Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pinker's Blank Slate: Part 1

I have begun reading Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) at the behest of a friend who declares that it is the antidote for the sloppy, mentalist reasoning that stands in the way of a well-ordered and scientifically based civilization. Having studied B.F. Skinner and being familiar with the prescientific notions of human consciousness and personality that he critiques in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), I approach Pinker with the expectation that I shall find little new and much that claims to be.

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.
For the sake of those who are unfamiliar with the notion of the Blank Slate and others, like myself, who have not considered it for many moons, I should begin with a brief summary of The Doctrine.

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.


  1. Here is to old books, here is to new books, here is to fallacious books, here is to sagacious books; and especially, here is to the wisdom to know the difference.

  2. I look forward to your future posts.

  3. Hey Arnold, I'm a bit late. I've been into Eugen Rosenstock in the last couple of years--he rejects the blank slate approach (The Origins of Speech) and states that all human cultures begin with the Imperative, not the Indicative, which is a luxury for those who have time to reflect. We are born with external expectations that we either accept or rebel against. Rosenstock does not like Descartes! I recommend the Origins of Speech when you get a chance.

  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Rick. I've been neglecting my blog, so I just saw your comment. I'll try to find Rosenstock's book -- I never finished Pinker. That's why there was no Part II to my comments.