Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
Pinker: I might want to resuscitate Thomas Hobbes and have dinner with him, the 17th century English philosopher who’s mostly – and I think I’m unfairly – associated with the idea that life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short. Hobbes was a witty and brilliant writer. He was a kind of psychologist who had a physiological, mechanistic view of thinking and emotion. He said reasoning is but reckoning – reckoning in the original sense of computation or calculation. He thought deeply about the problems of violence, and had an analysis of the causes of violence that I think are quite valid today. He put his finger on what might be the greatest violence reduction technique ever invented. That is a responsible government. And he . . . Wherever you turn, I think, in psychology and philosophy, you find areas in which he had some _______ or _______. So I would love to pick his brains if I could. I’d ask him how he would solve the problem of policing the police. He had this concept of the leviathan – that is a government to which people would voluntarily surrender their autonomy in exchange for having to adjudicate disputes and basically keep us from each other’s throats. But I’d say to him, “You’re kind of unclear as to why this leviathan would just be kind of a fascist dictator, as if that would be better than life in the state of anarchy.” Well one thing we’ve learned is that not only is it better to have a government and be in anarchy; but on the other hand having a ________, aggressive government might not be much better than living in anarchy. I would ask him whether he could anticipate the concept of democracy, and how his own view of human nature could be confronted with the idea that whoever is leading the government would himself have the flaws of human nature. How do you square that circle?