The Edifice of Pinkerism

14 09 2007

Seth Lerer reviews Stephen Pinker in Arts & Letters

Not everything, Mr. Pinker would claim, comes with the child out of the womb — he rejects, for example, the linguist Jerry Fodor’s notion that we are born with some 50 thousand concepts and that every human language has a way of representing, in a core vocabulary, this embedded stock of ideas. Mr. Pinker believes in something he calls “conceptual semantics.” As he puts it in his new book, “The Stuff of Thought” (Viking, 512 pages, $29.95), “Word meanings are represented in the mind as assemblies of basic concepts in a language of thought.” All human beings do not necessarily have all the same structures of language or expression. Rather, we have a “sensitivity to subtle semantic distinctions” — a way of recognizing differences between certain kinds of actions or conditions.

We all have, according to Mr. Pinker, ways of expressing place and movement, ways of distinguishing actions in time, and ways of expressing causal relationships. Not everybody in the world expresses these things in the same way. But just about everybody has some way of expressing them. Mr. Pinker’s view is therefore different from those who believe in a set of absolute innate ideas: the notion that, not only do we have a concept of, say, killing, but we all have, whatever our language, a word for “kill.” Instead of this kind of absolutism, he holds that we all have “a cast of basic concepts.” These are far more abstract than killing, eating, or fishing. Instead, they are ideas about relationships.

More here.



One response

17 02 2011

Prof. Steven Pinker is a renowned celebrity who popularizes a particular approach to science, namely pinkerism. It is a dubious scientific contribution to the field of science considering poor methodical database. His first works in the field of linguistics and cognitive psychology which earned him the title of professor were very promising because they offered a broadening of the scientific horizon encompassing both science and humanities (e.g. computational theory of mind with linguistics). However after his breakthrough book “The Language Instinct”, which introduced him to the wider audience, his consequent work became more and more dubious in terms of scientific achievement and became instead pinkerism, i.e. a pseudo-scientific subterfuge at introducing quasi-scientific ideology to the non-scientific audience.
As a result, Steven Pinker transmuted from a serious scholar into a political activist, following in the footsteps of his giant predecessor and opposite number, namely Noam Chomsky. However contrariwise to prof. Chomsky, Pinker’s scientific importance is tantamount to the aforementioned pinkerism, because apart from the glamor and glitter of his image and the title of professor his achievements lack the ingenuity of the Universal Grammar theory developed by prof. Chomsky to say the least.
To conclude one can learn as much from Pinker’s books about humans as from Moby Dick about whaling. Mr Pinker is just another modern day sophist and his work does more harm to science because it befuddles other people by constructing false data and presenting them as a scientific fact that is seemingly irrefutable. Moreover, he appears publicly claiming a number of unfounded ideas pertaining to philosophy and science, which are beyond the scope of his research. Therefore instead of working for science he resembles a linguistic maven who uses rhetorical gimmicks to dismiss ideas that he does not like.

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