Mixing Memory

Over at Gene Expression, “Darth Quixote’s” (George Menard’s rewriting of Cervantes? That’s a bad joke, isn’t it?) 10-question interview with Steven Pinker was posted today. You can read it here. The questions are pretty good, for the most part, and Pinker’s answers are interesting. I agree with Pinker on the issue of politics getting in the way of science, whether the politics are right-wing or left. I have no problem with research on potentially innate differences between populations, in part because I think the political implications of the results will be dictated by pre-existing biases, and not the actual results. So, if it turns out that the distribution of intelligence as measured by, say, IQ is different from that of another, those of us on the left and people on the right will continue to hold their current positions on race. Mine is that people should be treated as individuals, not as members of a race, and that won’t change (the same goes for gender, religious group, ethnicity, or whatever), and no foreseeable empirical finding will change that.

His answer to the last question, about his next book, is intriguing. In it, he hints that he’s going to answer some major philosophical questions (color me skeptical). His answer:

The subtitle of the book is “Language as a Window Into Human Nature,” and The Stuff of Thought deals with many aspects of human cognitive and social evolution–how a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies can invent physics and math and democracy; why people impose taboos on topics like sex and excretion and the divine; why they threaten and bribe and seduce in such byzantine ways. I also discuss many real-world applications of semantics–words that have impeached one president and that many feel should impeach another; language that continues to embroil the Middle East; whether Democrats can win back the White House by winning the metaphor wars; whether language traps us in a self-referential circle (as the postmodernists believe) or offers us contact with truth and reality.

I wonder to what extent he and I are on the same side of the “metaphor wars” divide.” I can only hope that this won’t be another book telling people that we think in Lakoffian metaphors, though I have seen nothing in Pinker’s work to imply that he takes cognitive linguistics all that seriously.


  1. #1 razib
    July 3, 2006

    can you guess which question i submitted? 🙂

    Mine is that people should be treated as individuals, not as members of a race, and that won’t change (the same goes for gender, religious group, ethnicity, or whatever), and no foreseeable empirical finding will change that.

    i tend to agree, and that gets me labeled a ‘conservative.’

  2. #2 Chris
    July 3, 2006

    Hah, well, it also depends on where you take that. For example, it’s a reality of the social world that the members of some groups are systematically mistreated/discriminated because they are members of groups. In those cases, it’s important to keep that in mind when making policy. Each person should be treated as an individual, but steps should be taken to make sure that the harm done from individuals being treated as members of a group is accounted for.

  3. #3 bill benzon
    July 5, 2006

    Well, this phrase — “whether Democrats can win back the White House by winning the metaphor wars” — certainly looks like he’s going to address himself to Lakoff. Just what he’ll say, I don’t know.

    I tend to think there’s something lurking there in cognitive metaphor, but Lakoff & company haven’t quite isolated it. Looks to me like they’ve got a pile of often fascinating examples in search of deeper explanations.

  4. #4 Clark
    July 5, 2006

    I’d add that he gets many of the postmodernists wrong. Many are concerned with the “other” which avoids self-referentialness. Most of what he said about postmodernists, especially Derrida, in The Blank Slate was wrong as well.

    That’s not to say there aren’t folks who fundamentally take postmodernism to entail a kind of inescapable relativism due to language. But it’s quite unfair the way all are cast under that net.

  5. #5 Clark
    July 5, 2006

    Razid, that is one of the typically defining characteristics of the conservative movement. It’s unfortunate that Bush’s incompetence and then pork focus of the congress has set the conservative movement back so much the past few years. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened has Republicans been able to fields some better Presidential candidates the past 15 years. (Bob Dole, John McCain, George Bush – all kind of turn me off) Of course I suspect Democrats are saying the same thing.

    It’ll be interesting to see what Pinker says in his next book. For all its many failings (superficial treatments of movements, misrepresentation, and too much polemic) the book was fairly even handed in that it attacked a pretty broad cross-section.

    While I tend to be turned off by Lakoff styled metaphor theory I do think it safe to say that most people tend to view politics through a rather odd and superficial lens. I much prefer folks who disagree with me but do so forth thoughtful reasons than those who agree with me for what are at best superficial reasons.

  6. #6 Chris
    July 5, 2006

    Clark, Pinker’s misrepresentation of postmodernism isn’t really surprising, given that it’s the representation that most scientists have of postmodernism. As a result, every time I see the word postmodernism used by a scientist, my attention is immediately diverted to something else.

  7. #7 Clark Goble
    July 5, 2006

    It wasn’t just postmodernism though. Everything he gave a polemical attack on in The Blank Slate that I was moderately familiar with he misrepresented fairly significantly. Or at least took a minority of folks within that movement who use more extreme rhetoric and made it appear that they were representative of the movement. Such polemic was rather damaging for the book and became rather tedious. Unfortunately so since I thought his ultimate points were rather important to make.

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