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While Steven Pinker is not a philosopher per se, his theories and thoughts step into the world of philosophical research. In this essay, we shall offer a comprehensive biography centered on his ideas, and thoughts and how those have shaped the world, or influenced our thought. In a strict sense, Pinker’s theories are not philosophical, but psychological. The man has delved with psycholinguistics; visual cognition and language acquisition and his ideas have come to show the world.
Biographical Data. Steven Pinker was born in 1954 in the English-Speaking Jewish community of Montreal, Canada (Harvard). He received a bachelor’s degree in experimental psychology in experimental psychology at McGill University. After this academic degree, he relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1979. After his doctorate, he moved to the MIT on a postdoctoral fellowship. Since then, he has been going back and forth from the MIT to Harvard.
What was going on in the world at the time of this philosopher? Since Pinker is a psychologist of the present day, all his discoveries and researches have influenced us directly. For instance, in his book, “The Language Instinct” Pinker speaks about language. How it works; how children acquire it, and even how the brain employs in its everyday use. In that sense, Pinker’s theories can be regarded as thoroughly contemporary since they have a modern relevance that cannot be forgotten. Besides, his evolutionary approach concerning how humans acquire language albeit not revolutionary; shows a different point of view that can be used to contrast; or complement the paradigm of linguistics, and philosophy of mind (Pinker 18). For instance, there is an interesting debate between Pinker, and Noam Chomsky on the uses of language, and how people acquire it. For example, while Chomsky considers that language is an accidental by-product of evolution, Pinker suggests that the basis of language might be genetic (Times Higher Education). To Chomsky, all children are born with a set of mental templates for grammar, and language that enables them to create sentences and language. This has been the standard for almost 50 years, and Pinker trying to prove the contrary is an interesting, and significant effort in the fields of psycholinguistics. To Pinker, children are a tabula rasa where the stimuli create a myriad of different things, to Chomsky, it is the contrary. The primary concern of the debate is that Chomsky has not tested his discoveries, and Pinker is trying to debunk his theory, by testing it. This discussion might continue for years, and to us the conclusion is not as important as the way this kind of studies improves science and philosophical discussion.
Is Steven Pinker prominent in his field? Steven Pinker aims to prove things such as language acquisition, and how children use language. The problem in his area is that there are at least two scholars with a sizeable amount of importance and experience that are in a direct clash with his ideas. We are referring to Chomsky and Lakoff (Macrostory). When looked carefully, it is possible that these two scholars dwarf Pinker’s contributions in the area of psycholinguistics.The truth is that Pinker’s discoveries have made him able to be in the big picture as a referential figure when it comes to the psychology of learning. To Pinker, language is an instinct, and it refers to a biological adaptation to evolution. This theory is not new, but the way he tries to articulate it, using elements of experimental psychology, makes it entirely different from previous efforts.
What are the key ideas and writings Pinker is known for? In this essay, we have focused on Pinker’s importance as a psycholinguist. However, the man has researched on a handful of other topics and is known in other fields of psychology. We are not going to refer to all of his works, but we aim to offer a thorough explanation of his works in the field we chose. In Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate”, he considers that kids are not blank slates where stimuli project the realities of a concrete society. For instance, fears. Fears are social and refer to a context. In the same way, he argues that if we were all blank slates, we all would have the same set of characteristics and would not need equal opportunities, as we are all the same when we are born (Pinker 50). He also considers that the brain must have a purpose, instead of being a processor. In another of his books “The Language Instinct”, the author aims to show that language is an instinct. To him, language is not the same as writing or even painting. In a strict sense, all cultures possess language, but not every one of them, possess technologies. In that way, language should come from an instinct, instead from cultural traits. (Pinker 40). To him, language is an innate ability that despite the absence of formal instruction, can be known, and used. In the same way, the author considers that language marks differences concerning people’s way of reasoning. What the author intends to show is that even if they are not taught, children will find the way to communicate despite not knowing a set of grammatical rules such as those. Language intends to impose over us. That is why, examples such as the one used with Tarzan, are rendered useless.
What questions does Pinker try to answer? We shall speak of the labor of Pinker in the field of psycholinguistics. To Pinker, one of his main aims is to know how language is acquired. To him, language acquisition is one of the central topics in cognitive science, and while every theory of cognition has tried to explain it, none has been able to do it accordingly (Pinker 1). To him, language is acquired by children without any formal training, which means that there should be genetic cognition regardless of the person where it comes from. In the same way, Pinker aims to show how language develops (Pinker 950), and children acquire it.
Do Pinker’s Ideas rely on teachings of other philosophers? For instance, Noam Chomsky influenced him with his theory of the universal grammar, which is the idea of all languages being related and share grammatical rules. Pinker deduces from this universal grammar that language instinct is an innate part of our lives. However, if we were a blank slate, the brain would not have much to do (Quora.com). Also, Pinker is against the dogmatisms that the postmodern, and elite societies have been breeding (Sailer 1). Also, another significant influence on Pinker’s thought is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins proposed the theory of a subconscious awareness. The theory speaks about how the material world is inadequate to talk about the global phenomena. Pinker uses part of that theory to explain part of his theory of the acquisition of language. To him, there should be a sort of collective subconscious that lies in the genes and explains how despite any teaching, a child can learn a language (The Globe and Mail).
As we have stated, although Pinker is not specifically a philosopher, his thought conveys a big deal of philosophical thought. However, the most important part of the opinion is on how language is acquired. , it amazed us. We did not know what was to be a blank slate, and how children could learn a language despite not being taught in it. There is a book called “Flowers in the Attic” that relates to the subject, and we found a lot of resemblances within Pinker’s though, and the books. That comparison helped to understand what Pinker was all about, and sparked an interest in the field of psycholinguistic.
“Friction in the Diction.” Times Higher Education. 1999. Web. 29 May 2015.
“How Has Noam Chomsky Influenced Steven Pinker?” Quora.com. Web. 29 May 2015.
Kingwell, M. “Taking on Scientism’s Big Bullies: Hitchens, Dawkins, and Pinker.”The Globe and Mail. 2013. Web. 30 May 2015.
“Linguistics Wars.” Linguistics Wars, from Chomsky to Pinker:. Web. 29 May 2015.
“Long Biography.” Steven Pinker. Web. 29 May 2015.
Pinker, S. “Clarifying the Logical Problem of Language Acquisition.” J. Child Lang. Journal of Child Language (2004): 949-53. Print.
Pinker, S. “Language Acquisition.” Language Acquisition. MIT. Web. 29 May 2015.
Pinker, S. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002. Print.
Pinker, S. The Language Instinct. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. Print.
Sailer, S. “United Press International: Q&A: Steven Pinker of ‘Blank Slate'” United Press International: Q&A: Steven Pinker of ‘Blank Slate’ United Press International, 2002. Web. 29 May 2015.