean.
*J'ai tout laissé Jean manger.
NB: Update. These phenomena have received much better and deeper
explanations in recent linguistic work, in terms of "complete functional complex-
es" (for a summary, see Giorgi & Longobardi, 1991; Haegeman, 1991). The
overall thrust of Chomsky's argument for specificity comes out further reinforced.
330 M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
These rules are tacitly known by the speaker, but they are neither learned
(by induction, problern-solving or trial-and-error), nor determined by sorne
general necessity. General intelligence and sensorirnotor schernata cannot even
begin to explain what is happening.
Chornsky's point failed to irnpress Piaget and the Piagetians. A lot of their
counter-argurnents turned on the possibility of explaining these facts "in sorne
other way". One could not fail, I think, to be irnpressed, there and then, by the
fact that no other way was actually proposed, but that it aH turned around the
sheer possibility that sorne other rule, at sorne other level, rnight explain aH of the
above. (Anthony Wilden even tried out Russellian logical types
to no avail.)
Wisely, and unflinchingly, Chornsky kept replying that this rnight well be the case,
but that he did not expect it to be the case. (In fact, rnany years have gone by,
and these alternative explanations are still sorely rnissing - for a precise account,
firrnly grounded in generative grarnrnar, but altogether charitable to the Piagetian
viewpoint, see J ackendoff, 1992.)
And finally carne Fodor's jeu de massacre, one of the truly high points in the
whole debate.
5.4. Fodor's demise ollearning
His argurnent was not lirnited to language, but applicable to any theory of
learning by rneans of conceptual enrichment. He went squarely against the very
core of the Piagetian systern. Nobody, in the other carnp, reaHy understood his
argurnent at first (not even Putnarn, in his critique, written after the debate),15 so
let us try to sirnplify it drastically, still preserving its force:
Fodor's argument against learning by enrichment
The typical situation of belief fixation or "learning":
is an exernplar is not an exernplar
14LL, pp. 117-121.
15See his exchange with Fodor in Part 11 oí LL.
16LL, pp. 143-149 and the ensuing discussion. The argument had been developed in greater detail
by Fodor in his 1976 essay The Language 01 Thought, Hassocks: Harvester. (Reprinted in 1979 by
Harvard University Press.)
M. Piattel/i-Palmarini I Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 331
Inductive hypothesis:
X is an exemplar if and only if X is Y
Target of the learning process (for example): come to the conc1usion that
y = miv = "square and gray"
(Alleged) stage 1: the subject has access, separately, to the concept
"square", to the concept "gray", but not to the conjunct "square-and-gray".
(Alleged) stage 2: the subject constructs a tentative new concept Y, and tries
it out on the experimental materials.
Y is not yet "miv"
Stage 3: the subject correctly comes to the conc1usion that Y must be:
"miv" = "square-and-gray"
Fodor's argument: If this is the case, that is, if the language at stage 3 is
really more powerful than the language at stages 1 and 2, then this transition
cannot be the result of learning, it cannot come from induction.
At sorne point the subject must formulate the hypothesis that Y is true of
(applies to, is satisfied by) all and only those things which are mivs, that is,
which are square and gray. But this cannot happen unless the subject has the
concept miv.
Unless Y is to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from miv (from
"being square and gray"), we have no idea whatsoever of what Y could be.
Therefore: the language of stage 1 is not weaker (less powerful, more
limited) than the language of stage 3. You always start with a language which is
at least as powerful as any language which you can acquire.
Where do all these concepts come from?
Fodor's three hypotheses:
(a) they are innate
(b) God whispers them to you on Tuesdays
332 M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
(e) you acquire them by falling on your head
Dismissing hypothesis (b), the only plausible eonclusion is that they are
innate (and/or arise for totally endogenous reasons, due - for instanee - to a
stepwise brain maturation. This latter is just a slightly less faney version of
hypothesis (e).
The audienee was really impressed, Monod most of aH. There was a distinct
flavor of paradox in Fodor's position and he did not try to bide this faet. The
whole argument sounds paradoxieal, yet it is perfeetly eompelling. Fodor, to his
own regret, cited, just as one concrete, indubitable, patented, example of a
logieal system whieh is "more powerful" than another, the case of propositional
logic (a provably weaker system) versus first-order quantifieational logie (a
provably stronger system which eontains the former as a sub-system). This created
a lot of misunderstanding and endless diseussions about the history of the
discipline of logie. Fodor's thesis remained essentially unehallenged (in the book,
it will be Hilary Putnam to aeeept the challenge, but that was after the debate).
In the aftermath of Fodor's onslaught on induetion and learning, most of the
ensuing debate revolved, on the one hand, around plain misunderstandings of his
and Chomsky's position (leading to clarifications and reformulations) and on the
other, around a rather idle insistence that their position appears vastly implausible
and even paradoxical. This apparent implausibility was. never denied by Fodor
and Chomsky, but with the crucial proviso that the appearance of paradox persists
only if we maintain the traditional assumptions of the domain. Their main point,
however, was to subvert these very assumptions, not to maintain them.
I surmise that, then as well as now, those who have eoncluded that the debate
was won by Piaget did so sol el y on the grounds that the theses defended by Piaget
sounded intuitively very plausible, while the theses presented on the other side
sounded preposterous. It does not seem to oecur to them that, in science, even
preposterous hypotheses often turn out to be true (Piattelli-Palmarini, 1986,
1989). .
5.5. Sequels to the debate
After the debate, Putnam, at least, took the trouble of explaining why these
theses sound preposterous, and made an attempt to construct an attenuated
version of what he thought was right in Chomsky's and Fodor's positions (even
suggesting that they come closer than they believe to Piaget's).17 This line of
17LL, p. 300.
M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 333
resistance against strong innatism and meaning atomism in the domain of lexical-
conceptual semantics has been vastly expanded in subsequent philosophical works
by Putnam, Fodor, Dennett, Millikan, Loar, Burge and others. I must leave it
out, for reasons of space. I must also leave out the interesting sequels elicited by
Kripke's essay on Wittgenstein (Kripke, 1982) revamping a special brand of
skepticism about the notion of "following a rule", which have met interesting
rejoinders by Chomsky (1986), Horwich (1984), and others.
The whole recent debate on connectionism has revamped several of the
anti-specificity theses already present in Piaget (the most explicit link between the
theses of connectionism and the Piaget-Chomsky debate has been made, in the
domain of lexical-conceptual learning, by Ray Jackendoff (1992). Connectionist
architectures are, in fact, a concrete embodiment of the idea of "order-from-
noise". At the time of the debate Piaget could only summon in defense of the
"order-from-noise" paradigm the physicochemical theories of Prigogine and his
school, and sorne rather confused speculations by Heinz von Foerster (1960). Had
he lived long enough to see present-day connectionism, I am persuaded that he
would have endorsed it wholeheartedly. In fact, an implicit alliance between
Piagetism and connectionism is amply consummated (Elman, 1989). This is not
the place and time to re-examine the controversy on connectionism (Pinker &
Mehler, 1988), but I wish to stress that many of the recent polemics do find their
roots, ante litteram, in the Royaumont debate.
6. What happened ever since in Iinguistics and language acquisition
In the rest of this paper, I will briefiy present a number of further develop-
ments which support the positions defended by Chomsky and Fodor. And I will
do it precisely by showing that their theses, preposterous as they may have
seemed, are presently the only plausible explanation for a variety of facts
concerning language, language acquisition and cognitive development. The swing
of the pendulum in their favor has not only continued, but has gained further
6.1. The new turn in linguistic theory
From October 1975 to the present day, the brand of linguistic theory called
"generative grammar" has undergone an unprecedented growth. As a conse-
quence of previous partial success (and, of course, past errors), Chomsky and
others have developed the so-called "government-and-binding theory"
(Chomsky, 1981, with important antecedents in work published in 1979 and 1980)
(Chomsky, 1980), and more recently the "minimalist framework" (Chomsky,
334 M. Piattelli-Palmarini I Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
1993). Referred to also as the "principIes and parameters" approach (Giorgi &
Longobardi, 1991; Haegeman, 1991; Lasnik & Uriagereka, 1988; Rizzi, 1990; van
Riemsdijk & Williams, 1986), the turn of the 1980s has been a revolution within
the revolution, bringing both genuinely novel features and extensions to the
picture presented by Chomsky at Royaumont. The line of argument developed
orally at Royaumont, and then sharpened in the written proceedings, has not only
been preserved in the new theory, but even made more radical.
Just to cite a few examples, sorne of the oldest and most central notions of
traditional grammars (subject, object, grammatical construction, phrase-structure
rules, etc.) are now demoted to epiphenomena of much deeper and much more
abstract notions of generative grammar. The importance of the lexicon has grown
explosively, to the point that sorne linguists (certainly Chomsky himself, especial-
ly after 1992, in the "minimalist framework") now claim that acquiring the
lexicon is almost all a child has to do, in order to acquire a language. Everything
else is generated by a strictly invariant, language-specific computational system,
and by the several output conditions arising at the many interfaces of this
computational system with other internal mental systems. Inevitably the inner
structure of each lexical item (particularly the inner structure of verbs, adverbs
and adjectivals) has become much richer and much more abstract than it ever was
in the traditional grammars (Giorgi & Longobardi, 1991; Grimshaw, 1990; Hale
& Keyser, 1993; Higginbotham, 1983; Jackendoff, 1990; Keyser & Roeper, 1992;
Tenny, 1988). None of the highly abstract and tightly knit principIes and
parameters of universal grammar, nor any of the specific rules of the "core
grammar" of a particular language, bear any resemblance whatsoever to deriva-
tions from non-linguistic principIes (even less from sensorimotor schemata). The
irrelevance of abstractions from motor schemata even in the development of sign
languages is particularly striking (a point to which 1 will return). The exploration
of possible phonemes and syIlables by the congenitally deaf child, in the course of
"babbling in the manual mode", shows a marked linguistic specificity in its
ontogenesis, not a continuity with generic manual gesturing (Petitto & Marentet-
te, 1991). The case against any derivation of linguistic structures from non-
linguistic gestures, and/or from the perception of generic movements, appears
clear-cut even for the most "obvious" candidates, naJ;nely time relations (Horn-
stein, 1990), agent/patient relations (Grimshaw, 1990; Pinker, 1989), aspectual
semantics (Tenny, 1988), the geometry of events (Pustejovsky, 1988), verbs of
movement and change of possession (Jackendoff, 1983, 1990, 1992), reference
(Higginbotham, 1985, 1988), and even co-reference in sign languages (Kegl,
The richness and depth of these recent developments as a whole is a proof that
the program presented by Chomsky at Royaumont was sound and productive,
while the very idea of a continuum between language and non-linguistic "pre-
cursors" was doomed. Many of the objections raised during that debate seem to
M. Piattelli-Palmarini I Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 335
me to be automatically voided by the tumultuous progress made in generative
grammar in the last 15 years or so. The extreme specificity of the language
system, indeed, is a fact, not just a working hypothesis, even less a heuristicaIly
convenient postulation. Doubting that there are language-specific, innate compu-
tational capacities today is a bit like being still dubious about the very existence of
molecules, in spite of the awesome progre ss of molecular biology.
There are, nonetheless, also particular data and particular developments that
seem to me to refute the most fundamental tenets of Piagetian psychology (there
never reaIly was, nor will there ever be, a "Piagetian linguistics"). Limitations of
space demand that 1 concentrate on these, and only these. 1 will do it briefiy, and
1 will do it bluntly, because 1 think that these recent developments are blunt
refutations of the most central "classical" assumptions then entertained by the
Piagetian school.
6.2. The knock-down case of pronouns in the congenitally deaf child
First and foremost, 1 wiIl sketch a perfect case against the dependence of
language on motor schemes. It is based on a clear-cut, elegant and devastating
piece of data from the acquisition of sign language by the congenitaIly deaf child.
1 give special privilege to this case, because it looks a lot like those decisive
experiments in physics and in biology which refute, by a single stroke, long-
entertained hypotheses. It is due to the psycholinguist Laura-Ann Petitto of
McGill, probably the only researcher who has worked in depth both with chimps
and with congenitaIly deaf children. (By the way, if language indeed were
supervenient on motor schemata and on general intelligence, then chimps ought
to have language, which is clearly not the case, as definitely shown, after the
Royaumont debate, by Premack, Terrace, Bever, Seidenberg and by Petitto
herself) (For reviews, see Premack, 1986; Roitblat, Bever, & Terrace, 1984).
The counter-case of pronouns in the congenitally deaf (Petitto, 1987)
If language were continuous with (prompted by, isomorphic with, super-
venient on) motor schemata, then sign languages should show this causal
dependency in a particularly clear and transparent way.
Within sign languages, the case of "constructing" personal pronouns (which
superficially loo k a lot like pointing) out of generic pointing ought to be even
more transparento
It tums out that this is not the case. Data from the acquisition of pronouns
in the congenitally deaf, in fact, show that:
336 M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
(1) Non-linguistic pointing is present and widely used long before pronouns
are used.
(2) Yet, pronouns appear suddenly (within a couple of weeks) and at exactly
the same age in the hearing and in the congenitally deaf child.
(3) In the few weeks preceding the appearance of linguistic pointing (i. e. ,
pronouns) in the congenitaHy deaf child, generic pointing temporarily
( 4) Paradoxical as it may seem, the hearing child and the congenitally deaf
child make the same mistakes in their initial use of pronouns ('me' to mean
'you', 'you' to mean 'me', etc.)
NB: This means "pointing" at oneself to refer to someone else, and vice
versa. This kind of mistake is uniquely linguistic (as demonstrated by the
exact parallelism with the hearing child) and never happens with generic
pointing. If motor skills and general intelligence were involved at aH, then
these mistakes would be a disturbing symptom of deep-seated motor
troubles and/or of an intolerably low level of "general intelligence" (of
course, neither is the case).
(5) Another piece of conc1usive evidence (Petitto & Marentette, 1991) is the
autonomy and the specificity of babbling in the ontogeny of sign languages.
There is no hope any more of deriving from motor schemata even the form
of syHables in the manual mode, let alone the meaning of words and the
structure of the sentence. And, since there is such a c1ear discontinuity
even between generic gesturing and the basic elements of sign Ianguage,
one can safely dismiss the alleged continuity between gestural schemata
and the structure of the sentence in spoken languages.
In my oplDlon at least, this is precisely the way a scientific hypothesis is
definitively refuted: you make it as c1ear, as specific and as predictive as possible,
then look for an ideal experirnent, one in which the phenomenon stands out
unambiguously, in its purest form, then see whether the experirnent confirms or
refutes the hypothesis. The rest is idIe discussion on vague rnetaphors.
6.3. On the inexistence 01 horizontal stages
There are numerous other recent (and sorne not so recent) data which militate
powerfulIy against the very existence of Piaget's horizontal stages.
Let us be reminded that a horizontal stage a la Piaget is one in which a concept
or a "logical operation" is either present or absent in toto; its presence or absence
M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 337
wiIl show up no matter which problem you present to the child, from mathematics
to gardening, from geometry to economics from language to moral judgement.
WeIl, there are overwhelming reasons to believe that these horizontal capacities
simply do not existo Every direct or indirect proof in favor of the modularity of
mind (Fodor, 1983; Garfield, 1987), of the content-drivenness of problem-solving,
is ipso facto a disproof of the existence of horizontal stages. Let's see sorne of the
most salient ones:
Evidence for the non-existence of Piaget's "horizontal" stages
Domain specificity (modularity) of problem-solving:
(a) At a given age, the child who applies conservation to one kind of problem
(involving volume and weight) do es not apply it to other kinds of problems
(involving speed, temperature, concentration, etc.).
(b) The conservation of identity is qualitatively different for different con-
ceptual kinds (animals, artifacts, nominal kinds, etc.) and the conceptual
transition to conservation of identity or kind takes place at different ages
for each of the different kinds.
(For reviews, see: Carey, 1985; Keil, 1979, 1986; Markman, 1989)
Typical Piagetian "illogicalities" can be elicited also in the adult: '
(a) The power of what Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have called
typicality, anchoring and ease of representation (Kahneman, Slovic, &
Tversky, 1982) has nothing to do with "having" versus "not having" a
concepto It has to do with the domain to which our intuitions of what is
"typical" apply. Cognitive strategies, and the underlying "heuristics and
biases" often do not generalize from one domain to the next, not even in
the adulto
(b) There would be no end to the succession of "stages", well up to, and
beyond, the level of Nobel laureates (Piattelli-Palmarini, 1991, 1993).
(c) Sorne of our intuitions about typicality are the opposite of what we should
derive from actual experience (the signal case is offered by intuitions about
probability) .
In many cases, there is no abstractive assimilation at all of objective
external structures by the mind, and even les s so a mandatory, 10gicaIly
determined one.
Many of the typical experiments a la Tversky and Kahneman replicate exactly
the qualitative results obtained by Piaget and his collaborators on children. The
338 M. Piattelli-Palmarini I Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
simple secret is to change the domain. The typical experiment a la Piaget was to
elicit from, say, a 5-year-old the judgement that there are more girls than children
in a photograph, more roses than flowers in a bouquet, more cars than vehicles in
a drawing, etc. The explanation was given by Piaget as: Lack of possession of the
concepts of set/ subset/ super-seto But the majority of highly educated adults judge
that there are more seven-letter words of the forro
(where each "-" stands for a letter whatsoever) than there are of the forro
They judge, just like the 5-year-old child, that the subset has more members than
the super-seto These same educated adults will judge that there are more words of
English which begin with an "r" than there are which have "r" in the third-to-the-
last position (the reality is that there are vastly more words of the second kind
than of the first). Do they lack the concept of subset? No! The correct
explanation has to do with our intuitions of what is most typical of a kind, and
what we can easily represent mentally. The easier it is for us to mentally generate
typical members of the set, the larger the set appears to USo The same applies to
the child: it is easier to mentally generate typical instances of a simple set (boys,
roses, flowers, etc.) than to generate instances of a disjunctive set (children = boys
or girls; flowers = roses or carnations or ... ; vehicles = cars or trucks or ... ).
What counts is familiarity with, ease of representation of, and typicality of, the
standard exemplar of a specific set, in a specific domain. There is no "horizontal"
lack of a certain concept everywhere. These "heuristics and biases" are never
horizontal, but always vertical, domain-specific, in a word, modular.
6.4. Further counters from linguistics and from biology
Let me now come back to language proper, and to evolutionary biology. 1 will
conclude with a drastic simplification of recent progress in these domains which
bears direct, and rather final, negative consequences for the core Piagetian
hypotheses, as presented at Royaumont.
Recent developments in linguistic theory
(1 chose those which further exclude any continuity with sensorimotor
schemata, and make "language learning" an empty metaphor.)
M. Piattel/i-Palmarini I Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 339
- The essentials of syntactic structures are derived ("projected") directly from
the lexicon (and, of course, there are no motor "equivalents" to the lexicon).
- Rules are replaced by principIes and parameters. Most (maybe aH) parame-
ters have onIy two possibIe positions. "Learning" a given Ianguage means
acquiring the lexicon and (in the most recent "minimalist framework"
(Chomsky, 1993), one should rather say "thereby") setting the correct values
for aH the parameters.
(Language acquisition is not an induction, but a selection: Lightfoot, 1989;
Piattelli-Palmarini, 1989.)
- There are in every natural Ianguage (sign languages inc1uded) silent ele-
ments, phoneticaHy inexpressed partic1es called "empty categories", and
these cannot be "learned", because they are not part of the sensory, explicit,
input to the Iearner.
(Language acquisition cannot be based on imitation, generalization and
- Linguistic principIes are highly specific, they bear no resemblance to general
"laws of thought", and have no explanation in terms of communicative
(Self-regulation, adaptation and pragmatic expediency expIain nothing at
all in this domain.)
(The best, yet still unconvincing, adaptationist reconstruction is to be
found in Pinker & Bloom, 1990, see also the peer commentaries to that
- The form of linguistic principIes is very specific, mostly stating what cannot
be done to highly abstract and uniquely linguistic elements, categories and
constructs (based on notions such as c-command, X-bar, PRO, projection of
a lexical head, trace of a nounphrase, specifier of an inflectional phrase,
The typical principIe of universal grammar sounds a bit like the following:
"do whatever you please, but never do such-and-such to so-and-so."
(There is no hope, not even the dimmest one, of translating these entities,
these principIes and these constraints into generic notions that apply to
language as a "particular case". Nothing in motor control even remotely
resembles these kinds of notions.)
(For a c1ear, global presentation of this theory, see Haegeman, 1991. For
the recent minimalist framework, see Chomsky, 1993; for the parametric
approach to language acquisition, see Lightfoot, 1989; Manzini & Wexler,
1987; Piattelli-Palmarini, 1989; Roeper & Williams, 1987; Wexler, 1982;
Wexler & Manzini, 1987; and the vast literature cited in these works. For the
existence of "empty categories" in sign languages, see Kegl, 1986, 1987.)
340 M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
Last, but not least, modern biology and evolutionary theory offer further
and more radical reasons to refute Piaget's basic tenets about life and evolu-
Knock-down arguments from modern evolutionary theory
- No inheritable feedback is even remotely possible from individual experience
to the genes.
- The metaphor of "problem-solving" as a driving force in evolution (in
particular in speciation; Schull, 1990) is wrong: each species creates its own
specific problems (Lewontin, 1982, 1983, 1990b, Piattelli-Palmarini, 1989,
1990b, 1990c).
- Novelty and complexification do not logically, nor even factually, imply an
"enrichment", since they ofien arise as a consequence of impoverishment
and specialization. (The possibility of evolutionary complexification by
means   of impoverishment was first demonstrated in bacteria by Boris
Ephrussi; see Jacob, 1977, 1987.)
- Life is "basically" what it is: the old grand theories (auto-equilibration,
minimization of disturbance, increasing autonomization, increasing adapta-
tion, increasing order from noise, etc.) have never explained anything. It
proved impossibIe to deduce biological structures and functions from first
- Even the most transparent (one would have said) instances of "adaptations"
of organs-cum-behaviors to environmental conditions are sometimes falla-
cious. (Ten different elaborate kinds of mouthpiece organs for cutting,
crunching, searing and syphoning have evolved in insects one hundred
million years before there were any flowers on earth (Labandeira &
Sepkoski, 1993). Until very recently (July 1993) these organs had universally
and "obviousIy" been judged to offer examples of exquisite and fine-tuned
selective adaptations to the environment and to the mode-of-life of their
- Biological evolution is not (at Ieast not aIways) gradualistic (EIdredge &
Gould, 1972; Gould, 1984; Gould & Eldredge, 1977, 1993; Gould &
Lewontin, 1984; Gould & Vrba, 1982) and do es not (at Ieast not aIways)
proceed through a stepwise combinatorial enrichment out of pre-existing
more "primitive" structures. The brain, for one, did not evolve by piling up
new structures "on top" of oIder units (Changeux, Heidmann, & Patte, 1984;
EdeIman, 1987).
- Selection out of a vast innate repertoire is the only mechanism of growth,
acquisition and complexification which we can scientifically understand
(Pi attelli-Palmarini, 1986, 1989, 1990a). (The theory of, and data on,
language acquisition in the "principles-and-parameters" framework confirm
the success of selective theories in the domain of linguistics - as rightly
foreshadowed by Chomsky, Fodor, and Mehler at Royaumont.)
M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346 341
7. Conclusion
I may seem to have be en saying rather harsh things about Piaget and his
school. This was not my intention. I think there are overwhelming reasons to
conclude that his approach was fundamentally wrong, but this is no judgement on
his personal merits. It took a great mind to draw such a vast and coherent picture,
one that is still attractive to many developmental psychologists the world over,
one that appeared as deep, novel and important to many researchers in a variety
of fields, from the philosophy of science to anthropology, from ethics to
sociology, from mathematics to feminist studies. He certainly introduced, or
rather reintroduced, into psychology a much-welcome rationalistic and anti-
empiricist stance, combined with an unerring tlair for experimentation. I am told
by the best present-day experimentalists in cognitive development that, even if his
interpretations of the data are often wrong, the reproducibility of his original data
is always next to perfecto In hindsight, and judging from a different theoretical
frame, we see that often he did not perform the next inevitable check, or the
decisive counter-experiment, but he never erred in what he actually did, or in
telling what he actually found. Much of present-day experimentation on the
child's cognitive development stems, directly or indirectly, from his classic
experiments and those of his collaborators.
Piaget was truly a "universal" thinker, with an insatiable curiosity for facts and
theories well beyond his profession. He had an encyclopaedic mind, and was,
alas, one of the last global intellectuals. Most of aH, he brought to perfection, and
elaborated down to the most minute details, a theory which was intuitively very
appealing. This, as I have endeavored to show, was his strong point, and also his
great weakness. The very basic intuitions, to which Piaget brought order and
depth, and between which he established unprecedented systematic interconnec-
tions, have tumed out to be wrong, misleading, or empty. They were, indeed,
prima facie very plausible - no one would want to deny that - but often in science
the implausible must triumph over the plausible, if the truth lies on the si de of the
This is what Piaget refused to accept, to the point that, in spite of his towering
intelligence, he could not understand the message brought to him by Chomsky
and Fodor at Royaumont. For the ideological reasons so well explained by
Chomsky at the Royaumont debate and elsewhere, in the domain of psychology
and linguistics (at odds with physics, chemistry and molecular biology) hypotheses
that appear, at first blush, preposterous are ofien simply assumed to be wrong,
without even listening to reason, proof or experimento With these notes, I hope to
contribute just a little to the demise of this strange and irrational attitude in
cognitive science. AIso in linguistics, in psychology and in cognitive science the
prima facie implausible can tum out to be true, or close enough to the truth. In
fact, my main point here, as in previous articles (Piattelli-Palmarini, 1986, 1989,
1990a), is that it already has.
342 M. Piattelli-Palmarini / Cognition 50 (1994) 315-346
I wholeheartedly agree with what Chomsky said at the very end of the debate.
Little of what we hypothesize today will survive in the long runo Twenty or fifty
years from now we will probably have gained much deeper and much better
insights into these matters, and not much of present-day theorizing will still be
valido But what is important is that we may loo k back and ascertain that those
hypotheses, those explanations, were at least on the right track, that they were of
the right kind. As 1 endeavored to show, at least this much is already happening
now, with respect to the debate.
In this sense and in this sense only, 1 have allowed myself the liberty of
speaking of "winners" and "losers". The race is mostly still ahead of us, and all 1
have offered here are arguments in favour of a certain choice for the kind of
competition still to come.
A final, very personal touch: 1 have fond memories of my conversations with
Jean Piaget. 1 was always impressed by his bonhomie, his wit, his eager search for
better understanding, his serene attitude towards life. He has run a long, difficult
race, and has left a highly talented multitude behind him. No one could have led
that race with greater aplomb, and no one ever will. It is no paradox, 1 believe, to
admire him for his great achievements, but also feel sorry for the path he insisted
on choosing. It was a bit painful, at least for sorne of us at Royaumont, to see him
lose an important confrontation, one which he had eagerly sought, without fully
realizing what was happening to him, and to his most cherished ideas, and why.
His search for a compromise was unsuccessful, simply because the compromise
was neither possible nor desirable.
1 heard Gregory Bateson, after the meeting, define Piaget as a "lay saint". He
was implying, 1 believe, that Chomsky and Fodor had fulfilled the ungracious role
of executioners. But it would be a paradox to admire Piaget as much as Bateson
did, and still wish he had been lulled by the false conclusion of a possible
compromise. Not even the saints appreciate such forms of inordinate devotion.
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