Educating Eve

Educating Eve:
The 'Language Instinct' Debate
first edition
AuthorGeoffrey Sampson
Original titleEducating Eve
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreNon-fiction (Linguistics)
PublisherContinuum International Publishing Group
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardback)
401 21
LC ClassP37.5.I55 S26 1997
Followed byThe 'Language Instinct' Debate. Revised edition. 

Educating Eve: The 'Language Instinct' Debate is a book by Geoffrey Sampson, providing arguments against Noam Chomsky's theory of a human instinct for (first) language acquisition. Sampson explains the original title of the book as a deliberate allusion to Educating Rita (1980), and uses the plot of that play to illustrate his argument. Sampson's book is a response to Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct specifically and Chomskyan linguistic nativism broadly.

The title, Educating Eve, was dropped after the first edition because the allusion to Educating Rita "was deemed unduly mysterious".[1] The revised edition (2005) contains an additional chapter and "many passages, from a few words up to new chapter-sections, that discuss relevant scientific findings which have emerged since the first edition, or respond to objections made by critics of that edition."[2]


Sampson critically evaluates the ability of theories of linguistic nativism to accommodate the growing understanding of human brain processing over the course of the late 20th century. He proposes an alternative explanation, borrowing some ideas and terminology from Karl Popper.


"Eve was not a born know-all. She was ignorant. But she was a good learner."
  • "Eve was not a born know-all. She was ignorant. But she was a good learner."[3] — Geoffrey Sampson, Educating Eve

The book has seven chapters introduced by a foreword by Paul Postal who claims an agnostic position regarding the debate. He expresses serious concerns regarding the strength of the "nativist" argument; but despite being unconvinced of the alternative view, he commends Sampson for challenging nativism and attempting to make a case for an alternative.

The first chapter of Educating Eve considers broad contours of the nature versus nurture debate in regard to human knowledge generally, before narrowing this down to the rise of late 20th century linguistic nativism in particular. It concludes with an overview of the methodology of the rest of the book. Chapter 2 reports evidence that was available to the "first wave" of nativists (like Chomsky) during the 1960s and 1970s. Chapter 3 reports the results of research that have become available since then. Chapter 4 turns to examining the distinctive arguments of "new wave" nativists (like Pinker). Chapter 5 presents a case for an alternative view. In chapter 7 Sampson concludes with a short personal perspective on sociological changes in the nature of academic discourse over the 40 years of the debate regarding nativism. He attributes the popularity of nativism to various features of these sociological changes.

Annotated journal commentary

Cowley, and some others, view Sampson and Pinker as standing at extreme ends of a nature–nurture spectrum, as applied to explaining language acquisition. Cowley notes philosophical difficulties with each extreme, as they are argued by Sampson and Pinker: Sampson's version of the nurture position also argues for philosophical dualism; whereas Pinker's version of the nature position also argues for an ontological reality for syntax. Both these auxiliary arguments are unsatisfactory to many writers who address the relevant broader philosophical questions.

Cowley proposes an alternative: that language acquisition involves culturally determined language skills, apprehended by a biologically determined faculty that responds to them. In other words, he proposes that each extreme is right in what it affirms, but wrong in what it denies. Both cultural diversity of language, and a learning instinct, can be affirmed; neither need be denied.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Geoffrey Sampson, The 'Language Instinct' Debate, revised edition, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 2.
  2. ^ Sampson (2005): xii.
  3. ^ Sampson (2005): 25.


Works cited in notes and references

Karl Popper
[An unpublished typescript also circulated from the early 1930s, since edited by TE Hansen for his biography of Popper.]
Noam Chomsky
Steven Pinker
Geoffrey Sampson

Selected bibliography of other works

External links

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