I just read Steven Pinker’s, ‘the Language Instinct’. I disliked it immensely.
In fact it put me right out of sorts.
From the smug dissmissing of the ‘radical ideas’ of Benjamin Lee Whorf (’'no one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims") to the childish indictment of this or that thing as facile and wrong (such as the ‘absurdity’ that ‘we can be coerced into buying by subliminal messages’).
What amazes me so much about his writing stems from his use of the very things he claims have no impact - his rhetorical devices and categorization. This is right; that is wrong. “No one is really sure…”. Who ‘isn’t’ sure, Steven? Do you really mean no one, anywhere, at all? Who did you ask? Did you have a sincere curiosity about this, in any case? Steven, you disappoint me.
The second half of this means, of course, that he can’t examine the impact of others’ language use on him, his life, his well-being. To say that something doesn’t exist, renders it imperceptible for sure. Uh oh. Well, who knows.
I read this book because someone told me Steven Pinker had something to say about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, something damning and clear. I ran into nothing of the sort; just another person muddling through an entire book’s worth of trivia, some interesting (the plural of ‘Walkman?’ Nobody seems to know!) and some (as above) offensive and simplistic. He quotes someone he considers an expert, who says this as an aside to the general point at hand “The thing is: I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate anything else…”.
I suspect that it struck an emotional hot-button in me because I’ve grown tired on the poverty of deep discourse about things I care for. In a reverse-proportional way, the more I discover people who care about what I care about, and think about what I think about, the more shocked and disgusted I feel when I run into mainstream currents and thinkers who dismiss the entire body of my intellectual world out of hand.
Their ‘obviously that thing there sucks’ runs smack into my ‘obviously this thing rocks’ and creates a little explosion of cultural assumption. Unfortunately for them, I feel I can make a strong claim for my position grounded on observation, experience, and critical reflection, whereas theirs seems mostly to run ‘that doesn’t really interest me so it must be [sic] wrong - besides, everybody else agrees with me’.
I think he and Richard Dawkins probably would get along quite well.
In better news, I dug up an article by a fellow also intellectually offended by Pinker’s book. In it he addresses (in the book) Pinker’s rather weird characterization of an experiment between Chinese and American college students on a multiple-choice test, and how he describes the Chinese language (a language which he has not personally studied) in general. The Americans outperform the Chinese by a shockingly wide margin; then, some critics of the test point out that the Chinese students correctly observed several ambiguities in the questions, thus making the available choices impossible to choose from. The Americans had no such problem. Pinker, careful to protect his point that languages don’t affect thought, ascribes the difference to “Chinese students have more college science than Americans”. Uhh…yeah.
Anyway, Alex Gross’s article on Chinese stuff: