Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Thomas Riggins

This is a reflection on a review by Barbara King, a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary of Steven Pinker’s new book, “The Stuff of Thought” in the April 11, 2008 issue of TLS. Pinker is a very influential cognitive scientist who made a name for himself with his 1994 book “The Language Instinct.”

In that book he proposed that ONLY humans have language and that the claims that other animals have language abilities as well is bogus. “For Pinker, children learn language because their brains are specifically prepared by evolution to do so.” King will take issue with some of Pinker’s ideas but I am a little bit dubious as to her motivations. She implies he is not “even handed” because he has said religious beliefs are “akin to astrology or alchemy,” which, in fact, they are. However, that said, we will see that her review draws some justifiable critical conclusions about Pinker's work as she presents it.

Pinker thinks the key to understanding human nature is to learn how we put our ideas and feelings into words. King tells us that he uses "conceptual semantics" to do this. Pinker himself says, "Linguists call the inventory of concepts and the schemes that combine them 'conceptual semantics.' Conceptual semantics -- the language of thought -- must be distinct from language itself, or we would have nothing to go on when we debate what our words mean."

Pinker's book is full of examples of how we express ourselves in speech that show we have an underlying of reality to which language conforms . King gives one. "Why, driving home from the grocery store, do we refer to a gallon of milk in our car, but never a gallon of blood (even though blood circulates inside our body as we sit there)? Because we conceptualize our bodies as solids rather than as containers." Expressions such as this lead us to think about space and time, cause and effect, and substance, "through which in turn we may identify the deeper rules of conceptual semantics."

Pretty thin gruel! If our bodies are conceived as solids why do say we put too much food in our mouths, or have a pain in our stomach, or too much gas in that self same organ? I fear we cannot draw Pinker's conclusions based on the different idiomatic expressions of different languages and cultures.

Half way through the book, we are told, Pinker reveals the key to his speculations. One of his inspirations is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, of whom he says:

"Kant's version of nativism, with abstract organizing frameworks but not actual knowledge built in to the mind, is the version most viable today, and can be found, for example, in Chomskan linguistics, evolutionary psychology, and the approach to cognitive development called domain specificity. One could go so far as to say the Kant foresaw the shape of a solution to the nature-nurture debate: characterize the organization, whatever it is, that makes useful learning possible."

This is a strange theory for an evolutionist to hold. The human mind has a built in abstract framework a la Kant which is there to organize our experiences into categories (domains) before we even have them. Only humans have this with regard to languages, so the first humans to have a language must have come with this ready made. This is a pre-Darwinian outlook.

According to Darwinian notions language ability would have gradually developed by natural selection and there is no reason "lower" forms in the evolutionary sequence would not exhibit different stages of this ability.

Pinker thinks that the way evolution worked was to form different domains in the human brain each with its own task to fulfill. King says, for Pinker, "The human past constrains our present human nature because it has so closely shaped our brain modules." Pinker says, for instance, that it is necessary to "pry our mental modules free of the domains they were designed for."

This is not good science. Our so called modules were not "designed" for anything. Our responses evolved as the result of environmental adaptations. There is no reason to think that this process halted sometime in the paleolithic and is no longer functioning.

King quotes Pinker as saying that "left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways." The solution, he says is, by education "to make up for the short comings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world." This outlook is basically that of Confucianism as put forth by Xunzi well over two thousand years ago and in our time by Freud. We are apt to let the Id take over if we are not educated to be social by Ivy League Super Ego types.

Marx asked who educates the educators. King is fairly critical of Pinker and thinks his views could lead to a "ranked hierarchy" of humanity antithetical to democratic values. She says he back pedals a bit from his basic theory when he grants that some of the properties he finds in the domains may not be, in his words, "necessarily direct reflections of the genetic patterning of our brains: some may emerge from brains and bodies interacting in human ecologies over the course of human history."

King thinks this much more likely than Pinker allows. Marxists would think it is the most important factor and agree, I think, with King when she concludes that our real "human nature" is much more creative and contingent than the pre-programmed computer brains (her analogy) of Pinker's pre-Darwinian Kantian humans.

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