Barbarians no longer at the gate

Steven Pinker, renowned intellectual, highlights list of participants at Shalem Center Conference.

Steven Pinker 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Roei Avraham)
Steven Pinker 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Roei Avraham)
On Monday night as the cold closed in around the Jerusalem Theater, the hundreds of people lined up inside began to grow restless.
They had been waiting in a line that snaked its way from the main auditorium all the way up the long flight of red-carpeted stairs, around a corner and down some more stairs to the entrance of a coffee shop. Shalem Center employees who were trying to process them were busy looking for the attendees’ names on reams of paper listing people who had registered to hear Steven Pinker speak on “the better angels of our nature: why violence has declined.” When it turned out 60 people would not be allowed into the auditorium due to space constraints, a riot almost ensued.
Ensconced backstage, Pinker, who resembles a cross between a mad scientist and a rock star, didn’t know what the hold-up was. In the meantime, theater guards had to physically push the people back to close the doors. When Pinker began his lecture he launched directly into his central thesis.
“Today we can do better than Hobbes, who predicted that life was nasty, brutish and short. We have sources for the historic rates of violence... we have forensic archeology, a sort of CSI technique, to analyze prehistoric skeletons. Science has shown that an average of 15 percent of these skeletons show signs of violent trauma.
Let’s compare that to the US and Europe in the 20th century, where violent deaths add up to six tenths of one percent.”
The Shalem Center’s conference, which brought Pinker to Israel, ran last month in the historic neighborhood of Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem. The event was the brainchild of two very different eccentric intellectuals, Yoram Hazony and Jesse Prinz.
Hazony, the 47-year-old, Israeli-born, Princeton-educated provost of the Shalem Center, wanted to create a conference that would bring together various disciplines that deal with human nature.
“The study of human nature is a thread running through many of our research programs, going back 10 years. I think many of the scholars associated with Shalem assume that you can’t really say important things that are true, about history, religion, politics and philosophy, without having a clear conception of human nature.”
Where Hazony is soft-spoken, Prinz sports dyed blue hair and tight clothes that show off a well-toned physique more fit for the gym than academia. A distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and one of the leading researchers in cognitive science, he opened the conference on a high note.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for dialogue of academics around the world. Yoram and I sort of dreamed up the term ‘psycho-ontology’ for this conference. As happens, a term can take on its own life. It is a term doing a constructive role, creating a subject matter.”
The conference included luminaries such as David Chalmers, a philosopher from the University of Arizona who wore all black and sported messy long hair as if he was going to a rock concert. Oren Shagrir of the Hebrew University was also there, giving a talk on “the brain as a model of the world.” Slightly more than half the presenters were Jewish and the crowd of 150 or so was composed of Israelis, Americans studying in Israel and foreigners who had come specifically for the conference.
Prinz’s lecture, the first and most colorful of the conference, examined how people form conceptions of categories of things using language.
“When we think about vague predicates, such as biblical Job on his quote ‘dung heap,’ it is more likely we have an appearance-based idea of heap-like forms, because we don’t know how much dung it takes to make up a dung heap.”
In one of his slides he showed Britney Spears shaving her head and asked, “Is she bald yet?” Baldness is a category and we conceive of it in different ways.
In another slide he showed a dog and asked what we think of when we think of the idea of a “dog.” Is it an animal that appears like a dog or is it all canines that science tells us are “dogs”? “What about water? It is H2O, but do we include impurities or heavy water? Most people say tea is not water, and people say sewer water is ‘water.’ In fact tea is almost all water whereas sewer water is only 67% water... people draw on wider ranges than science.”
In the end the different types of lectures proved frustrating for some. In murmurs over a nice lunch spread one philosopher complained to another.
“The focus should have been on half as many talks. I had a good time but it was a big grab bag of everything to do with the mind. I thought I would be coming here to relax at the Dead Sea but spent the week here in this room.”
There were nods of approval from those around him.
However, Hazony and many others were more upbeat.
“Specifically, this particular conference on psycho-ontology is about whether you can learn anything about the nature of the world by studying human cognition and vice-versa,” Hazony explained. “We want to bring human nature back into the central focus across a wide swath of humanistic and scientific disciplines.”
In a sense what Hazony was arguing for was a return to the concept of the medieval university where philosophy included the study of all subjects.
“In those days, everyone did a BA in philosophy, and that included all the compartments of knowledge and was unified under this one term. [The study of] human nature was central to the medieval curriculum, in the modern period the idea that there could be a unified research or education program that would touch on everything and it has been progressively eroded to the point that it is difficult to say that it still exists.”
This idea dovetails with the Shalem Center’s goal of creating Israel’s first liberal arts college.
Pinker also seemed upbeat about his experience.
“I came to Israel at the invitation of Shalem to do three things. One is to publicize Shalem Press’s Hebrew translation of my book The Language Instinct and to talk about my newest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The third is to participate in this conference... I didn’t invent psycho-ontology. My interest is related to this conference in terms of conceptual languages of thought. This also includes my interest in categories and relationships and our understanding of the meaning of a sentence and how we figure out the physical and social world.”
Several of the participants articulated a connection to the State of Israel and their Jewish background. Prinz explained that his grandfather had inspired him greatly.
“My father’s parents were from Berlin and my grandfather Joachim Prinz got very involved in Zionism and involved in politics with the rise of nationalism in Germany. As a rabbi he preached against Hitler and was arrested a number of times in Germany on trumped-up charges.”
Eventually he made his way to the US where he later became prominent in the Civil Rights movement.
“He was an enormous personality and quite an active figure in the social and political landscape of the United States and he saw a deep affinity between the civil rights movement and the experience of the Jews in Europe.”
The major highlight of the conference and what got much of the public buzz going was the participation of Pinker. A well-known intellectual, he seems fast on his way to becoming a celebrity academic like Noam Chomsky. He is on his fifth visit to Israel, having come as a teenager for the first time in 1973.
“I was supposed to come back in 1991 but the conference I was attending was canceled because of the Gulf War and Saddam [Hussein]. I returned to get an honorary doctorate from Tel Aviv University in 2003 in the midst of the second intifada. When I came back in 2008 it was a different country; affluent, prosperous and confident.”
Pinker argues that the Middle East presents an interesting case for readers of his book.
Since he argues that violence has declined in human history, the daily news broadcasts from this region seems to contradict this claim.
“For all the attention the Middle East gets it has not been the cause of so many deaths. All the [deaths in] wars here are a fraction of the numbers killed in Korea or Afghanistan. [Israel’s] War of Independence was the worst for Israel in terms of the human cost, for instance. It is hard to be optimistic but on the other hand one shouldn’t be too pessimistic.”