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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q127-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved July 01, 2022, from

Article Summary

The notion of innateness plays a significant role in various important debates in philosophy, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, linguistics, ethology, and biology. These debates are about whether some particular trait is innate or not. Someone is a nativist about trait T if they claim that T is innate, and an anti-nativist about T if they claim that T is not innate. From the fact that someone is a nativist about a particular trait it does not follow that they are also a nativist about other traits.

Famously, Plato was a nativist about our knowledge of geometry (and various other things), and Chomsky is a nativist about our Universal Grammar. Nativist claims have also been made about many traits, such as: IQ, sexual preferences, folk psychology, lexical concepts, moral attitudes, and obesity. For each of these traits (and many others), various authors have argued that they are innate, and various authors have argued that they are not. We can call these ‘the nativist debates’.

Both nativists and anti-nativists assume that the notion of innateness is coherent and theoretically useful. But, in the light of what we currently know about the development and evolution of biological and psychological traits, it is not clear whether this is actually the case. Various interesting accounts of the notion of innateness exist. Each of these accounts argues that the notion refers to a specific property of phenotypic traits. The property varies from account to account. Usually, it is something having to do with the trait’s genetic origins, or with its unmalleability, or with its being unlearned. All these accounts seem to capture some particular aspect of the notion, but no account seems to be entirely satisfactory. This suggests that ‘innateness’ conflates different properties that should be kept distinct.

Citing this article:
Mameli, Matteo. Innateness, 2009, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q127-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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