Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities

[via Open Culture on Facebook] Was amused by responses to an essay by Steven Pinker (“precious and facile as always,” as one put it) called “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” that misses its opportunity for the descriptive subtitle: “Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities” (among which he seems to include “soft,” humanized, or subjective social sciences and psychologies).

“Pinker is a a bildungsphilister and this is one of the most vulgar and foolish essays ever published in a leading magazine. A masterpiece of middlebrow kitsch, nearly all of it is wrong, and in a risible, contemptible way.”

So upon reading it, I must say I too am impressed. Pinker doesn’t just set up a straw man. He has an entire straw debate going on there. It’s remarkable because most of what is correct in it has nothing to do with any real argument that intelligent people would present. But Pinker still has a lecture! Err, that’s nice Pinker—tell us some of the neat things “science” has done (not scientists – monolithic “science”) and *do tell* how it banished superstition (yes, you’ve heard this one before). Why not put on a whole performance of “Inherit the Wind”? We’ll wait.

But then, maybe go look into some things you don’t already know, like what the term “scientism” properly means when intelligent people use it, instead of pretending it has no meaning, a move worthy of Daniel Dennett’s argumentative tactics. My favorite ignorance is found in the paragraph accusing others of being “historically illiterate” while demonstrating his own in the very next sentence.

He makes evident that his grasp of a great many diverse subjects (including those grouped under political science, arts, history, anthropology and economics) is sometimes no more sophisticated than the preliminary biases, cliches, naivete, and prejudices of the average college-level intellect obtained from an undergraduate class or (more likely) casual reading.

Such an unprepared debater has all the moral authority of a man with no pants. Those well-versed in “the humanities” will simply wonder why he blundered in, so to speak, seemingly determined to pick a daftly-collective argument.

Pinker couldn’t have supported Gould’s assertion of two spheres appropriate to humanities and science (reflecting the classic distinction between “is” and “ought”) any better if he’d argued for it, instead of against it. I don’t incidentally draw lines between subjects like academic specialists too often do, but one has to be clear about the differences between describing the way things work, and prescribing what to do about it—as well as differences in preparation, methods and mentalities each properly require.

The fact that public intellectuals no better than this have taken charge of current philosophy of mind (via cognitive science in most cases, although not exclusively—some from traditional philosophy) does inspire me to correct their many deficiencies, though. There are still tremendous opportunities to write great books about human nature, evolution, psychology, the brain and the mind that are not mostly farfetched, beside the point, silly, or parochial in outlook. And it’s the last point that may be the most important strike against these academics’ stabs at writing definitive books to unravel the enigma of Man. Whether it’s Steven Pinker or John Searle or whoever, the most important thing about human beings will always be: “the field I’ve studied” or “the focus of my background.”

Addendum:
I want to note, on the positive side, that Pinker’s stated desire for collaboration and synthesis towards the end of the piece points to a laudable project (one which I wrote about at great length in my essay Rising in Walls), though the way he has written this piece, and comports himself, makes a productive “truce” impossible. And, to parallel Dennett’s distinction between good and bad reductionism, there is good synthesis and there is bad. The examples of cross-fertilization Pinker gives are pretty bad, having for example not enough of the humility before the unknown and uncertain, or  appreciation for qualitative subtlety, that the best humanists in science or the humanities will call for. It would be wonderful for scientific techniques and rigorous epistemology to inform more of the subjective theory written about life on Earth, and vice versa. Pinker just doesn’t have a handle on what that would look like, because he is not enough of a generalist, either.

Addendum Two:
With an essay this bad, it would take more time than I have to unpack everything. Here’s a brief, eviscerating praeteritio that covers  points that I did not go through—including, that Pinker obviously ignores and doesn’t consider worthy of mention a number of aspects one would normally consider quite essential to “the humanities.” Some criticisms may be less obvious though, and perhaps it’s worth the exercise of going through them. In the above post, I took for granted that, meeting Pinker halfway, we were going to talk about the humanities as functional—focusing on purposes and purposeful thinking, which is certainly not the only way to look at things. But this is the teleology you have to expect from scientism; it doesn’t have time for a lot of meandering around and reading poetry so to speak but rather wants to talk about what poetry does for the human race. In short, I took some deficiencies for granted, and arrogance—this is Pinker, after all, the man who went up against Stephen Jay Gould on evolution, though to this day, he casually misunderstands (or misrepresents?) the basic Darwinian argument.

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2 responses to “Steven Pinker Talks Down to the Humanities

  1. Pingback: The Spectacular Arrogance & Ignorance of Steven Pinker’s Scientism

  2. Great comments – I would have enjoyed Pinker’s essay more if it had the honesty to use the subtitle you suggest 🙂

    Of all possible ways to try to bridge the humanities and sciences, it’s hard to imagine a more condescending on than Pinker’s. Given how much time Pinker spends promoting bad science, I find it ironic that he makes such a strident defense against those villainous “postmodernists” he seems to find so dangerous. You know, those pesky humanists who have contributed much more nuanced views of how science works as part of a society than Pinker has.

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