First Principles Organize Attention to and Learning About Relevant Data: Number and the Animate-Inanimate Distinction as Examples


Department of Psychology, 405 Hilgard Avenue, Franz Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA 90024


Early cognitive development benefits from nonlinguistic representations of skeletal sets of domain-specific principles and complementary domain-relevant data abstraction processes. The principles outline the domain, identify relevant inputs, and structure coherently what is learned. Knowledge acquisition within the domain is a joint function of such domain-specific principles and domain-general learning mechanisms. Two examples of early learning illustrate this. Skeletal preverbal counting principles help children sort different linguistic strings into those that function as the conventional count-word as opposed to labels for objects in the child's linguistic community. Skeletal causal principles, working with complementary perceptual processes that abstract information about biological and nonbiological conditions and patterns of movement, lead to the rapid acquisition of knowledge about the animate-inanimate distinction. By 3 years of age children con soy whether photographs of unfamiliar nonmammalian animals, mammals, statues, and wheeled objects portray objects capable or incapable of self-generated motion. They also generate answers to questions about the insides of animate items more readily than ones about the insides of inanimate items. Although these children already ore articulate about matters relevant to a theory of action, their limited knowledge of growth illustrates that early skeletal principles do not rule out the need to acquire new principles, in this case ones that underlie a biological account of animacy (Carey, 1985).