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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pinker defends/answers questions on The Better Angels of Our Nature

First, H/T Jery Coyne.

Pinker's FAQ on The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is very well worth reading in itself - whether you've broached his huge book or not. He deals very well with furphies, such as the idea that violence is caused by godlessness or that the overall decline of violence across the centuries should be credited to Christianity.

But do the read the book itself (I've now finished it). It is so complex and information-packed that it defies any brief review, and I'm not sure whether I'll be able to find the time to write a review that does it justice. Just go and read it for yourself - really! The scholarly breadth and depth are extraordinarily impressive, the analysis is refreshingly level-headed, and the style is so clear, vivid, and lively that the book is simply a joy to read.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is definitely my number 1 book for 2011. Nothing else I've read this year even rivals it, and I can't see anything surpassing it at this late stage (though I do have a list of books that I'm eager to get to over Christmas and in early 2012 ... a few of them are sitting beside me even now, crying out loudly for my attention!).


Thalamus said...

I just finished the preface. I can't believe you already finished it! I feel like a marathon runner who just started the race and is suddenly informed that people are crossing the final line already.

I guess, especially for me it'll take much longer to complete because I have a very peculiar way of reading. Every time I run into a reference or past event which I find unfamiliar, an author or historical figure I'm not aware of, or an important research study I hadn't seen, I immediately look it up online and get some background on it. I can't keep reading if I don't have a clue about what is being discussed.

Pinker's books teem with such stop signs, which obviously slows me down a lot, but when I finish the book, I get a sense of having learned almost twice as much as I otherwise would have.

However, as you and others have rightly said, Pinker is an impressive stylist. Even when he speaks, he has this Hitch-like ability to reel off ad lib, what seems like carefully selected words concatenated into complete paragraphs. I have found this trend of hyper-articulacy very common among "New Atheists" (not that Pinker is one of them, but there are no obvious statements to the effect that he disagrees with them either). Really, who can complain about Harris' witty and water-clear writing? Or Hitchens' magisterial prose, or Dawkin's concision and clarity, or even Dennet's eloquence? To quote Stephen Fry:

"..and always, always with wit, with panache, but also with a deep understanding that the connection between style and substance is absolute".

Barry said...

This is a great book, but Kahnemann's "Thinking Fast and Slow" is a much more significant offering in my view. The fact the Kahnemann has developed unifying theories of human behavior that have rewritten the rational economic model to reflect actual behavior is one of the most significant discoveries since Freud. Pinker's book is really good but it doesn't come close to this in terms of developing a truly testable theory.

Russell Blackford said...

I see that Kahnemann's book has been getting a lot of attention. I'll have to get to it, but it certainly won't be this year. I'm familiar with his work in a general way - philosophers tend to refer to it a lot - but only in a general way.

a Nadder said...

Out of interest, what did you think of Pinker's previous major book How The Mind Works? Coincidentally I'm about to finish that one and am very disappointed -- towards the end it feels like he's tried to fulfil the most ridiculous stereotype of the just-so-story-status-quo-defending-evolutionary-psychologist possible. So although I've been interested in his latest work I'm curious as to how it fares in that respect.

That Guy Montag said...

Barry: I can't comment on the Kahneman yet, but I don't think you're doing much justice to the breadth and scale of Pinker's book. It's impossible to deny that it's at once a very daring thesis, that violence is on the decline, and it's undeniable that it's breathtakingly well argued for, packed with literally dozens of data sets and hundreds of references per chapter. It's epic in every way and I'm pretty damn sure destined to be a classic.

I can't finish without saying I think Thalamus comparing Pinker to the New Atheists is actually surprisingly apt. It's particularly obvious in his Humanitarian Revolution chapter, but it seems clear to me that Pinker is thoroughly influenced by his Humanism. The book as a whole can I think be read as a very subtle celebration of the virtues of godless morality and political liberalism and that can only be a good thing.

Kassul said...

"one of the most significant discoveries since Freud"
Really not sure that Freud's overall ideas really count as a discovery, since large parts of it were not grounded in very good data. Much was unfalsifiable, laced with privilege and just plain silly.

His hypotheses about our dreams, our sexuality and our development might have been influential, but it seems more like they should be termed stories about those topics rather than discoveries.

Russell Blackford said...

aNadder, it's too long since I read How The Mind Works for me to say anything sensible about it. I read it when it first came out - maybe about 12 or 15 years ago (I'm guessing). I've enjoyed all of Pinker's books that I've read, but I'm not in a position really to criticise or defend the ones I've read a long time ago.

The only thing I can say is that I remember that criticism being made at the time (the just-so stories one), and I didn't think it was entirely fair back then. A just-so story would presumably be a hypothesis that has explanatory power but no convergent lines of evidence as to why we should actually give it credence. That sort of claim is often made against evolutionary psychology, and maybe it's sometimes fair, but I think that it's often not.

Still, I couldn't really defend any particulars in this case.

Barry said...

That Guy Montag...I don't intend to minimize the significance of Pinker's book. I found it compelling. It's just that the sheer magnitude of Kahnemann's discoveries don't just challenge a dominant economic model, they completely overturn it. I've read both books. I loved both books. Would love to hear your thoughts when you do get to Kahnemann.