Vanishing Intersections

From: Lee, Liz (
Date: Tue May 21 1996 - 10:32:14 BST

What is the problem of vanishing intersections?

An intersection is the overlapping of features which two categories
have in common, a shared feature. Compare a rickshaw to a milk
float, they seem to have little in common, but both are means of
transport, both have wheels, both require people to make them move,
the rickshaw needs somebody to pull it, the milk float somebody to
drive it. They share these features. Now compare the rickshaw to a
bottle of milk, the intersection is certainly smaller, they may both
be said to be containers - one of passengers, the other of milk, and
both need sombody to move them, there is still an intersection. But
consider comparing a rickshaw to milk itself, the intersection has
vanished, there are no features that rickshaws and milk share.
"Vanishing intersections" was a concept used by Fodor (amoung
others) to explain why children cannot learn language by association
alone. The intersections being referred to are the examples of
language which the child hears from those around and bases his or
her knowledge on, Skinner's theory of language acquisition suggests
that all language is learned by a series of stimulus - response
bonds. The intersections "vanish" because the examples have
nothing in common, each thing the child hears is original. The
concept was misapplied by Fodor because there is something these
examples share, and that is they are all examples of language, they
are all syntactically correct being governed by the rules of
Universal Grammar (Chomsky), so the intersection is not vanishing.

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