Reading ‘The Blank Slate’
Education Motivation

Reading ‘The Blank Slate’


It is quite known that everyone amongst us, educated or uneducated has an understanding or a crude theory about what we are. This theory might not be principled or logical, not even evidence-based or sometimes conscious. This theory might be obsolete as per some standards but it has engaged some space in our self and our society. This historically redundant theory needs to be compared and reinforced alongside the Western notions and for that, we have many resources, one amongst them is the book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature written by the noted psychologist Steven Pinker.

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Considered an authority on the matter of mind, Pinker is a Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and a best-selling author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, published by Penguin. The title ‘The Blank Slate’ is the English translation of Locke’s empiricist doctrine tabula rasa. The notion that we are born with no mental content; experience and perception shape our mind throughout our development is a rudimentary definition of tabula rasa or the blank slate.

Reviews and Debates Regarding Pinker’s Thesis

Contrary to it there are other two views: the noble savage and the ghost in the machine. The former is a romantic notion that humans are innately good and get corrupted due to the influence of society and the latter concerns the dualism thesis that the mind is composed of immaterial substances and is distinct from the material world. These three notions the blank slate, the noble savage and the ghost in machine make up singularly or holistically the modern idea of what we are.

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These three notions have driven research throughout various disciplines of social and biological science. Also, these are the adversaries whom Pinker is trying to deal with in this book with the help of research in cognitive neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and behavioural genetics, which in turn creates problems as the role of our biological aspects comes to the forefront and the role of society gets neglected. Emphasis on our biological aspects, in reality, is fundamental to the concepts of eugenics, evolutionary humanism, biological determinism and biological reductionism which breeds discrimination, genocide, greed and last but not least war.

Expanding his thesis further he paints a gross picture of behaviourists and social constructivists or those who are bent towards environment or culture, not biology. Considering them obsolete given the new mind sciences, particularly cognitive science and evolutionary psychology which in turn are questioned in terms of objectivity, he is not able to get rid of the culture vultures (as he calls them). One should not overlook the radical ideas propounded by the behaviourists and social constructivists but at the same time should not miss the limitations of the counter ideas. If one considers the book provides all answers, s/he should reconsider this thought.

So many insights are there that one is not able to hold it in a single reading. For me, it was around three readings (cover to cover) to understand that the same mind sciences contradict what Pinker propounds. Particularly the research in super special areas which include: the human genome project of 2001, connectionism and neural plasticity. The human genome project preferred culture over biology by withdrawing support for biological determinism as one of its implications. 

Debatable points of view on Pinker’s theory of human nature

Connectionism (as Pinker himself states) has an approximate belief in the cultural shaping of our so-called neural networks (if we consider our mind a computer program). Also, the fact that there is nothing significantly innate is the point made by neural plasticity and the fact that if one goes blind his visual cortex supports his reading and if deaf the auditory cortex supports the processing of language, tells us that this relocation of roles is a blow to biological determinism and reductionism. These three counter notions are denounced based on their arbitrariness, but the same principle of arbitrariness is overlooked when the thesis is advocated. One should take note of this epistemological glitch made by the author and many others from the Western world. In other words, they advocate a fact based on so-called scientific aspects and deny a fact based on the same aspects. This is either hypocrisy or intellectual favouritism.

Further based on these arguments the book unfolds into some implications related to philosophy, particularly modernism and postmodernism, political activism, morality, psychology, aesthetics and biology to put them under larger rubrics. The motivation is to propose a new theory of human nature and human faculties (which include the above-mentioned rubrics) built upon the theories and concepts of thinkers like Charles Darwin, E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins again falling into the realm of biology. It seems that the book essentially proposes biological reductionism and at the same time fails to answer the vital questions of equality, progress, responsibility and worth of a person.

Moreover, the arguments made in favour are not liberating one from oppression, discrimination, greed, war, determinism and absurdity of our species. Many reviewers of this book find it liberating from the older notions.  They think it’s an erudite addition to the nature and nurture debate in traditions of liberalism. They assert it is factual and consider it to hold a middle ground whilst arguing. There is no doubt in these qualifications, however, the notion that the conclusions are not emphasized but rather kept for the reader to make is false. One cannot read anything from a blank slate, but one can reach to at least one conclusion that is reading further. The book demands further reading and further answers. The book demands finding a theory of human nature; a theory of ourselves that is reasonable rational, reliable and resourceful.

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