January 22, 2012


Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined(New York: Viking, 2011) (This is a wonderful, truly wonderful book. I give you my favorite passage:

"The human capacity for compassion is not a reflex that is triggered automatically by the presence of another living thing.[T]hough people in all cultures can react sympathetically to kin, friends, and babies, they tend to hold back when it comes to larger circles of neighbors, strangers, foreigners, and other sentient beings. In his book The Expanding Circle, the philosopher Peter Singer has argued that over the course of history, people have enlarged the range of beings whose interests they value as they value their own. An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. And a good candidate is the expansion of literacy.

"Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else's thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person's vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person's mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. As we shall see, 'empathy' in the sense of adopting someone's viewpoint is not the same as 'empathy' in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route. Stepping into someone else's vantage points reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own. It's not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people's words could put one in the habit of entering other people's minds, including their pleasures and pains. Slipping even for a moment into the perspective of someone who is turning black in a pillory or desperately pushing burning faggots aways from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone.

"Adopting other people's vantage points can alter one's convictions in other ways. Exposure to worlds that can be seen only through the eyes of a foreigner, an explorer, or a historian can turn an unquestioned norm ('That's the way it's done') into an explicit observation ('That's what our tribe happens to do now'). This self-consciousness is the first step toward asking whether the practice could be done in some in other way. Also, learning that over the course of history the first can become the last and the last can become first may instill the habit of mind that reminds us, 'There but for fortune go I.' "

Id. at 175. There another passage, one I will not provide here, which ends with a great, and telling, punchline regarding our less than rational fears and ability to calculate risks. "The writer Warwick Cairns calculated that if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight be a stranger, you'd have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years." Id. at 446.).

If you have not read, might I also suggest the following books by Steven Pinker?

Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002) (From the bookjacket: "Our conceptions of human nature affects every aspect of our lives, from the way we raise our children to the political involvements we embrace. Yet just as science is bringing us into a golden age of understanding human nature, many people are hostile to the very idea. They fear that discoveries about innate patterns of thinking and feeling may be used to justify inequality, to subvert social change, to dissolve personal responsibility, and to strip life of meaning." " In The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker . . . explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. He shows how many intellectuals have denied the existence of human nature by embracing three linked dogmas: the Blank State (the mind has no innate traits), the Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (each of us has a soul that makes choices free from biology). Each dogma carries a moral burden, so their defenders have engaged in desperate tactics to discredit the scientists who are now challenging them." "Pinker injects calm and rationality into these debates by showing that equality, progress, responsibility, and purpose have nothing to fear from discoveries about a rich human nature. He disarms even the most menacing threats with clear thinking, common sense, and pertinent facts from science and history. Despite its popularity among intellectuals during much of the twentieth century, he argues, the doctrine of the Blank Slate may have done more harm than good. It denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces hardheaded analyses of social problems with fee-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of government, violence, parenting, and the arts.").

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language New York: Morrow, 1994).

Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2007) (From the bookjacket: "[Pinker] argues that human thought--from political positions and religious beliefs to advertising gimmicks and comic strips--are built around certain core ideas like space, force, dominance, kinship, and contamination. Look around, and you'll realize that the metaphors we use every day reach back to these primal concepts. Pinker asks how we develop these categories as children, how we apply them to the world around us, and what happens when we apply them in inappropriate ways." ).

Steven Pinker, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language(New York: Basic Books, 1999).