The repressed dancers' ball. It don't mean a thing when it ain't got that swing.
The story so far: Steven Pinker’s new book The Stuff of Thought argues that the meaning of words is found in the abstract concepts that are either inborn or assembled from inborn concepts (thesis summarized in Pinker’s Anti-Whorfian Hypothesis). If Pinker is correct, an account of the origin of speech has to include the evolution of a system for translating the abstract concepts into concrete words. But a system for expanding abstract information into true, apt information isn’t plausible (see The Abstract/Concrete Divide). It’s also simpler and more in keeping with human behavior to consider speech as operating at the level of conscious attention rather than unconscious concepts (see Concept or Attention?).
Steven Pinker writes like an extremely gifted novelist who is also terribly repressed. His work is imaginative and energetic, but in the end it boils down to nothing much. We expect more from both science and literature. The problem occurs too often in works of psychology that promise much and then, like hack fiction, collapse in their endings. The author had little to say, after all.
Pinker's ambition is high enough; he subtitled his book Language as a Window into Human Nature, promising something deep and broad. The window he uses to explore this very large realm is a lengthy examination of the sentences people do and do not speak. His data is plainly the result of an enormous amount of research into the subtleties of semantics, and yet the fruit of this fieldwork hardly seems to justify so elaborate an investigation: “Humans don’t just entertain ideas but steep them with emotion. … Humans are touchy about their relationships. … People invest their relationships with a moral coloring.” [pp. 431-432] There needs no scholar come from the speech lab to tell us this. Couldn’t he tell us more? Not much, or at least not while his repressions weigh him down.
The key to Pinker’s repression is hidden in his book’s oddest remark. Pinker says that the innate concept of causality “cares about our intentions and interests.” [p. 225] He probably had to fight for that sentence. Editors, and especially copy-editors, are likely to query such a line and ask if he doesn’t mean that we care about our intentions and interests. No, no, insists Pinker, it’s not the person who cares, it’s the concept, just as it is not your Dell laptop that solves problems, but the software installed on it.
The public price of repression is a general awkwardness that periodically breaks into absurdity. We are familiar with the nonsense that comes from a public denial of the power of sexuality.Pinker has no fear of that one; his repression is a denial of importance to conscious processes like paying attention, feeling sensations, or recognizing meaning. The awkwardness of attributing concern to an abstract concept comes from denying importance to the conscious sense of self.
One misstep does not a bad dancer make, but Pinker is stiff throughout because he is trying to explain meaning in language without considering the conscious process of directing attention. It is as clumsy as explaining married love without considering sex or explaining gridlock in Washington without mentioning money.
There is no good reason that a scientist shouldn’t take conscious events into account. Science is the study of natural phenomena as explained in natural terms. Surely concrete thoughts, sensations, and behaviors like paying attention or recognizing a melody are all natural events. So we should be able to study them and include them in a chain of events. For instance, we should be able to say that we can notice something, draw a friend's attention to what we've noticed, and the friend can comment on what they jointly attend to. Pinker, however, like the Victorian schoolmarm who insists that some public nuzzling is to be explained by coarse upbringing or the devil, insists that we explain joint interaction by referring to unconscious concepts.
Repression is easy only if the culture as a whole joins in. When everybody at the ball is repressed, your awkwardness is just the way things are. Its when some people begin paying renewed attention to the forbidden secret that the old-fashioned dancers begin looking absurd. And now some scholars are paying attention to attention itself. So much so that Pinker is forced briefly to mention it.
In discussing the Whorfian hypothesis Pinker notes, “Language forces speakers to pay attention to certain aspects of the world,” [p. 131], Perhaps as he wrote that he felt as bold as a lady saying va-va-va-voom, but he does not conclude from this remark that paying attention has consequences.It is always in reaching conclusions that repressed authors are at their flattest. But the pressure to notice how language works is growing greater. After recovering his dignity from his forced reference to a conscious process he adds, “one way in which language has to affect thought is that speakers attend to different things as they select words and assemble them into a sentence,” [italics his; p. 132] When I read this passage I thought Pinker might be about to go all the way and say that joint attention brings two or more people into consciousness harmony and that speech can be understood in conscious terms. But of course that bit of easy freedom would be the equivalent of the schoolmarm shaking her hips. To remain prim, Pinker goes off on a tangent, dancing to music of his own imagining. It was a close one, but his habit of repression was able to assert itself.
Pinker's repression makes for surprisingly tedious accounts of speech in social interactions. He is even dull when discussing swear words. But his repression is at its worst in his conclusory chapter. He ends with a a technical summary of the categories of thought, the banalities I mentioned earlier, and then an energetic call for education that reflects his repressions.
If you take consciousness and culture seriously, it is easy to embrace an education of liberation that encourages people to use their imagination and senses creatively. If you don’t respect the work of consciousness, a repressive education is more appealing. Historically, anti-consciousness has been part of religious training that sees humans as fallen, the world as corrupt, and all ideas that point away from received doctrine as temptation. For those anti-humanists, we got where we are in spite of who we are and must resist backsliding into our shameful nature. For them, the purpose of education is to suppress people’s regrettable inclinations and to channel their actions into correct lines. Pinker mocks religion and makes no reference to the doctrine of original sin, yet his own repression puts him surprisingly close to those old preachers who railed against sinful mankind:
- Human nature is corrupt: “Many of the book’s discussions … suggest that the machinery of conceptual semantics makes us permanently vulnerable to fallacies in reasoning and to corruption in our institutions.” [p. 431]
- Our progress has been in spite of our nature: “Even with our infirmities, we have managed to achieve the freedom of a liberal democracy, the wealth of a technological economy, and the truths of modern science.” [p. 435]
- We must resist backsliding into our shameful nature: “None of this, of course, comes easily to us. Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways.” [p. 439]
- Education should repress and channel: “The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world.” [p. 439]
For many years people have asked me why I take language so seriously and am so irritated with the view that consciousness is an illusion. I am often told the reason is that I’m afraid, which is not entirely false, but I am not frightened by the idea that I’m a robot. More alarming are the consequences of repressing the importance of consciousness. If consciousness does not matter much, then the conscious intentions, interests, and relations with people do not matter much either. They become shortcomings to be overcome rather than strengths to be developed.
Sorry, Dr. Pinker, Instead of being afraid of our own devices, we should embrace them. We are not where we are in spite of our nature, but because of it.