Thursday, January 7, 2016

Steven Pinker

I'm actually somewhat fond of Steven Pinker's books, including the most controversial one with the most immodest title (which the book concedes isn't possible anyway) "How the Mind Works".

For some reason, and possibly because of many controversies surrounding it, a full audio version of this bestselling book has never been made.  A highly abridged version was released on four 90 minute cassettes, and even that is long out of print.  Starting a few days ago I've been loading those onto personal CD's for listening in my car and from what I remember of the book there is a lot missing, notably in the section on sex and family which I found to be the most interesting of all.

While I have more than a little fondness for Evolutionary Psychology ala Pinker, I also see serious problems with it.  In cases like this, when I know the author is getting somewhat speculative, I have most often thought I can mentally adjust for that without much effort.  Most recently, however, I've discovered I often fall into the trap of believing more shit than I should, so maybe I shouldn't be so sanguine about such things and regard them, as a first approximation, as fiction in which kernels of truth may or may not be hidden.

Here's a blast against Pinker that I generally agree with--in fact I was feeling exactly the same things when I first cracked the book in 2001.

(That same blogger stopped blogging soon after writing that, but not much farther down he has a great list of recommended rock albums.)

Now I see I can supplement reading Pinker's books with endless Pinker lectures, debates, and anti-Pinker diatribes on YouTube.  Debates with Pinker and Chomsky look to be particularly interesting.  Pinker has apparently blasted Chomsky as a "pencil and paper theorist" and Chomsky has blasted Pinker as not thinking very well about some things.

I had always thought Pinker to follow in the tradition of Chomsky, since both adopt essentially the information processing model of human cognition, and Pinker even ascribes some ideas to Chomsky in his books.  Further, Pinker was (and is again, I believe) both a student and a professor at MIT where Chomsky has taught for over half a century.  I had long figured Pinker to be an apprentice of Chomsky.  But now I see that Pinker only concedes to having attended or audited one of Chomsky's courses in all his time at MIT and that had never engaged with the very engaging Chomsky, even as they were both MIT professors with a Cognitive approach to Psychology.

Pinker's outlook seems to be a good starting point for something like neoliberalism, so it now doesn't surprise me at all that he left MIT and had a long stint as professor at Harvard--which has most recently been the very bastion of neoliberalism.  But now he's back at MIT in a special institute.  Geographically this doesn't make much difference since both institutions are located in Cambridge, MA.

Sadly Pinker does betray a certain glibness that is reminiscent of Freakonomics (which, btw, is pretty much useless and neoliberal to the max).  I still think Pinker's books are far better than that.

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