Can connectionism save constructivism?

Gary F. Marcus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Constructivism is the Piagetian notion that learning leads the child to develop new types of representations. For example, on the Piagetian view, a child is born without knowing that objects persist in time even when they are occluded; through a process of learning, the child comes to know that objects persist in time. The trouble with this view has always been the lack of a concrete, computational account of how a learning mechanism could lead to such a change. Recently, however, in a book entitled Rethinking Innateness, Elman et al. (Elman, J.L., Bates, E., Johnson, M.H., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., Plunkett, K., 1996. Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press) have claimed that connectionist models might provide an account of the development of new kinds of representations that would not depend on the existence of innate representations. I show that the models described in Rethinking Innateness depend on innately assumed representations and that they do not offer a genuine alternative to nativism. Moreover, I present simula-tion results which show that these models are incapable of deriving genuine abstract representations that are not presupposed. I then give a formal account of why the models fail to generalize in the ways that humans do. Thus, connectionism, at least in its current form, does not provide any support for constructivism. I conclude by sketching a possible alternative.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)153-182
Number of pages30
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2 1998


  • Connectionism
  • Constructivism
  • Nativism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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