Author Topic: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now  (Read 18390 times)

Zetetic

  • Worrying the carcass of an old song.
Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #30 on: February 20, 2018, 11:41:28 PM »
You're definitely right, people can become indistinguishable from natives if they study hard/long enough. Perhaps it's that some linguistics professors are monolingual and so underestimate adult learning ability?

I wonder if the bloke mentioned is also confusion the issue with the idea of a critical period of language acquisition in general - that is, if you deprive a child of any sort of language learning, then beyond a certain point it's difficult for them to recover from this.

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To be fair, it does take a huge amount of work in a way that it doesn't for children, so in the majority of cases native-level fluency will be very unlikely.
What I think is always interesting about this claim is that it's fairly rare for adults to be exposed to language-learning in anything faintly resembling the way that children are.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #31 on: February 21, 2018, 01:32:47 AM »
What I think is always interesting about this claim is that it's fairly rare for adults to be exposed to language-learning in anything faintly resembling the way that children are.

Isn't the nearest thing language immersion? I believe that's quite an effective way to learn. I'm probably confused.

Zetetic

  • Worrying the carcass of an old song.
Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #32 on: February 21, 2018, 06:58:41 PM »
Yes, and that's quite a rare way for adult's to learn languages. (And even then, it's rarely immersion of the order than children experience, amongst other issues.)

Twit 2

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #33 on: February 21, 2018, 07:59:08 PM »

The counter-intuitive finding of Better Angels is that the horrors of the 20th century, both World Wars included, pale to the horrors of previous centuries. One's chance of meeting a violent end has reduced drastically over time. Discerning the reasons behind this form the bulk of the book: the expanding circle of empathy (so we care not just for kin but for others outside our immediate sphere), the growth of the state, the growth of commerce (the realisation it's better to trade with neighbours rather than kill them) and many other reasons.


Enlightenment Now blows Gray out of the water. In every quantifiable metric of human wellbeing - wealth, education, civil rights, longevity, even happiness - Pinker demonstrates that great progress has been steadily made in all parts of the world, including developing countries, which are fast catching up with the West. The data is vast and impressive.

I’d say it’s Gray who blows Pinker out of the water. I find stuff like Straw Dogs a far more convincing portrayal of human nature. Pinker uses stats, Gray uses (when taking into account his whole work, not just Straw Dogs) just as vast and dazzling an array of sources, but drawn more from philosophy, literature etc. The accountant’s truth versus the ecstatic truth.

As for critiques of Better Angels, pretty sure I’ve read one by Gray himself.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #34 on: February 22, 2018, 03:39:31 AM »
Isn't the nearest thing language immersion? I believe that's quite an effective way to learn. I'm probably confused.

Yes, and that's quite a rare way for adult's to learn languages. (And even then, it's rarely immersion of the order than children experience, amongst other issues.)

I suppose you could call it immersion. You could also say that children have language immersion and a live-in language tutor who wipes your bum.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #35 on: February 22, 2018, 05:56:35 AM »
Children also have no other language to fall back on when they're trying to acquire concepts or feeling lazy.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #36 on: February 22, 2018, 04:24:19 PM »
I've only read about John Gray, but it appears to me he's one of those people who presents himself as an iconoclast when he's actually quite in line with the tenor of the times - anti-humanism, human self-loathing. I don't really agree with what I've heard of Pinker either, but I do think humans could do a whole lot better than they are doing. It seems to me that people like Gray and what he embodies are part of why we aren't.


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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #37 on: February 22, 2018, 09:28:03 PM »
I recommend Gray extremely highly. It’s not that he’s original, just that he is enormously well-read and puts a dazzling array of references and illuminating anecdotes together for his books. I don’t think he’s particularly miserable, he is (rightly, I think) sceptical about humans being special or having made any great advances in morality. He’s a devotee of Isaiah Berlin, who in turn was enamoured with Alexander Herzen, who was one of the first to realise (or at least eloquently elucidate) how ordinary people always get fucked over by ideologues who claim to be acting for progress or some better life in the future. Herzen/Berlin/Gray would argue that it’s prepoeterous to suffer now for the hope of a better tomorrow.

His haughty, aphoristic style (particularly in Straw Dogs) is very much in a literary tradition, eg Chamfort, Cioran, and I think a lot of his critics simply aren’t well versed in the sort of stuff he’s influenced by, and therefore tend to take it too much at face value, missing the nuance.

My other faves of his are The Silence of Animals and The Soul of the Marionette. I really don’t think it’s so easy to dismiss him without also disagreeing with a lot of great writers he’s referencing. Sometimes he’s just explicitly rephrasing and expanding on their ideas, as in the exploration of Conrad’s view on human nature at the beginning of The Silence of Animals.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #38 on: February 23, 2018, 08:54:20 AM »
Gray is more convincing because, rather than backing up his assertions with huge quantities of statistical facts, he cites a few epigram-spouting literary miserabilists? Oh, right.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #39 on: February 23, 2018, 02:27:19 PM »
But as has already been pointed out here, Pinker's use of statistics can tend towards the fudgy. Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously took him to task for his poor use of statistics in AOBN AOBN. Also, and it has been a while since I read it, I seem to recall thinking that Pinker never got beyond showing a (tentative) correlation between enlightened liberalism and declining violence, with very little to suggest causation. This is something a scientistic account of "progress" is always going to run into, but it comes across somewhat disingenuous thanks to Pinker's insistence on the definitive, scientific truth of what he is saying. Even beyond Taleb's objection (that Pinker cannot state with any authority that the chance of another hemoclysm has actually receded), Pinker is shifty with his definition of violence precisely because he seems to approach the project with an a priori certainty of the superiority and peacefulness of the Enlightenment Project. One might ask, for instance, where the prison system fits into his definition of violence (or rather doesn't). Or industrial livestock farming for that matter - I seem to recall him using anecdotes of animal cruelty in centuries past to support his hypothesis.

I probably do tend toward what you might call miserabilism- though I wouldn't call it that, obviously. But this sort of unflinching faith in progress does make me wince, and I find it is usually intellectually quite lazy, even if Pinker seems well-intentioned and generally A Good Man (for whatever that is worth). The New Statesman had a critical review of his latest one, which I will probably not be reading since it doesn't seem like it's going to do much to change my mind.



Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #40 on: February 23, 2018, 02:57:44 PM »
But as has already been pointed out here, Pinker's use of statistics can tend towards the fudgy. 


But are all or even most of his stats fatally fudgy? It would seem not. Progress has occurred.


One might ask, for instance, where the prison system fits into his definition of violence (or rather doesn't). Or industrial livestock farming for that matter - I seem to recall him using anecdotes of animal cruelty in centuries past to support his hypothesis.


As Pinker himself points out, some people are so keen to shoot him down that they fall over themselves to redefine violence in such a way so that it can be shown to be on the increase. Putting people in prison is not the same thing as violence. Indeed, it has become the alternative to violence (e.g. death, whipping, amputation of hands, etc) in most penal systems. True, he is only concerned about violence to humans. If you want to be a good speciesism-rejecting Singer disciple, you could make a case that violence to cattle, pigs, sheep and other food animals has increased through intensive farming. But the animal cruelty point in BAOUN is that, whereas in the past people did not empathise with animals and so could enjoy animal torture as a recreation, the 'circle of empathy' of most humans has now expanded to admit animals (as well as non-kin). Though we may kill and eat them, we now care enough about their welfare to avoid causing them needless suffering. Right-thinking people these days are outraged by cruel farming methods (where they persist). 300 years ago only a few kooks would have cared.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #41 on: February 23, 2018, 03:19:43 PM »
I'll concede the point on the animals, I couldn't recall what point he was making with his evocation of cruelty to animals in times gone by.

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Putting people in prison is not the same thing as violence

What is it that stops an inmate leaving? If I were to lock somebody up extra-judicially, I'm not sure it would be so evidently a non-violent act.

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Progress has occurred.
Well this is the point of contention here, and I didn't think Pinker adequately showed this. The teleology implied by "progress" is, ironically, an entirely illogical article of faith. Pinker's argument doesn't have to fall into this, but when you chip away at the assumptions, all that seems to remain is the statement that open sadism has less of a prominent place in most societies now than historically has been the case. To be clear, that's not nothing, but nor is it necessarily indicative of "progress". And I found his hand-waving of the extreme violent events of the 20th Century to be galling in the extreme.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #42 on: February 23, 2018, 03:34:06 PM »
Well this is the point of contention here, and I didn't think Pinker adequately showed this. The teleology implied by "progress" is, ironically, an entirely illogical article of faith. Pinker's argument doesn't have to fall into this, but when you chip away at the assumptions, all that seems to remain is the statement that open sadism has less of a prominent place in most societies now than historically has been the case. To be clear, that's not nothing, but nor is it necessarily indicative of "progress". And I found his hand-waving of the extreme violent events of the 20th Century to be galling in the extreme.


Put teleology from your mind. He is not claiming we're on an inexorable mystical pre-ordained path to paradise. He's saying that, looking at the data, we're less likely now to face violence, to be discriminated against for sex, sexuality or race, less likely to be poor, uneducated, unhappy, illiterate, unhealthy. Less likely to be prevented from flourishing as human beings than at any point in history. Certain factors have brought this about, he argues - the science, reason and humanism brought forth by the Enlightenment. But he makes no claim about any inexorable historical force. Indeed, he shows how the rise of authoritarian populism (Trump, Brexit, far-right parties in Europe) endangers the gains we've made. That's why he wrote the bloody book. To show what's at stake.
« Last Edit: February 23, 2018, 04:03:34 PM by gloria »

Twit 2

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #43 on: February 23, 2018, 06:47:47 PM »
Gray is more convincing because, rather than backing up his assertions with huge quantities of statistical facts, he cites a few epigram-spouting literary miserabilists? Oh, right.

Way to miss the point!



Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #46 on: February 26, 2018, 12:52:08 AM »
I'm not that interested in reading either of these people, (though I do agree with most of what Gray says in that review) but I would say that unreasoning commitment to the Enlightenment and the rejection of Enlightenment reason are as bad as each other, though the latter is somewhat more trendy and attractive for people like Will Self on the look out for shiny 'new' ideas. I suppose you have people like Sam Harris and his followers on Pinker's side though. Yuck. We are in a mess.
« Last Edit: February 26, 2018, 01:08:02 AM by manticore »

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #47 on: February 26, 2018, 08:51:01 AM »
Gray's really clutching at straws in that review. Pinker names him in the book as a "progessophobe" so this is his revenge. Every objection Gray raises - scientism, the illiberality of certain Enlightenment thinkers, eugenics, etc - are anticipated and addressed in the book but Gray totally ignores that. He even dredges up the prison and animal welfare points dealt with earlier in this thread.

Cuellar

  • I'm over here
Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #48 on: February 26, 2018, 09:38:39 AM »
Pinker has a list of books to make you an optimist in the Guardian:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/26/further-reading-steven-pinker-books-to-make-you-an-optimist

I do find it hard to argue with a lot of his contentions, I would say there have definitely been improvements in the world, but when he comes out with stuff like:

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Progress is not just material but moral: the world has abolished human sacrifice, slavery, heretic-burning, witch hunts, duelling, apartheid and male-only suffrage.

You do have to wonder what world he's living in. Abolished slavery? Witch hunts? Male-only suffrage? Really? A tad Eurocentric here I feel. And not even that, really. There are undoubtedly people living in slavery in this country. And what are honour killings, or the beheading of Lee Rigby, but forms of human sacrifice?

I'm sure the lads in ISIS will be embarrassed when they remember that we've abolished heretic-burning! Boy will their faces be red!

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #49 on: February 26, 2018, 11:22:10 AM »
Pinker has a list of books to make you an optimist in the Guardian:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/26/further-reading-steven-pinker-books-to-make-you-an-optimist

I do find it hard to argue with a lot of his contentions, I would say there have definitely been improvements in the world, but when he comes out with stuff like:

You do have to wonder what world he's living in. Abolished slavery? Witch hunts? Male-only suffrage? Really? A tad Eurocentric here I feel. And not even that, really. There are undoubtedly people living in slavery in this country. And what are honour killings, or the beheading of Lee Rigby, but forms of human sacrifice?

I'm sure the lads in ISIS will be embarrassed when they remember that we've abolished heretic-burning! Boy will their faces be red!


He's not saying those things never happen. He's saying they've been made illegal and are no longer the unobjectionable social norms they once were.

Cuellar

  • I'm over here
Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #50 on: February 26, 2018, 11:34:41 AM »
That's an interpretation. He said 'the world has abolished' them, which is blatantly untrue. Even if you do interpret it as saying 'the world' has made these things illegal, that's also untrue.

When ISIS governed large parts of Syria and Iraq, these things were absolutely permitted, by law. Slave labour, or indentured servitude, is absolutely permitted in parts of the world. Beheadings routinely occur, legally, in Saudi Arabia for, among other things, witchcraft.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #51 on: February 26, 2018, 12:02:53 PM »
I'll concede that list in the Guardian article is a tad broad-brush!

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #52 on: February 26, 2018, 12:21:12 PM »
Gray's really clutching at straws in that review. Pinker names him in the book as a "progessophobe" so this is his revenge.

I’d say that’s missing the bigger picture somewhat, Gray has now spent years specifically criticising the thinking of contemporary Enlightenment disciples like Pinker. it’s an ongoing and established battle of ideas rather than some recent scuffle.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #53 on: February 26, 2018, 03:58:39 PM »
what the fuck is this picture



this must be a new thing, the 'intellectual glamour shot'

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #54 on: February 26, 2018, 04:04:14 PM »
this is not okay


Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #55 on: February 26, 2018, 08:13:23 PM »
He's not saying those things never happen. He's saying they've been made illegal and are no longer the unobjectionable social norms they once were.

State-sponsored torture made a pretty quick comeback at the start of this millennium in the world's pre-eminent liberal democracy.

I'm reminded of the Grand Budapest Hotel actually (and more generally the fag-end of the Austro-Hungarian empire), as tolerance (particularly for Jews) gives way to barbarism. I think this is why you find John Gray more likely to cite Zweig, Norman Lewis or whoever rather than academic philosophers.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #56 on: February 26, 2018, 08:24:05 PM »
this is not okay

I don't know, phrenology was an enlightenment discipline after all. Haven't read Pinker (apart from an earlier book on language) so not sure what his approach is on these 'unpalatable' aspects.

Twit 2

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #57 on: February 26, 2018, 08:30:18 PM »
There’s bias on both sides: Pinker likes the idea of the world being great and finds the stats that show that; Gray likes the idea that everything is shit and finds the quotes for that. I prefer Gray and so will tend to say he’s more right. Also, Gray by all accounts is a humble guy - working class North East boy done good; Pinker is the kind of ponce you want to push in a canal.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #58 on: February 26, 2018, 08:59:22 PM »
can we all agree that 'The Sense of Style' is good even if his other stuff is questionable?

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #59 on: February 27, 2018, 07:47:32 AM »
Gray by all accounts is a humble guy - working class North East boy done good; Pinker is the kind of ponce you want to push in a canal.

Pinker's Jewish, too. While you're listing irrelevant tribal reasons why you hate him, why restrict yourself to class prejudice?


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