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.

Views: 682

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Pinker reminds me of my cogsciprago mentors, from Philosophy of the Flesh pp. 4-6:

Reason is not "universal" in the transcendent sense; that is, it is not part of the structure of the universe. It is universal, however, in that it is a capacity shared universally by all human beings. What allows it to be shared are the commonalities that exist in the way our minds are embodied.

The phenomenological person, who through phenomenological introspection alone can discover everything there is to know about the mind and the nature of experience, is a fiction. Although we can have a theory of a vast, rapidly and automatically operating cognitive unconscious, we have no direct conscious access to its operation and therefore to most of our thought. Phenomenological reflection, though valuable in revealing the structure of experience, must be supplemented by empirical research into the cognitive unconscious.

There is no poststructuralist person—no completely decentered subject for whom all meaning is arbitrary, totally relative and purely historical contingent, unconstrained by body and brain. The mind is not merely embodied, but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in. The result is that much of a person’s conceptual system is either universal or widespread across languages and cultures. Our conceptual systems are not totally relative and not merely a matter of historical contingency, even though a degree of conceptual relativity does exist and even though historical contingency does matter a great deal. The grounding of our conceptual systems in shared embodied and bodily experience creates a largely centered self, but not a monolithic self.

There exists no Fregean person--as posed by analytic philosophy--for whom thought has been extruded from the body. That is, there is no real person whose embodiment plays no role in meaning, whose meaning is purely objective and defined by the external world, and whose language can fit the external world with no significant role played by mind, brain, or body. Because our conceptual systems grow out of our bodies, meaning is grounded in and through our bodies. Because a vast range of our concepts are metaphorical, meaning is not entirely literal and the classical correspondence theory of truth is false. The correspondence theory holds that statements are true or false objectively, depending on how they map directly onto the world--independent of any human understanding of either the statement or the world. On the contrary, truth is mediated by embodied understanding and imagination. That does not mean that truth is purely subjective or that there is no stable truth. Rather, our common embodiment allows for common, stable truths.
Interestingly enough, Lakoff and Pinker have been bitter opponents over decades. See this link for one of Lakoff's responses to one of Pinker's criticisms of his work.
theurj said:
Interestingly enough, Lakoff and Pinker have been bitter opponents over decades. See this link for one of Lakoff's responses to one of Pinker's criticisms of his work.

Pinker, no doubt, has a number of enemies. He may be a little more right of centre than I initially thought, adn I suspect that most of the acrimony directed toward him is politically based. Interestingly enough, much of his book documents some of the more inane arguments foisted by the politcally correct left. Such things -- ad hominem attacks, non sequitors, shouting down opponents, and getting one's students to carry "Nazi" placards to the public talks of one's intellectual opponents -- make me embarrased to be a social democrat at times.

Pinker does not say that sociobiology makes Adam Smith's ideas true, but he does say that, in his opinion, Smith's theories are closer to the facts that Marx's. I personally would like to take Pinker's train of thought -- which is more or less neutral until the latter portions of the book -- and then move it, when the subjects become socio-political, in the direction of left of centre, which I think is possible.

I posted my review on facebook and Jim responded that he once posted a review of Pinker at the Lightmind Wilber forum. Apparently, "Xibalba" responded to the post with a series of ad hominems directed at Pinker. I find that ironic, since Pinker's book is all about the pomo left using non sequitors and ad adhominems, rhetorically, "for the sake of the greater good." I'm beginning to think that such things are not so good, not just for the sake of discourse, but for the sake of the pomo left itself. It really detracts from their credibility when they do so, and I find it embarrassing to be associated with that kind of thing, at least in professional academic contexts. At internet forums, of course, I feel free enough to make an ass of myself and do so. ;-)
theurg,
I have started to read the postion paper of Lakoff you provided, and find it very interesting. I will have to give it a thorough read. There is alot there to cover, not just the theoretical material about the nature of language, but the political material, and the respective rhetorics used by both sides. Suddenly the old "culture wars" have become fun. :-)
kela
I googled Steven Pinker's book 'The Blank Slate' and came across a TED talk he gave on it back in 2003: Steven Pinker chalks it up to the blank slate
The link above to Lakoff's response to Pinker was down tonight. I found this alternative link.
This review of the book notes that it depends on which side of the conservative/liberal political divide you rest whether you'll favor one said of the nature/nurture question, with exceptions. And that once your side is chosen, either way, the rhetoric tends to be reductionistic toward the other side. For example Pinker lays blame on Locke for the blank slate doctrine when apparently Locke never held this view. Also the reviewer notes that more reasonable people tend not to be so one-sided in this debate, that it is a combination of nature/nurture. He grades Pinker at the nature extreme and hence his "evidence" is colored by his political leanings.

Also see this review, billed as:

"A few smart scientists and science writers have taken him on, but the world has needed a lucid, accessible dissection of Pinker's conservativism and simplemindedness. Louis Menand, a Queens College home-boy made good, has now done the job by reviewing Pinker's latest book."
Hi Kela

In your original post you say that Pinker's book contains critiques of... :
"any theory of consciousness that posits a non-material spiritual entity as the essence of human being."

In your opinion, would you say the Spirit or Eros of Wilber's theory(-ies?) fit this category?

James
James Barrow said:
Hi Kela

In your original post you say that Pinker's book contains critiques of... :
"any theory of consciousness that posits a non-material spiritual entity as the essence of human being."

In your opinion, would you say the Spirit or Eros of Wilber's theory(-ies?) fit this category?

James

Hi James,
According to Jim Chamberlain, Wilber has called Pinker a "flatlander." This means that he would regard Pinker as a materialist and a "reductionist." And Pinker and Dawkins are chums who speak highly of each other. So yes, I think that Pinker would deny Wilber's theory of consciousness as "Spirit" as well.
Here's a dialog with Dawkins & Pinker which you may find of interest on the subject, James. Is Science Killing The Soul?

Here is a quoted paragraph from Pinker...

"Cognitive neuroscience, the attempt to relate thought, perception and emotion to the functioning of the brain, has pretty much killed Soul One, in Richard's sense. It should now be clear to any scientifically literate person that we don't have any need for a ghost in the machine, as Gilbert Ryle memorably put it. Many kinds of evidence show that the mind is an entity in the physical world, part of a causal chain of physical events. If you send an electric current through the brain, you cause the person to have a vivid experience. If a part of the brain dies because of a blood clot or a burst artery or a bullet wound, a part of the person is gone -- the person may lose an ability to see, think, or feel in a certain way, and the entire personality may change. The same thing happens gradually when the brain accumulates a protein called beta-amyloid in the tragic disease known as Alzheimer's. The person -- the soul, if you want -- gradually disappears as the brain decays from this physical process."

James Barrow said:
Hi Kela
In your original post you say that Pinker's book contains critiques of... : "any theory of consciousness that posits a non-material spiritual entity as the essence of human being."
In your opinion, would you say the Spirit or Eros of Wilber's theory(-ies?) fit this category?

James
theurj said:
This review of the book notes that it depends on which side of the conservative/liberal political divide you rest whether you'll favor one said of the nature/nurture question, with exceptions. And that once your side is chosen, either way, the rhetoric tends to be reductionistic toward the other side. For example Pinker lays blame on Locke for the blank slate doctrine when apparently Locke never held this view. Also the reviewer notes that more reasonable people tend not to be so one-sided in this debate, that it is a combination of nature/nurture. He grades Pinker at the nature extreme and hence his "evidence" is colored by his political leanings.

Also see this review, billed as:

"A few smart scientists and science writers have taken him on, but the world has needed a lucid, accessible dissection of Pinker's conservativism and simplemindedness. Louis Menand, a Queens College home-boy made good, has now done the job by reviewing Pinker's latest book."

I read the Blackburn review with interest. Where Pinker is no philosopher, Blackburn is no scientist, and indeed near the end he admits that he is skeptical of scientific research when contradictory findings are the result. There's no doubt that Pinker overstates his case. But this is typical of academic discourse paricularly when it is transposed into popular books: there, you are stating a case; taking a position, and there is little time for a dialetical consideration of opposing views, since this makes you look wishywashy and layreaders want a definite stand. There may also be a few straw men or at least distortions of other thinkers in Pinker's book. This is also very typical of philosophical discourse where you twist someone's words around and say, "this is what he is really saying." Heidegger and Rusself were notorious for this. It is a kind of philosophical gambit.

As for the balnk slate and Locke, well, I think Blackburn is being rather "reserche" with his view that "Locke never held this view." That is, he is offering a rather esoteric interpretation of Locke over against the received view that Locke did hold this view. For Locke did indeed speak of the mind as a blank piece of paper. However, he went on to say that it needed the "understanding" to make sense of its contents, and here Pinker argues that Locke is being somewhat inconsistent: he is ackowledging its necessity. As for the fact that the blank slate does not occur in the thinking of other modernists like Leibniz and Kant, well, Blackburn has either missed the boat here or he is distorting Pinker's characterization. Pinker himself points to the innatist Leibniz as one of his intellectual forebearers. And Kant was another well known innatist. Pinker's target here is not Leibniz; it is specifically the empiricists, and we might do well to note that Blackburn was a great admirer of Hume. So Blackburn may be reacting out of a sense of defense here. What I think Pinker is saying is that empiricism has become the received view, at least in the anglo american world, and the innatists have become the odd man out. So it is in this sense that the blank slate has become the view of modernity.

The other school of thought that Pinker goes after is the post-modern constructivists: "reality is a social construct." We might do well here to note that the grandaddy of constructivism is Kant. Since Kant was an innatist, we have a kind of mixed metaphor at work here, of the kind that as Blackburn notes exists between the blank slate and the noble savage ideas. Like the innatists, constructivists hold that experience is ladden with concepts. Where they differ is that they say that these concepts are dervived from historicity and culture rather than from innate ideas. So the blank slate idea does not quite work here with respect to the constructivist, or is at least forced. What Pinker is targeting here, though, is the idea that we are primarily conditioned by our environment, which is the view that we find among Marxists, feminists, and post-structuralist/post-modern thought in general. And it is in this sense, there is a kind of parallelism going on with the empiricist view that our experience primarily shapes us.

As for the relation of all this to politics, I find it rather interesting that while Chomsky is the innatist, or to be exact a nativist, par excellance, he is also a socio-anarchist. I think this is significant and should not be glossed over. I personally think that there is no essential or necessary relation between one's philosophical thought and one's political leanings. Heidegger, for example, could very well be called the father of constructivism -- in Being and Time we are thoroughly conditioned by our historicity -- and yet he was a Nazi. Nonetheless there will be correlations, though I think they will be contingent: rightwingers will tend to like the results of evolutionary psychology because it looks as if such work supports Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, while leftwingers will tend to be constructivists for since, in America at least, the late Marxist thought of Frankfurter leaning professors tended to morph into the post-structuralist thought of Foucault and feminists like Iragaray on University campuses -- paradigmatically at Berkeley -- during the 80's and 90's.
Thanks for your responses Kela & Seth

Reply to Discussion

RSS

What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

Notice to Visitors

At the moment, this site is at full membership capacity and we are not admitting new members.  We are still getting new membership applications, however, so I am considering upgrading to the next level, which will allow for more members to join.  In the meantime, all discussions are open for viewing and we hope you will read and enjoy the content here.

© 2017   Created by Balder.   Powered by

Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service