Refusing to Snip the Essentialist Thread, Or: “Pinker Broaches the Knotty Question of Metaphor”

Douglas Hofstadter's review of Stephen Pinker: The old reductionist superstar passes the torch to the new reductionist superstar, while taking a swipe at George Lakoff, who has the intellectual honesty to admit that, "Yes, ma'am, it's metaphor all the way down" Both Hofstadter & Pinker are trying to make the world safe for Minksy's version of artificial intelligence, which requires ever-smaller units of cognition & action. But there's no there there, as Gertrude Stein said so many years ago in a different context. Hofstadter:
Pinker sees this "irrational" aspect of human thought as central to how the mind works. He claims that our concepts of substance, space, time and causality are "digital where the world is analogue, austere and schematic where the world is rich and textured, vague even when we crave precision. . . "
Pinker has always been such a dedicated follower of fashion that such nonsense is unsurprising. But then if you want the brain to be a computer, you must figure out some way to make it "digital." As if human thought were not part of "the world." With his talk of Kantian "scaffolds" for human thought, Pinker is reinventing the old dualisms of Plato & Descartes for the new millennium. The digits that make up our notion of the digital are, in physical fact, our fingers. Our digits. But Pinker, unlike Lakoff,  has never been very good with metaphor. Hofstader gets credit for the mild skepticism of his review, but ultimately his is a reactionary response to the fine old American tradition of Pragmatism.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “Refusing to Snip the Essentialist Thread, Or: “Pinker Broaches the Knotty Question of Metaphor””

  1. You lose me when you style Hofstader as a reductionist. I may not agree with him, but he seems anything but. (And of course, “reductionist” by itself is not a sufficient criticism: we are all reductionists in some respect, or we could never write anything.)

  2. Time, I see hims as someone who seeks an essential reality in smaller & smaller parts. When I read Godel Escher Bach years ago, I was very excited, but the more I read, the more his enchantment felt like disenchantment & sour sifting of the grains of sand. And yes, we’re all reductionists in some sense — it’s a very powerful intellectual tool, but it is not up to the job of becoming a metaphysics.

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