The problem with Pinker—as a representative of the evolutionary psychology movement generally—is that there’s something to what he says. The mind is not a tabula rasa. That’s as Pinker says, though the British philosopher, Peter Blackburn holds Pinker’s feet to the fire a bit on that one. He says Locke, for example, did not believe in the kind of utter tabula rasa that Pinker claims he did; instead, according to Blackburn, Locke was “…perfectly happy with the idea that the nature of the slate or paper may determine what can be written on it.”
I can buy that, but over the last couple of decades, I have felt in my reading around and in my listening to others that in some of the disciplines at least, especially and sadly in the humanities, people have decided that the mind is a “piece of paper” or somewhat more complicatedly now “a computer screen” and the only thing written on either are words. Language became “fetishized,” it seemed to me, in ways I could not comprehend.
What is this talk I wondered? Do these people, though I may interpret them incorrectly, actually believe that, if one can change the way people think about the world, one can change the world. Too many of my students at one time seemed to me overly familiar with the idea of stereotyping. Oh, that’s stereotyping they would say or perhaps the more popular word at the graduate level was “essentializing.” I understood a possible positive motive behind the anti-stereotyping and anti-essentializing movement that made it a bit impolitic to say the whole movement was bogus.
That motive also confused me. I certainly don’t believe in going around essentializing people or races. Or, in other words, I don’t believe in going around calling people or races bad names or making assumptions about people and races on the basis of their names. The whole business in my head got screwed up with the political correctness thing. That’s my problem I guess, but I may be forgiven I hope. Things do get complicated when an epistemological claim of some sort gets all mixed up with a high falut’en moral imperative of some sort.
I found it hard to say to my anti-essentializing and anti-stereotyping students that they had things all screwed up when the trend seemed to be in part an attempt to be decent people and to treat others decently. But to get, if I can to the point, I did try to say that they might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. One can’t think at all I wanted to claim unless one stereotypes or essentializes. Language necessarily abstracts, but that was hard to convey if one is talking with people who honestly believe that there is Nothing But Language and thus no other Reality from which it might be said to “Abstract.”
So a person was pretty much stuck if he or she, as I wanted to do, wanted to argue against the anti-essentialist movement since to do so would automatically put one in the camp of those who believe in a “reality” beyond the language that shapes it. I suppose I could have said something like “The painful feeling of gas in my stomach is not the same thing as saying ‘I have gas.’” But I don’t think my having gas would serve all that much to sway anybody’s thinking. So with mixed feelings, though some of relief, I began to read people like Pinkus as saying to the language fetishists: Look you delusional morons. You seem to think you can change people just by changing the way you think about them, when in fact what you can think (or say) about people is circumscribed, hemmed in and dictated, by the very tabula rasa that allows you to think at all.
But I put myself poorly.