Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

I am currently reading Pinker's The Blank Slate and enjoying it a great deal. It is challenging and changing the way I think about such subjects, or at the very least, clarifying them for me in ways that have not been possibly until now.


While most reviewers have taken Pinker as challenging "cultural relativism" and "social constructivism" -- which are, indeed, his principle targets -- he also challenges a host of other related theories and ideologies.


His section on feminism, for example, resonates with the critique of gender feminism initiated by equity feminists like Wendy Kaminer and Christina Hoff Summers during the nineties, and he mentions these two writers in this regard. In her own book, Who Stole Feminism?, Summers demolishes the idea that there is a "woman's way of knowing." A constructivist critique of gender feminism might be that it "essentializes" gender, and as we know from various postmodern authors, "essentialization" is "bad." Pinker, though, tells us that the problem with gender feminism (or difference feminism) is not that it "essentializes" male and female natures; the problem is that it essentializes them in a manner that just doesn't fit with the facts. It makes use of stereotypes like "women are nurturing; men are violent" (cf: Carol Gilligan), and this kind of thinking, argues Pinker, is as inaccurate, and ridiculous, as the simplistic stereotypes we find in books like Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars.


One thing I like about Pinker, and his thinking, is that he is no mere reactionary intending to defend the status quo. (Indeed, one could probably say fairly that he is liberal in his thinking.) His attack on constructivism does not derive from some Judeo-Christian dogma about the "absolute necessity of moral absolutes" or the doctrine of the "inherent nihilistic evils of relativism." Rather, it is derived from his reflection upon the facts of cognitive science and evolutionary biology.


As noted already, he does not limit his critique to constructivist theories of social science. Contained in his book are critiques of classical empiricism -- which is where the idea of the blank slate, or tabula rasa, derived; of romanticism, with its idea of the noble savage, who from time immemorial has lived in complete non-violent harmony with his enviroment; and of the idea of the "ghost in the machine," which refers not only to Cartesian mind/body dualism, but to any theory of consciousness that posits a non-material spiritual entity as the essence of human being. 


Pinker's basic argument in the first half of the book is that it is impossible to account for the functioning of the human mind without positing some form of innate structure. He says succintly at one point that the idea the we are primarily conditioned by our environment makes no sense, since the rules for structuring the input we receive cannot itself be derived from that input. This idea is very similar to Wittgenstein's argument that the rules for the application of sensory terms cannot themselves be derived from sensations, and to the arguments of Kant, who said that while all knowledge has an empirical basis, empirical content is not on its own enough to account for rule governed activities like reasoned thought. In the same vein, Pinker refutes the dogma of associationism, the idea that all concepts are "abstractions" derived from sensory forms.


In one of the more humourous sections of the book, Pinker also takes aim at the absurdities of the behaviorist school of psychology. And indeed the book is filled with witticisms and jokes, like the following: "What did the behaviorist say to his wife after having sex? -- It was good for you; was it good for me?" Such additions make the book quite entertaining.


And, of course, within Pinker's book are also implied critiques of Judeo-Christian conceptions of human nature, and of ideas of creationism, including the idea that the universe was based upon the intelligent design of a supra-cosmic maker. This makes his critique thorough and well-rounded: here we have substantial critiques of premodern, modern, and post-modern conceptions of human nature.


The idea of the "blank slate" can be understood as a cognate of the idea of the "the given." Indeed, we could probably speak in the same breath of "the myth of the blank state" and "the myth of the given." Both ideas are most closely associated with the empiricism of the Enlightenment, with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and both imply the notion that a pure input, unsullied by either a conceptual structure or a innate rule-forming structure, is a possibility.


Ken Wilber, of course, has spoken of the "myth of the given." But I think that there are elements of Pinker's critique that could be applied to theories of mystical empiricism and to transpersonal or "integral" theories of human development, like that epsoused by Wilber. One is his critique of the idea that experience has a potentially "transformative" nature. Arguing against the theory that it is our environment and experience that primarily "shape" us, Pinker notes that the apparently "transformative" nature of these components is no where near as "transformative" as appears at first glance. What such transformations amount to, he might say, is a mere shuffling around of the furniture in your apartment. In other words, he might say that what some in transpersonal and integral circles call "transformation" is actually, to use their own language, "mere translation." The real "transformative" structuring of the mind, he would say, happens in the womb, and perhaps in the first six years after birth. The rest is just moving around furniture.

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I finally baited you kela into some academic dialogue again. It's about fricken time! I guess the thrill of the new girlfriend has worn off and you're come back to your senses?
theurj said:
I finally baited you kela into some academic dialogue again. It's about fricken time! I guess the thrill of the new girlfriend has worn off and you're come back to your senses?

Haha, no she's just out of town for four weeks visiting friends and family in Toronto. I must be sublimating. :-)

I haven't read through this thread, but I see Pinker's material dealt with here and I see Lakoff's name mentioned in regard to Pinker.

At a glance I can see that there is some controversy here with some of the big names surrounding some of Pinker's assertions.

I probably haven't absorbed enough knowledge yet to feel agreement or disagreement with this info - rather I am interested at the moment in how Pinker seems to be slicing through the root burl of human reality, with emphasis on cognition and language, in slightly (it seems so far) different ways than Lakoff. I have liked Lakoff's work a lot and particularly his well-researched taxonomy of mental/linguistic/material-energetic dynamics that lead humans to think and communicate as we do. I have a similar appreciation for how Pinker has sliced through this.

Being "integrally" interested and oriented and increasingly informed, naturally I often cross-correlate in myself categories that jump out in me. One thing among a few that I have noticed is how Pinker said that one dynamic pivots around our ability to see things in different ways. In the context that he mentioned that I had an inner hit with framing, and then with Ken's and integral's capability for multiple perspectives.

Maybe in the future, I'll find myself parsing and comparing and contrasting these main people's works with more detail and affective verve.

"In an exclusive preview of his book The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker looks at language and how it expresses what goes on in our minds — and how the words we choose communicate much more than we realize."

Fun territory for me.

I'll take take the easy way out and rather than search for the perfect thread or create a new thread, I'll post this research piece on memory here.

As I said in my prior post here (I hope my common disclaimers aren't too off-putting, yet this is how I seem to think/feel), I haven't absorbed and/or integrated enough info to have many opinions worth asserting about details of the nature/nurture tension, of the brain/mind tension, or about the various theories of mind, consciousness, and reality/actuality.

I have wondered for some time that in the couple of Lakoff videos I have watched, I don't remember hearing him speak much about memory. Maybe it is a category that doesn't correspond to the level and angle of slice that he takes through language, mind, and reality. Maybe it is obvious  almost implicit that many of these categories of dynamics have memory as a factor, like sensory-perceptual experience, like framing, like metaphor, like ...

It's a possibility I have just missed it.

I have been meaning to gradually explore and inquire about this in upcoming time.

Personally the category and nature of memory, that is retaining some trace of past events and phenomena and thereby informs the present and future in simple and complexly recursive ways, is one of my most comfortable words and activities.

Perhaps because Krishnamurti in his radical deconstructions/reconstructions, his sketching of how we get into trouble with thought via memory, impacted me in a somewhat formative/reformative phase. Along with my psychological education that has researched "memory" and "learning" plenty, I have that category waiting to be lit up whenever I hear of brain and mind and biology.

So, here, and in the margins of this article are other memory related bits and pieces:

Any thoughts?

I discuss memory on various pages of the fold thread. On any given page you can search for the word 'memory' in the edit menu at the top of your browser and find those references.

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