Turning over a new blank slate

IT WOULD BE TOO much to hope that evolutionary psychologists everywhere will mark the New Year by making a resolution to forsake irrational and unsubstantiated beliefs allegedly derived from the theories of Darwin. It would be no more reasonable to fix one's hopes on such a renunciation than it would be to expect the Pope to greet 2003 by  forswearing his belief in a divinity or in the miracle of transubstantiation.

One might modestly and reasonably, however, express the hope that, at the very least, those who are not yet converts to the most recent variation of traditional religious doctrine now being preached so powerfully  in the English-speaking world by the prophet Steven Pinker, might find time to read one of the most recent reviews of his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

The Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn has already 
reviewed Pinker's book once in the New Scientist. Now he has reviewed it all over again for the New Republic. And, without any doubt at all, his second review is even better than his first. Perhaps his most devastating insight comes when he points out that when John Locke originally propounded the doctrine of a blank slate, he was not in fact denying the reality of human nature at al all:

'Locke wanted only to deny innate ideas and innate knowledge, not innate powers or tendencies, nor innate limitations, nor innate cognitive and emotional capacities. This may sound like a mere historical quibble, but it arouses a powerful doubt about Pinker's diagnosis of modernity. If Locke did not hold the doctrine of the blank slate, then Leibniz and Hume and Kant, not to mention the massed ranks of churchmen declaiming about human depravity and the Freudians declaiming about the nature of men and women, most certainly did not hold it either. And then its status as a central and unsalutary determinant of modern thought looks a little shaky.'

This still leaves much to be said about the extent to which Enlightenment philosophers did engage in the active denial of the doctrine of Original Sin. But in pointing to the fact that Freud, sometimes regarded as the embodiment of modernity, was an unreserved believer in the power and strength of human nature, Simon Blackburn scores a palpable hit. This is not the only occasion on which he does so. His second and longer review of Pinker's book is subtle, profound and highly recommended. The New Year's resolution of all those of us who have not yet succumbed to the persuasive power of Pinker's prose, and are not yet born-again evolutionary psychologists, should be not simply to read, it but to ponder long and hard upon its implications.

Note added 5 January: See also the long, thoughtful and sceptical review of Pinker by Louis Menand in the New Yorker.

30 December, 2002 


Richard Webster, 2002



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