Constraints on Constraints: Surveying the Epigenetic Landscape


Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853


It is now relatively commonplace to advocate the need for some sorts of constraints on learning and knowledge acquisition. The critical issues to cognitive science concern the sorts of constraints that are able to best model various phenomena of learning and development. Four types of constraints on learning are proposed to be used as an interpretative framework within which to: 1. Better understand the nature of current research: 2. Allow the exploration of alternative models of learning related phenomena, and 3. See more clearly needs for further research. Superficially similar learning phenomena can be modeled by very different configurations of underlying constraints with strong implications for the sorts of representational states that are involved. Each of the five papers in this issue (Brown, Gelman, Markman, Newport, and Spelke) is considered in terms of the configuration of constraints after which each author intends to model their phenomena and in terms of alternate configurations. The papers are construed as illustrating a diverse set of models of how constraints might guide learning, and while the evidence generally favors the configurations suggested by the authors, in each case alternative models are possible and motivate quite specific future research questions.

More broadly, it is suggested that asking detailed questions about the sorts of Constraints types that could potentially model complex cases of natural knowledge acquisition helps motivate fundamental questions about learning and the nature of knowledge and that the five papers in this issue are superb examples of how adopting this kind of perspective has been fruitful research orientation.