Acknowledging the generally recognized unfairness of critiquing a book one has not read - but also confessing that I lack the organization and self-discipline (sorry, Prof. Skinner: I don't know a better way to express it!) to complete a project of this magnitude in the accepted way - I propose to address it publicly much as a student in a philosophy class would: by making assumptions about where the author is going with an argument and arguing with those assumptions. Subsequent posts will reflect my changing understanding of Pinker's arguments and, in the end, a hoper would hope to find a fair and balanced assessment of Pinker's thesis.
On with the first installment.
In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke (1632-1704), the father of British Empiricism, argues that all knowledge is the result of experience via the senses:
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper void of all characters, without any ideas. How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. (cited in Pinker, p. 5)
Locke's argument that all knowledge must come from the senses is generally recognized as the foundation of the empirical sciences and, even though Empiricism as a philosophical theory of knowledge was considered dead after David Hume (1711-1776) exposed its inherent contradictions, empiricism continues to be to popular epistemology as Newtonian mechanics is to baseball, billiards and bowling - fundamentally flawed but utterly useful. Though Locke never used the term Blank Slate, which can be traced as far back as Aristotle (384–322 BCE), the fit was too good to ignore and Blank Slate it became, finding its way into and dominating 20th century humanistic psychology and educational theory.
My first presumed quarrel with Pinker is on page 6. He writes, "During the past century the doctrine of the Blank Slate has set the agenda for much of the social sciences and humanities." If that is the case, I might agree it is not a good thing, but I must be convinced of that. I suspect Pinker is setting up a straw man so he can knock it down. More on that in a future post.