(Joe Fassler’s interview with Steven Pinker appeared in The Atlantic, 1/17.)
Harvard linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker groups social reformers into two broad categories. The moralist condemns one behavior and promotes another; the scientist, on the other hand, tries to understand why human beings do the things they do, hoping self-knowledge will lead to positive change. In our conversation for this series, Pinker chose a favorite passage from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that illustrates both points of view—in its critique of human nature, Isabella’s speech swivels from detached observation to plaintive complaint. We discussed the limits of both science and moral judgments, and his belief that the analytic mindset is humanity’s best hope for a peaceful future.
Pinker’s most recent book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, gives Strunk and White a much-needed OS update—while he acknowledges the merits of The Elements of Style, his book’s insightful introduction explains why a language can’t have one rulebook for two long. (Strunk and White suggested avoiding words like “geek” and “funky,” for instance, claiming they would fall quickly out of fashion.) The Sense of Style applies a linguist’s semantic chops to the questions of prose aesthetics, breathes fresh insight into grammar’s disputed territories, and takes stock of new developments in our ever-shifting American English.