In Which Steven Pinker Is A Total Ignoramus Who Should Go Read A Fucking Book And Get Himself Some Fucking Education
Here’s what I want: I want Steven fucking Pinker to take a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics and explain one of the propositions to me. Not all of them; not the whole book. One. Just one proposition. I’ll even do him a solid - I’ll let him read it in English, instead of embarrassing him by making him try to translate Latin. Or maybe the Critique of Pure Reason. Can you explain that to me, Pinker? Hell, can you explain any of Kant’s critiques?
I’m gonna go out on a limb and say “no.” In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb that Steven fucking Pinker has not read a single one of these thinkers he so casually and authoritatively name-drops since his undergraduate years, if then. If Pinker has ever read all of Leviathan, I will eat my fucking copy of the book.
Let’s be absolutely clear - not a single one of the thinkers this asshole claims for “science” were scientists. Not a single one of them thought of themselves as scientists; not a single one had a concept of “science” that was anything like the concept Pinker is so anachronistically imposing on them. All of these men, even if they didn’t think of themselves as “a philosopher,” thought of their work as “a philosophy.” It’s right in the texts, if you take the time to read them. And the way you can tell Pinker has no fucking clue what he’s talking about is that he misses the two most important examples that would actually support his claim: Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle. Of the thinkers that he lists, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are the only ones who actually conducted anything that might even remotely fit the bill of “scientific experimentation.” Smith was an economist. Rousseau was a dilettante. Kant…I mean, the idea of describing Kant as a an “evolutionary psychologist” is just…OMFG.
“I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block.”
Did you follow that, folks? Stephen fucking Pinker, the great scientific genius, is going to go back in time to correct Spinoza’s arguments and “guide” him. The idea that these thinkers wrote “in the absence of formal theory” is so reductive and offensive. Descartes’ Discourse on Method, Spinoza’s Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione and his correspondences with Olderburg and others, Hume’sTreatise…these thinkers were conscious of formal method and self-reflexive about it in a way few scientists today are even remotely capable of. Incredibly, implausibly, each of these philosophers invented an inferential method, from the ground up, instead of taking for granted any assumption they were taught.
Let’s be perfectly clear - “science” as we think of it today is a new thing. It dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when the disciplinary divisions we today regard as entirely natural wereformalized by people like Hermann von Helmholz. Before that there were no “scientists”: there were thinkers, writers, philosophers, ethicists, geometers, and doctors. There were also theologians, who Pinker dismisses out of hand, even though “science” would not exist without the precedent of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus. “Science” is a fully historical product of the regimentation, organization, and professionalization of what used to just be people observing the world and thinking about it. Science is the transformation of knowledge into a cliquish guild.
But the best part of this verbal tripe is the fact that Pinker is so narrow-minded and unself-reflexive in his anachronistic, ahistorical claims that he doesn’t even realize the extent to which his critique of the humanities itself depends on ideas generated by the humanities. Like this hilarious bit: “The term ‘scientism’ is anything but clear…The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” First of all - “flaunting”? And second - isn’t that fucking rich. Such an original concept! We can already see how indebted the humanities are to science. Or this bit here: “we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.” Oh, really? You know that, do you? And where did this concept of epistemological relativism come from, exactly, if not from the humanities?
Assholes like Steven Pinker think that people in the humanities resist their ideas because we don’t understand “science.” But the truth is that many people in the humanities love and embrace the sciences: there are historians of science, there are digital humanities, there are philosophers of technology. What we resist isn’t “science”; what we resist are obnoxious fucking ignoramuses like you who come up in our house and tell us how ignorant we are, how much we don’t understand, and what we should be doing with our research. This is not an issue of science vs. humanities - this is the nature of contemporary academic research and, indeed, human nature itself. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m not saying it’s healthy, but I am saying that in an era of incredible competition and increasingly narrow specialization, nobody likes people from other disciplines stepping on their turf. The sciences don’t like it when the humanities do it - have you ever seen the absolutely hideously rude responses a humanities scholar gets when they try to deliver a paper at a science conference? - so why should you expect different when you do it yourself?
Pinker is defending science against an extremely odd idea: “The mindset of science cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation. It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality.”
So, first of all, I’ve been a scholar in the humanities for a while now and I’ve never heard anybody accuse science of genocide. Unless incurable dweeb-hood is lethal, in which case run for the hills. Second, “indispensable in all areas of human concern”? Well, let’s think about that for a second. If Pinker had ever read Spinoza and Hume, much less understood them, he would understand how basic claims from necessity function: namely, if science is 200 years old and aesthetic and political theory are over 2,000 years old, then former is not necessary to the existence of the latter. To borrow a formulation from Descartes - you know, the philosopher - both art and politics “can be and be conceived” without any concept of “science.”
But really there’s a point more important than all of these, which is this: Science doesn’t cause genocide or war. The humanities don’t cause genocide or war. What causes genocide is the ignorant belief in an absolute formal distinction between two things where in fact there is only a spectrum. Nobody has ever started a war under the mantra “let’s all get along” or “we’re all human,” but plenty of wars fall under the rubric of “us or them.” One of the most fundamental sources of human error, anxiety, and misery is this unreflexive tendency to set up absolute oppositions between things that have never been and never will be absolute opposites. The supposed division between the sciences and humanities is not a question of method, or of epistemology, even - it’s question of disciplinarity and the economic structures of contemporary academic institutions. Simple evidence: you can get science funding to write about Bachelard, because he’s a “historian of science,” but you can’t get science funding to write about Bachelard’s student, Michel Foucault, because Foucault was a “philosopher.”
The best thinkers - throughout history, in every field of inquiry - embrace whatever insights and information that their thought requires. The best scholars in the humanities respect the sciences; the best scientists are the ones who actually take the time to read the occasional book and can form a decent sentence. The worst thinkers are the ones who insist on inane distinctions, who set up false binaries instead of knocking them down, and who think of knowledge as an either/or proposition instead of embrace the notion that knowledge is a mosaic of perspectives that together generate an evolving and diverse picture of existence.
Personally, I think “science” can be incredibly useful to research in the humanities. I have regular arguments about this with traditionalists in my discipline. But I don’t think this because I want to “infuse” the humanities with science, I think this because I consider all human knowledge to be a single vast and manifold field, and I pick and choose what’s useful to me and not what the disciplinary guilds of contemporary academia think I need. This true when literary scholars frown at my diagrams, and it’s equally true when obnoxious, ill-informed assholes like Steven Pinker tell me that evolutionary psychology is useful for literary criticism. Don’t tell me how to do literary criticism, you self-important airbag.
And don’t even fucking talk to me about Spinoza.