School of Computer Science THE UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM CoSy project CogX project

It Can't Be A Blooming Buzzing Confusion

Aaron Sloman

School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham.

Installed: 13 Mar 2011
Last updated: 4 Apr 2011;30 Apr 2011
This paper is
A PDF version may be added later.
A partial index of similar discussion notes is in
(DRAFT: Liable to change)


From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, on William James:
    The Principles of Psychology (1890), is a rich blend of physiology, psychology,
    philosophy, and personal reflection that has given us such ideas as "the stream
    of thought" and the baby's impression of the world "as one great blooming,
    buzzing confusion" (PP 462).
This suggestion about neonates by William James is (unthinkingly) accepted as true by many researchers.


I shall present reasons for thinking that this view of an infant's early experience must be deeply wrong, partly for reasons hinted at by Kant's work on preconditions for learning from experience, and partly because all the biological evidence suggests that most new-born or newly-hatched organisms are already highly adapted to their environment (e.g. chicks that extricate theselves from the egg and soon after than peck for food and follow their mother, deer that within minutes of birth can stagger to their feet, walk to the mother's nipple and start sucking).

The organisms that appear incompetent and totally ignorant at birth, e.g. humans, hunting mammals, corvids, etc. subsequently learn things that would not be possible without a great deal of prior (i.e. genetically determined) structure in the perceptual and other mechanisms. For example, without some language-specific innate mechanisms humans would not be born able to learn a wide variety of human languages, among other things.

(According to a report quoted in Karmiloff-Smith's book, within four days of birth human infant responds differently to speech in the language spoken in the home and speech in another language. That would only be possible if from birth or very soon after the child already detects structures in the sounds whose relative frequencies can be used to discriminate human languages (or something like that).

Instead of a blooming buzzing confusion, I suggest children perceive rich and detailed structures within which they are ready to search for patterns forming higher level structures.

Some ideas about how the initial state must differ from a blooming buzzing confusion are presented in these publications:

  author = {A Karmiloff-Smith},
  year = {1992},
  title = {{Beyond Modularity:
    A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science}},
  publisher = {MIT Press},
  address = {Cambridge, MA},
James is not mentioned in this book, but on page 166 she implies that a
similar view was held by piaget and is mistaken:

    "... To some degree, then, the mind anticipates the representations that it
    will need to store for subsequent domain-specific development. The infant is
    not faced with totally undifferentiated and chaotic input, as the Piagetian
    view would have it. ..."

  author = {A. Sloman and J. Chappell},
  year = {2005},
  title = {{The Altricial-Precocial Spectrum for Robots}},
  booktitle = {{Proceedings IJCAI'05}},
  address = {Edinburgh},
  publisher = {IJCAI},
  pages = {1187--1192},
  url = {},

  author = {Jackie Chappell and Aaron Sloman},
  year = {2007},
  title = {{Natural and artificial meta-configured altricial
    information-processing systems}},
  journal = {International Journal of Unconventional Computing},
  volume = {3},
  number = {3},
  pages = {211--239},
  url = {},

  author = {Aaron Sloman},
  title = {{Evolution of minds and languages. What evolved first and develops first in children:
    Languages for communicating, or languages for thinking (Generalised Languages: GLs)?}},
  year = {2008},
  number = {COSY-PR-0702},
  url = {},
  institution = {School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham},
  type = {Research Note},
  address = {Birmingham, UK},

Also some of the other PDF presentations here:

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham