Thursday, July 19, 2007

Language: Theodore Dalrymple takes on materialist cognitive scientist Steve Pinker

Materialist cognitive scientist Steve Pinker of Harvard, who was recently mixing it up with eminent bioethicist Leon Kass, also attracted the attention of highly literate retired prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple. In "No, Dr. Pinker, it's not just from nature," Dalrymple recalls that many of his patients from the prison culture simply did not fit the stereotype of the "human animal" as "hardwired for language", a stereotype that owes much to Pinker's work. On the contrary, he finds, not only is there no such hard wiring but the lack of it is both apparent and devastating:
With a very limited vocabulary, it is impossible to make, or at least to express, important distinctions and to examine any question with conceptual care. My patients often had no words to describe what they were feeling, except in the crudest possible way, with expostulations, exclamations, and physical displays of emotion. Often, by guesswork and my experience of other patients, I could put things into words for them, words that they grasped at eagerly. Everything was on the tip of their tongue, rarely or never reaching the stage of expression out loud. They struggled even to describe in a consecutive and logical fashion what had happened to them, at least without a great deal of prompting. Complex narrative and most abstractions were closed to them.

In their dealings with authority, they were at a huge disadvantage—a disaster, since so many of them depended upon various public bureaucracies for so many of their needs, from their housing and health care to their income and the education of their children. ...

He adds, a propos Pinker's insistence that there are no "better" or "worse" ways of expressing oneself:
I need hardly point out that Pinker doesn’t really believe anything of what he writes, at least if example is stronger evidence of belief than precept. Though artfully sown here and there with a demotic expression to prove that he is himself of the people, his own book is written, not surprisingly, in the kind of English that would please schoolmarms. I doubt very much whether it would have reached its 25th printing had he chosen to write it in the dialect of rural Louisiana, for example, or of the slums of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Even had he chosen to do so, he might have found the writing rather difficult. I should like to see him try to translate a sentence from his book that I have taken at random, “The point that the argument misses is that although natural selection involves incremental steps that enhance functioning, the enhancements do not have to be an existing module,” into the language of the Glasgow or Detroit slums.

I'm definitely in Dalrymple's camp here because, like him (though only in a volunteer capacity), I have often found myself writing letters to authorities on behalf of persons in difficulties. What has so often struck me is that some people only clearly grasped the nature of their problems after I had explained them clearly in a letter I was composing, to be sent to someone else.

No doubt Pinker is right in thinking that humans have a natural tendency to construct language of some type. But all language is not equally useful for everything. Put another way, words are tools. If the only tools I know how to use are big and heavy, I can't do fine work. And just as some jobs require fine tools, some missions require carefully chosen words. There is nothing "natural" about any of that. Our language is an artistic inheritance built up over centuries of use and refinement. For various reasons, as Dalrymple notes, some people never got most of the toolkit of their culture (not nature), and it shows.

Often, I helped my friends in difficulty most by teaching them words so that they could think their way through difficulties that they had been trying to feel their way through. Post-modernists would, of course, say that I was "imposing my uptight Anglo-Canadian culture", and to some extent that is true. To help people navigate a system dominated by Anglo-Canadians, I taught them the Anglo-Canadian words of power.

It is the case with all words of power that once you know them, you find that you can think clearly about things that were fuzzy before. You can reject the new thoughts if you want, but you cannot go back to a time before you knew them.

Anyway, enjoy Dalrymple's graceful and interesting essay.

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