Chomsky Versus Piaget: Innatism or Constructivism?

The following is an article response to the discourse between two prominent researchers, Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget, who debated on the psychogenesis of knowledge and its epistemological significance (Beakley, & Ludlow, 1992). The premise of the debate, led by Piaget, was to argue that the hallmark of cognitive development is “construction of the new”, a constructivist concept. According to Piaget, constructivism explains how individuals are actively involved in a constructive exchange with the environment through assimilation and accommodation which contributes to the acquisition of learning and of knowledge (Piaget, 1980).

Piaget argues against those notions of association because those models do not support how anything can be produced from nature, since individuals, as emphasized by John Locke, are born with a ‘blank slate’. These anti-empiricist and anti-behaviorist notions are challenged by Chomsky. Chomsky disagrees with Piaget’s notion of constructivism and he claims that there are innate cognitive structures that exist in man and these predetermined constructions are what eventually become logically necessary. He supports empiricist and preformationist notions by arguing that humans have a genetically predetermined language faculty. A child will acquire a grammar innately, and its complexity and sophistication will be developed according to the child’s volume of experience with the environment. Chomsky emphasizes that all cognitive structures are genetically specified and predetermined at birth and are then advanced through active exchange with the environment. Therefore, the purpose of the following article will be to use logic to support Chomsky’s innatism and to argue against Piaget’s constructivism.

Piaget argues that language is a shared phenomenon that is created by active involvement among individuals in a culture. The complexity or sophistication of the language will depend on the volume of experience the child is exposed to. Unlike Chomsky, however, Piaget does not believe that there is any predetermined structure that allows the formation of such language or knowledge. Therefore, language is specifically a constructed concept. In contrast, Chomsky argues that there must be an innate structure that allows language to form and grow and that each individual has a maximum capacity to learn a given language. Hence, cultural experience of language is limited by the genetically determined capacity of the child’s cognitive structures. Following this, Piaget’s constructivist arguments do not take into account how language can be restricted by genetically predisposed structures. According to Piaget, language is limitless and can theoretically be acquired by any individual, at any time.

Constructivism does not explain the universal properties of language. Chomsky challenges this problem by arguing that there are universal elements that are present in every language. These elements include sentence structures, nouns, punctuation, and verbs. If there are consistent elements in every language, he hypothesizes that there may be underlying genetically predisposed structures that account for these similarities (Chomsky, 1980). Furthermore, there are numerous cultures that are geographically distanced, yet, the elements are consistent within the languages of these cultures still. Therefore, it is plausible that humans have an innate faculty of language that accounts for the similar elements shared by each unique culture. Innatism is supported by research in animals, such as with Wild-type D. melanogaster males.

These flies grow up without any exposure to other members of the species, but when they are at the critical period of mating, they are able to perform the courtship rituals of its specific species (Pan & Baker, 2014). These rituals have been hard-wired in the species’ genetic makeup where patterns of evolution have allowed them to perform cultural behaviors without the assistance of its kin. Innatism is present among the animal kingdom and research indicates that random mutations have endowed humans with the capacity to learn complex behaviors such as language (Chomsky, 1980).

Another problem with constructivism is the existence of the First Clause. If language and knowledge exists, where did they first originate? According to Piaget, knowledge and language is constructed by the individual as a product of interacting with the environment. This process paints the blank slate. However, as Parmenides said, “nothing comes from nothing”. Therefore, language must be rooted somewhere before it is passed down and shared. Chomsky explains that language first originates from predetermined cognitive structures. The likelihood that actively recording observations is enough to contribute to knowledge is slim since intelligence and language can also be inherited. The argument for the First Clause states that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. The cause, according to Chomsky, can only be explained by innatism.

Piaget and Chomsky debate whether knowledge is a product of constructivism or innatism. Against associationism and behaviorism, Piaget does not address how certain elements of language are consistent in all languages. Furthermore, Piaget fails to deliver sufficient explanation to how knowledge and learning is constructed. In constructivism, language and knowledge should be dependent on the type of environment the individual is exposed to and improvements should be made with the appropriate environmental exposure. However, constructivism does not account for delays for learning nor does it account for heredity. Therefore, in support with Chomsky, innate cognitive structures that lay a foundation for intelligence and language to grow must exist. Accordingly, innatism is one suitable theory for the psychogenesis of knowledge and its epistemological significance.


Beakley, B., & Ludlow, P. (1992). The philosophy of mind: Classical problems/contemporary issues. MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (1980).

Pan, Y., & Baker, B.S. (2014). Genetic identification and separation of innate and experience-dependent courtship behaviors in Drosophilia. CellPress, 156, 236-238. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2013.11.041

Piaget, J. (1980).

Source by Damyan Edwards