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The 'Language Instinct' Debate: Revised Edition Paperback – April 1, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0826473851 ISBN-10: 0826473857 Edition: Revised Edition
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Sampson's book is worth reading, because it providesa view of how human languages work without appealing to nativist assumptions...Ihave recommended Pinker (1994) to my colleagues and students, and almost all ofthem have told me that it is one of the best books that they have read aboutlanguage. Sampson agrees that Pinker's book "is superbly well written", but healso says "a book can be well written, and its conclusions quite wrong" (p.14). I will now also recommend Sampson's book to my colleagues and students,and let them judge between the two." (Linguist List)

Title mention in Anuario Filosófico, Vol XXXIX/1 2006


"Now we have a much revised, corrected and expanded version which answers Sampson's many critics and makes ever clearer the fact that all the Chomsky and Pinker theories are not nearly as well supported as most psychologists and linguists seem to imagine. Sampson has a sharp eye for scholarly fudging of facts, illogical arguments, and towering theories tottering on weak foundations. At the very least Sampson's no-nonsense book, remarkable for its lucidity and readability in a field not notable for these virtues, forces upon us a recognition of the parlous state of a lot of linguistic argument and compels us to return the Scottish verdict of "not Proven." We realize that in linguistics the problem is not so much what we do not know as that much of what we pretend to know is simply not supported by sufficient evidence.
Sampson may not bring down the temple of a false god but he has most certainly shaken the pillars. Anyone interested in language and culture will find the book captivating."- Leonard R. N. Ashley, Geolinguistics, Vol. 31 2005


“Sampson’s book is worth reading, because it providesa view of how human languages work without appealing to nativist assumptions…Ihave recommended Pinker (1994) to my colleagues and students, and almost all ofthem have told me that it is one of the best books that they have read aboutlanguage. Sampson agrees that Pinker’s book “is superbly well written”, but healso says “a book can be well written, and its conclusions quite wrong” (p.14). I will now also recommend Sampson’s book to my colleagues and students,and let them judge between the two.” (Linguist List)

Title mention in Anuario Filosófico, Vol XXXIX/1 2006


"Now we have a much revised, corrected and expanded version which answers Sampson’s many critics and makes ever clearer the fact that all the Chomsky and Pinker theories are not nearly as well supported as most psychologists and linguists seem to imagine. Sampson has a sharp eye for scholarly fudging of facts, illogical arguments, and towering theories tottering on weak foundations. At the very least Sampson’s no-nonsense book, remarkable for its lucidity and readability in a field not notable for these virtues, forces upon us a recognition of the parlous state of a lot of linguistic argument and compels us to return the Scottish verdict of "not Proven." We realize that in linguistics the problem is not so much what we do not know as that much of what we pretend to know is simply not supported by sufficient evidence.
Sampson may not bring down the temple of a false god but he has most certainly shaken the pillars. Anyone interested in language and culture will find the book captivating."- Leonard R. N. Ashley, Geolinguistics, Vol. 31 2005

About the Author

Geoffrey Sampson is a former Professor of Natural Language Computing at the School of Informatics, University of Sussex. He is now a Research Fellow at the University of South Africa.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic; Revised Edition edition (April 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0826473857
  • ISBN-13: 978-0826473851
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,089,017 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.0 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This book certainly brought a different perspective to the empiricist/ nativist debate. It shed reasonable doubt upon the idea that we are born with innate semantic structure. Mr. Sampson does a good job of showing the empirical evidence does not always indicate the universals the nativists claim are substantial. After reading this book, I am certainly more confident in the creativity of human intelligence.

However, I have my qualms with Mr. Sampson. I am not a linguist, but most of the arguments were not out of my grasp. At times the author was repetitive, ambiguous and he often went on tangents, particularly in the last few chapters in which it seems he is struggling to respond to all of the critics of his first edition. Particularly I note how he struggled to convince the reader that Karl Popper would advocate his position. I am not very familiar with this philosopher, but Mr. Sampson is forced to combine quotes to manipulate his words. It seems that he just wants people to be on his side. All this, after he argued against the atrocities of hegemony! Aside from his prose, the biggest annoyance I had with this book was that he waits until the end to reveal his true stance. This is the spoiler: he believes that the mind is literally infinitely creative. This seems to contradict his statement earlier in the book that he believes Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate to be of great value despite the fact that this conclusion can only come from complete denial of everything this book stands for. Mr. Sampson calls upon the ghost in the machine, Descarte's dualism, as the source of human creativity. This view was not integrated into the book but simply pops out at the end, at least from my perspective.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Carlos Raul Molina on July 9, 2008
Format: Paperback
Geoffrey Sampson's critical approach to Pinker's best-selling "The Language Instinct" makes some good points against the nativist position on language acquisition. Mostly, advocating for a return to empiricism, and using the science philosophy of K. Popper, Sampson tries to debunk the basic tenets of Chomsky's (and Pinker's) theory of language acquisition.

Some arguments are clearly backed by evidence. For instance, the idea that "language mutants" with an specific genetic disorder that affects the use of suffixes has been not well research by Pinker, since further evidence shows that the gene involved in the problem is NOT only relevant for linguistic forms, but to more general learning processes.

However, the philosophical and logical arguments against Chomsky's classic proofs such as "poverty of stimulus" and the like are not as clear. Maybe Sampson keeps his arguments at a logical level (which makes it harder to fallow the argumentation, very dense at moments), instead on relying on more empirical evidence.

In sum, it is an interesting book, but the style and the dense argumentation (as well as some subtle clear dislike for Chomsky and his role in the world of ideas) doesn't make it a candidate to be THE definite critical voice in the linguistic innateness debate.
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41 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Olly Buxton on November 14, 2006
Format: Paperback
There's nothing better than seeing an overconfident favourite getting a proper seeing to from an unfancied underdog.

All the same, when best-selling MIT and Harvard-credentialised psycho-linguist Steven Pinker's book "the Language Instinct" - a work feted far and wide and rarely challenged in polite circles - is subjected to critical treatment by an curmudgeonly British professor from an unfashionable second tier university in the home counties, it is a hopeful chap indeed who thinks an upset might be on the cards.

Pinker, after all, has the weight of Noam Chomsky (self styled most important intellect on the planet) behind him, and rates consistently favourable mentions from the literary review sections of important newspapers and that peculiar clique of populist science writers (Dan Dennett, Alan Sokal and Richard Dawkins among others).

The best you could say for Sampson, on the other hand, is that he lacks profile: His tenure is at the University of Sussex - yes, there is one - and the profile he does have isn't the sort most people would want: as far back as 1977, Christopher Hitchens described him as "an academic nonentity who made various other incautious allegations [about Noam Chomsky's political views] and who later ... strolled into the propellers and was distributed into such fine particles that he has never been heard from again." Ouch.

That's all ancient history, though, and the pleasant surprise is that over the last thirty years the plucky little Britisher has made a full recovery from his encounter with the propellers and is in fine enough fettle to give said global linguistic superstar a good old-fashioned intellectual walloping.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth A. Root on April 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I'm torn between a three and a four on this one. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the issue of whether or not language is instinctual. Sampson scores some hits against those believing that language is inborn. I admit that I'm a pushover for discrediting Noam Chomsky. I consider him to be a philosopher, rather than a scientist, since he doesn't empirically test his ideas. Logic is a valuable tool, but ideas that originally seemed logical litter the path of science when they don't stand up to testing.

Sampson is particularly strong when he catches his opponents making assumptions rather than basing their arguments on actual data. He searches databases like the British National Corpus, that includes samples of everyday speech, to show that many forms of speech aren't as rare as was supposed, and it is therefore more likely that a child could learn them by observation. He also catches them in overgeneralizations about things that are frequently, but not always true. These are the strongest parts of the book.

Still, in the end I am not convinced that he is right. He argues that the idea that language is entirely learned, like games or dances, is the "commonsense" position. I don't know about that: I have read that in the Middle Ages, efforts were made to isolate infants from adult speech in the belief that they would then speak the original language. And I am unaware of any culture that does not have a language. Even deaf infants babble.

I also think that Sampson overstates the "instinct" position, to set up a straw man. He says: "All of us, surely, would rather be what most of us have supposed we are: creatures capable of coming to terms with whatever life throws at us because of our ability to create novel ideas [...
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The 'Language Instinct' Debate: Revised Edition
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