By Paul So
In Steven Pinker’s popular book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Pinker characterizes the Blank State as “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.” Pinker is characterizing the loose set of views, commonly held by today’s humanities and social science intellectuals, that emphasize the role of the environment and the malleability of the human mind. However, I think this is a very confusing way of using the term “Blank Slate,” and the definition Pinker provides is not only implausible, but historically inaccurate. It is odd to use a term deeply rooted in history to refer to a view which, as Pinker characterized it, has little or nothing in common with the definition provided by the figures who originally championed it.
I may give the impression that I am writing a review of Pinker’s book, and while I deeply respect and admire Steven Pinker, my main intention is simply to explain what the Blank Slate thesis really is, and to disagree with Pinker’s characterization of it.
Let’s recall that Pinker writes that the Blank Slate is “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.” On the face of it, this definition is implausible for several reasons. Historically, the term “Blank Slate” — or tabula rasa — stems from John Locke’s empiricist critique of rationalism in his book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke introduces the tabula rasa in opposition to the view that the human mind possesses innate ideas. Rather than having built-in content, Locke argues that all knowledge comes from experience. He does this by demonstrating that every argument that supports innate ideas is compatible with the tabula rasa.
Nowhere in Locke’s argument did he deny that the human mind has inherent structure. On the contrary, Locke, himself, posits at least one innate structure of the human mind – a domain-general mechanism that abstracts all concepts from sensory experiences.
David Hume actually expanded upon this by positing associative mechanisms to explain how ideas are developed from experience; mechanisms involving causation, contiguity, and resemblance. We develop and conjoin ideas in terms of their causal relation, distance, and similarity. The details of Hume’s associationist view of the mind are complex, but for now it is enough to point out that even the famous tabula rasa advocate, David Hume, thought that the human mind has “inherent structures.”
What I’ve said about Locke and Hume is already enough to show that, historically, the tabula rasa states that the human mind begins with no content, but does not rule out the existence of inherent structures that are used to acquire content.
So the definition that Pinker posits completely ignores what the Blank Slate originally meant, as well as the historical origin of the term. By using it to refer to a view that denies the existence of inherent structures in the human mind, he not only causes confusion, he also places serious constraints on how he can use the word and to whom he can attribute the view. For example, Pinker tends to use the word to refer to behaviorists, such as B.F. Skinner, but if one interprets ‘Blank Slate’ literally, there is no way behaviorists would qualify. B.F. Skinner endorsed the “black box” approach of the mind. In other words, he could only observe the inputs (i.e stimulus) and output (i.e behavior) of the black box (i.e mind), but not the contents of that box. Since he is completely agnostic about the nature of the human mind, he does not embrace the Blank Slate view and, consequently, does not take a position on the existence of internal content or structure. In fact, he eschews deliberation about mental states for not being sufficiently scientific.
Furthermore, unless one is engaging with a stereotypical, rabid, post-structural social constructionist, Pinker’s definition is so implausible that it makes use of the word practically impossible. He denies that the human mind has inherent structures, but what counts as an inherent structure of the human mind, in light of recent cognitive neuroscience? The visual cortex, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, motor cortex, and so on. It is extremely implausible that anyone would actually endorse the view that these structures do not exist. But if one were to endorse the Blank Slate as Pinker defines it, one would have to.
I suppose Pinker could revise his definition a bit to mean exactly what he intends to say, that is, one that would include behaviorists, but probably not deny the existence of the visual cortex. Nonetheless, it remains quite different from the historical meaning of tabula rasa. Is he warranted in this linguistic move? Someone who is sympathetic to Pinker might argue that he has every right to use an existing word to mean something else. After all, one could think of many words that people appropriate, in order to mean something else. The word ‘hipster’ used to refer to a 1940’s subculture of aficionados of jazz, but nowadays it means a young person, who appreciates irony, indie music, and artisanal crafts, broadly construed.
But then one might ask why Steven Pinker uses the expression ‘Blank Slate’ when he could use an entirely different one. Perhaps Pinker thinks there is something that a lot of contemporary intellectuals and academics have in common with the traditional empiricists, who accepted the Blank Slate. Unfortunately, whatever those commonalities are remain unclear.
Whereas empiricists, such as John Locke, think we can attain some form of knowledge, many postmodernists and radical social constructionists endorse radical skepticism. Where empiricists posit internal cognitive mechanisms, behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner remain agnostic about the structure and content of the mind by simply ignoring it all together.
Perhaps what the empiricists have in common with our contemporary intellectuals is that they both accept the nurture view of human nature. After all, empiricists believe that knowledge is acquired through experience, which seems to be in line with the spirit of the nurture side of the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate.
But these matters are very complicated. Empiricists may deny that there are innate ideas, but they do not necessarily deny that there are innate preferences and behaviors. Moreover, a robust view of human nature is at least compatible with the tabula rasa. It may be the case that we lack innate concepts, but we still have other innate features that make us uniquely human.
Though Pinker’s use of ‘Blank Slate’ is distracting and confusing and flies in the face of how it is commonly understood, there are some positive qualities to Pinker’s book. His attempt to tackle sensitive subjects and go against the political orthodoxy, for example, is particularly laudable. But as a student of philosophy and admirer of the champions who articulated the Blank Slate thesis, I feel a small duty to respectfully correct misunderstandings of, or potential confusions about, their view.