Inborn Knowledge: The Mystery Within

By Colin McGinn

8 ratings - 3.75* vote

An argument that nativism is true and important but mysterious, examining the particular case of ideas of sensible qualities.In this book, Colin McGinn presents a concise, clear, and compelling argument that the origins of knowledge are innate--that nativism, not empiricism, is correct in its theory of how concepts are acquired. McGinn considers the particular case of sens An argument that nativism is true and important but mysterious, examining the particular case of ideas of sensible

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Book details

Hardcover, 152 pages
December 4th 2015 by MIT Press

(first published December 1st 2015)

0262029391 (ISBN13: 9780262029391)

Community Reviews

Jason Gordon

Quite a good introduction to nativism -- if not dated (more on that later). The book starts out with outlining three hypothesis about where ideas come from (externally, internally, or from nowhere). The third hypothesis is dismissed off the bat and the rest of the chapter is used to formulate the first hypothesis -- now known as the empiricist hypothesis. McGinn makes a distinction between two sorts of empiricism: external empiricism and internal empiricism. External empiricism holds that ideas derive from external causes themselves, while internal empiricism holds that ideas derive from the subjective impressions caused in us irrespective of their external causes. The purpose of this distinction is to show that some forms of empiricism are compatible with nativism. So for example it is logically possible to be an empiricist about ideas while being a nativist about impressions. Such empiricism is not McGinn's concern because true empiricism entails a rejection of nativism (for him anyway). This is a very weird rule as it leads to straw-manning the empiricist camp -- particularly Locke and Hume. Locke and Hume, if you read them carefully, could not escape the pull of nativism as McGinn himself acknowledges. It would have been nice of him to analyze these contradictions, instead of mentioning them, laughing at the superficial absurdity and placing it aside. Exploring these contradictions would have led to the conclusion that to be a good empiricist about core ideas/knowledge requires being a good nativist. I must admit that it will be interesting re-reading this section in conjunction with Fodor's Hume Variations (where Fodor argues that Hume is a Cartesian).

The second chapter outlines the problems of external empiricism. The most interesting criticism in this section is the one where McGinn draws a parallel between external empiricism and creationism: 'Empiricism is accordingly a kind of separate creation theory of human knowledge: just as the creationism Darwin argued against held that each species was created separately from nothing by God, so empiricism maintains that each person must create his or her conceptual scheme from scratch.' I note the criticism because it sets the stage for the argument that nativism is consonant with good biology.

The third chapter is divided into two parts. The first part outlines what nativism is, while the second part presents an argument for mysterianism. The first section of this chapter is where we are introduced to McGinn's writing at its finest. Here, McGinn draws parallels between core/innate ideas and anatomical development to demonstrate that the nativist position is consonant with functional/evolutionary biology. For McGinn, nativism about ideas is a position you would want to adopt to avoid methodological dualism when placing the mind under the lens of naturalistic inquiry. Other gems include an explanation of why nativism is such a difficult position to accept. However, the first section of this chapter is quite dated. Nativists are now incorporating their ideas with the new trends of biology outlined in what Massimo Pigliucci calls The Extended Synthesis. Given that he name drops Chomsky, who is one of the nativists doing such work, I find it curious that these new developments are ignored by McGinn.

The section on nativist mysternianism is an exercise in stating and arguing the obvious. I understand that in certain cases the obvious needs to be stated, but here I'm not sure why it does need to be stated. The people who are sensible will agree and the fundamentalist philosophers of science won't even read it.

The last chapter talks about the philosophical implications of nativism. This was probably the weakest chapter of them all.

For what it's worth this is a good introductory outline of the nativist position despite the serious problems outlined above.