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Inborn Knowledge by Colin McGinn

Nick Everitt considers Colin McGinn’s arguments that we are born with some ideas.

The great majority of us can think of a very great many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of houses and mountains, of pins and clouds and shadows, and so on. And the great majority of us know very many truths about the things we can think of: that unsupported bodies fall in air, that bread is nourishing, that fires produce ashes, that tables support teapots, and so on. About these twin capacities for thought and for knowledge we can raise the twin questions, ‘Where did all these ideas come from?’ and ‘Where did our knowledge of these truths originate?’

The philosophy of empiricism provides a distinctive answer to both these questions. Most boldly enunciated by John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), it claims that all our ideas come from experience, and so all our knowledge also comes from experience. Our senses give us ideas of external objects; and by internal experience we also come to have ideas of the operations of our own minds, such as doubting, willing, etc. Before Locke, Aristotle had accepted largely this picture, and subsequent philosophers in the empiricist tradition, such as Hume, have followed broadly the same line of thought on the origin of ideas.

One school of thought opposed to this tradition is nativism – the thesis that at least some of our ideas and some of our knowledge are innate. This is a claim most readily associated with Plato, but other adherents include Gottfried Leibniz and (on one reading of him) Immanuel Kant, and in our own day, thinkers such as Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky.

This might seem a simple enough contrast, but the point at issue can quickly become unclear. Once empiricists accept (as obviously they do) that the mind has innate capacities, and once nativists accept that the innate ideas they speak of may be only implicit, it can begin to be hard to see where exactly the point of difference lies.

McGinn’s discussion of this contrast proceeds as if it’s easy to see. A brief opening chapter outlines what he calls ‘the traditional debate’. Twelve problems are then listed for empiricism. This is followed by further exposition of nativism; then some objections to it are considered and dismissed. A final chapter considers what would follow from the truth of nativism.

So how is the contrast to be understood? Clearly, what ideas a creature can receive (that is, what experiences it can have) depends on what senses it has. The fact that humans are sensitive to light of certain wavelengths and not to light of other wavelengths is part of the explanation of why we can acquire some external ideas (involving light from the visible spectrum) and not others (involving light from the infra red or ultra violet parts of the spectrum). To be interesting, nativism needs to say more than this.

Although many parts of McGinn’s text read as if he thinks that he needs to show only that the mind has innate capacities, in places he does try, in a rather perfunctory manner, to go beyond this in offering a positive characterisation of implicit ideas. (Revealingly, although the concept of implicitness must be absolutely central to the thesis of nativism, the word does not even appear in the Index.) McGinn suggests that we can understand ideas being only implicit by analogy with memory. If I remember, say, the last Olympic Games, I will have the ability to explicitly recall that event. But my memory is more than just that ability – it is also (to use McGinn’s way of putting it) ‘the ground’ of my recollections and what ‘gives rise’ to them, so in these senses my memory can be implicit too. These implicit ideas are, he says, genuine mental states, albeit unconscious ones. In another metaphor, McGinn says that “we should picture the mind as a sheet with characters in invisible ink written on it. Once a suitable outside stimulus is brought to bear, the ink leaps into visibility… the potential was there all along” (p.107 fn.8). Elsewhere he gets carried away with his own rhetoric, when he says for example, “we could say that my knowledge is present well before I exist, in the genome of my ancestors” (p.52). This claim surely goes too far. There is a big gap between saying that one of the remote causes of some of my present knowledge was the genetic endowment of my ancestors and saying that my present knowledge exists in those ancestors’ genes.

fractal baby
Baby clip art © Ila Khaha 2017

The Complexity of Simplicity

Although McGinn is largely hostile to the empiricist account, he does think that the empiricists were right to draw a distinction between simple and complex ideas. Locke says that all ideas come originally from experience; but he also wants to allow that we can form ideas of things which we have never experienced, such as unicorns or dragons. His solution is to say that all simple ideas come from experience, but that once we have obtained those simple ideas we can combine them to form complex ideas of wholly imaginary objects.

Unfortunately, this simple/complex ideas distinction has proven to be highly contentious, and nothing McGinn says makes it any less so. The two central problems it faces are ‘What makes an idea “simple”?’ and ‘What is meant by “combining” ideas?’ McGinn assumes along with Locke and other empiricists that the idea of red (meaning an experience of red rather than what you might think about red) is simple (although apparently not all colour ideas are). But can’t that idea of red be said to ‘contain’ the ideas of hue, saturation, brightness, or intensity? If so aren’t those better candidates for being simple? Or does, say, the idea of intensity include the idea of a scale, and a point on a scale; so perhaps is it those ideas which are simple? Or is the whole distinction bogus, so that instead there are ideas we experience, and ideas we imagine? And how exactly are we supposed to ‘combine’ simple ideas to form complex ones? McGinn prefers to speak of ‘manufacturing’ the complex from the simple, but this reassuringly mechanical-sounding procedure is just as unclear as anything the empiricists offer. Sometimes ‘combining’ the ideas of x and y apparently gives me the idea of something which is both x and y, as when I (presumably) combine the ideas of redness and squareness to get the idea of a red square. Sometimes the manufacturing process yields an idea of something neither x nor y, as when I combine the idea of a horse and a horn to get a unicorn. And sometimes I end up with an arbitrary collection of two unconnected ideas (for example the smell of a rose and the idea of drum beat). Lumping all these very different cases together under the label ‘manufacture’ (itself not further explained) is merely obscurantist.

Given that the book is defending the possibility of innate ideas and knowledge, a reader could also reasonably expect that it should specify which ideas and pieces of knowledge are innate. McGinn claims that idea of red and other like it are innate. But what does ‘like it’ mean here? For instance, he denies that all sensory ideas are innate (p.68). But if he thinks that we have an innate idea of red, why not of all other colour ideas, and ideas from other senses, for example, sliminess, or smoothness? In places, he says that all simple ideas are innate (for example, p.111). But we are given no definitive list of which ideas are simple, nor, more importantly, any criteria for finding out which ones are.

There is a similar lack of clarity over which knowledge is allegedly innate. A footnote tells us that “mathematical knowledge… is innate” (p.120), and to this McGinn adds knowledge of what redness is. But why is my knowledge of what redness is innate? Not because the idea is a simple one, since he also says that my idea of triangularity is innate, and that idea is presumably not simple, since a triangle is composed of lines. Again, no coherent case is presented.

Some reviewers have praised this short book, one of them (Gregory F. Tague) calling it “a valuable primer for philosophers who are interested in non-metaphysical theories about the mind.” Primer it may be, but ‘valuable’ is too generous. The presentation of empiricism is poor, and the objections to it consequently often miss the mark. The book is unclear exactly what it is that nativism claims and how the theory avoids being either trivial or false; and it is frustratingly vague about which ideas and which knowledge is supposed to be innate. There are of course excellent grounds for saying that humans have innately a wide range of cognitive abilities and dispositions, and there is an interesting debate to be had about the details of this picture (for example, about which abilities, if any, are sex-linked). But Inborn Knowledge makes only a weak case for innate ideas, and an even poorer one for innate knowledge.

© Nick Everitt 2018

Nick Everitt, now retired, was Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of The Non-Existence of God (Routledge).

Inborn Knowledge: The Mystery Within, by Colin McGinn, MIT Press, 2015, 152 pp, £26.95, ISBN: 978-0262029391

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