‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Steve Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011): A Hypothesis

I come to praise Pinker, not to bury him; but I do come to offer an alternate hypothesis by way of explaining the phenomenon he identifies at the heart of his enormous book. I picked it up with some concerns, it's true, after reading mixed reviews. On the one hand there have been the (you can see, on the cover there the 'one of the most important books I have ever read, not just this year but ever' blurb from Bill Gates) extravagantly positive responses; but there has also been a more measured, 'I'm not so sure' reaction. A lot of the latter come down to the sense that people find the central premise simply hard to swallow—that human beings are not just less violent nowadays than they were in the past, but much much much less violent. It's counter-intuitive, but Pinker does (I'd say) a pretty good job of demonstrating it with lots and lots of hard data. This latter was one of my pre-read concerns: we compile detailed and accurate data about crime and causes of death nowadays, but this is a relatively recent thing in world history. How could Pinker compare the rates of violence in 2000 with those in 1300? How can we even know what those rates were, back then? And, fair play: Pinker address precisely this question, at length and in such a way that I, for one, was convinced.

So, yes: there are two portions to this colossal book. The first is the one in which Pinker aims to demonstrate that, despite our Golden Age bias and truth-y sense that things are worse now than they've ever been, we are literally orders of magnitude less violent now than we have ever been. I'm persuaded. You have to agree with him that it is the rate of individuals who suffer violence as a proportion of the total population that matters, rather than raw numbers of violent acts. The latter has increased, but it has been massively outstripped by the increase in population, and I'm with Pinker that the latter dilutes the former, such that the probability of any individual experiencing violence reduces.

The second element is Pinker's explanation for this decline. This is rather complicated, but at least he does have a hypothesis. In a nutshell he suggests that we are better at controlling, damping-down and otherwise defusing violent impulses. Because he explicitly repudiates the 'hydraulic theory' of human violent impulses, he doesn't believe that violent urges are therefore, as it were, building up inside us. If we manage, through various strategies, to de-normalise violence, then violent impulses diminish along with violent acts.* It's a deeply hopeful theory. Maybe it's right. But, reading his book, I found myself considering other possible explanations, ones that Pinker, even in this capacious volume, doesn't really consider.

In a nutshell it is frustration. The thesis would be: violent acts are almost always the index of some underlying frustration. If a person's wishes or desires are thwarted in any of several ways, particularly in chronic ways, then that person is more likely to be violent. Football hooliganism, for instance, is a deplorable business; but one of the reasons football crowds are more likely to riot than cricket crowds or Rugby crowds is that watching football is an inherently frustrating business. More often than not you find yourself wound-up as your stupid team misses opportunities to score, or concedes stupid goals. This is in the nature of the game; and it means that when your team does score the release is that much more ecstatic (compared to, say, a basket being scored in basketball). But it has its dark side too. And this scales to our general experience of life; from an individual punching the steering wheel because he's stuck helplessly in a traffic jam, to a whole class of people whose life opportunities are savagely reduced (when compared to the rest of the population) and who are therefore much more likely to kick out.

This has a historical component, because it seems to me more or less self-evident that life was simply much more frustrating in the past. Existence was prey to forces of disease that were not understood, could not be combatted, and left the individual at the mercy of capricious fate. Two thirds of children died before reaching maturity. It was a matter of days to travel short distances, and of months to go to other countries; most people didn't travel at all. There simply wasn't enough wealth in society as a whole (and what wealth there was monstrously inequitably distributed) to enable people to do what they wanted to do. There was no real freedom of speech or of religion; government was arbitrary fiat by the unelected. Is it so hard to believe that a people who lived in this frustrating, oppressive environment were more likely to lash out?

[Update: 23rd March: long after writing this I came upon the work of Scottish psychotherapist Ronald Fairbairn, who inter alia argued that violence is always 'a reaction to deprivation', which sounds about right to me. This AUFS post has more on Fairbairn.]

This is, though, a hypothesis that goes to the heart of what Pinker is arguing. So his theory is that violence has declined because of various top-down interventions: because we are better at repressing our discontents, to the point where such repression of violent urges becomes second nature and the urges themselves diminish. I'm suggesting the opposite: that the reduction in violence tracks a reduction in underlying existential frustration. It is a glorious thing, how many options we now (broadly speaking) have before us; how much easier it is to gratify our desires. So, by way of illustrating the difference: the 1960s are for Pinker an anomaly he has to explain away in order to his downward slope. That was a decade of the countercultural push-back against state control (something which, broadly, he deplores); if Pinker is right, then this should have shown a blip of violence increasing. If I'm right the increased opportunities for people—especially young people, women and people of colour—that begin with that decade should have the opposite effect.

Again: if I'm right, then the rise of the internet (which removes so many of the barriers to communication, and makes so many virtual fantasies realisable) should track a further reduction in violence. Of course, Pinker could always argue that this is just the 'escalator of reason' moving upwards. But it has implications for future humanity. Is the thing to do to continue to increase the scope and efficiency of the state's ability to fight crime, to internalise all the repressions and aversions, and so on? Or is the thing to do simpler: to ensure that more people live lives freed from oppressive frustrations?
[Addendum: 25th Jan. I'm loathe to make this fairly long post even longer, but just to be clear. It seems to me that something quite important is at stake in this disagreement over causes. If Pinker is right then to continue reducing violence we need to add in ever more layers of frustration -- because external policing and internal superego-repression are precisely modes of adding frustration to ordinary existence (Pinker might say: ways of normalising frustration so that it becomes second nature and our violent impulses wither and die within us). But if I'm right then this is exactly the wrong thing to be doing: and what we need to be doing is working collectively to reduce levels of social and existential frustration for communities where violence still manifests. On my side of the argument, I'd say, is the observation that back in the violent old days social philosophies of authority and the role of religion in inculcating guilt as well as shame meant that 'policing' was a lot more draconian—although I'd concede that, before modern technologies and surveillance and so on, it was also a lot less effective, and less ubiquitous.

There's a thought experiment aspect to this too, I think. Extrapolate to a world, as with Larry Niven's 'wireheads', where a brain plug-in eliminates even the most trivial frustrations from a person's life. What would s/he do? Lie around all day feeling blissful? Certainly not get off his/her couch and stab someone. But at what cost would this reduction in violence be purchased? It's an unappealing picture of passivity and unachievement, which in turn reflects back upon the thought that a certain amount of frustration is needful in life, to tense our wills, to give us something to work through and so to achieve. But this is only another way of saying that a certain amount of violence -- shall we call it 'passion'? 'engagement'? 'will-to-power'?—is also needful. In which case were not arguing about eliminating violence, but about finding the right levels and modes of violence for the ideal society.]


* I'm not doing justice to the intricacy of Pinker's actual argument here, of course. To go into a little more detail: Pinker picks out several interconnected 'historical forces' that he thinks have augmented and strengthened 'our peaceable motives' (the 'better angels' of his title) and thereby 'driven the multiple declines in violence.' These are: (1) 'The Leviathan': a consistent growth in the efficiency and scope of the modern nation-state, with its police forces, its judiciary and its claim to 'a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.' Pinker thinks this power-over structure has 'defused' several individual premises for violence, such as retaliation after crime, revenge and so on. (2) Commerce. According to Pinker the rise of global trade means that, in a phrase, 'other people become more valuable alive than dead' and 'are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization' This is a version of the theory (which he also discusses) that no two nations that both have MacDonalds' restaurants have ever gone to war. (3) 'Feminization' and 'Cosmopolitanism'. Pinker speculates that the reduction in violence has gone along with increasing respect for 'the interests and values of women'; and as a sort of extension of this, a broader sense that the Other has his/her own valid perspective, an increasing in our powers of empathy. This interests me particularly, actually, because of a thesis to do with the Victorian Novel, that I haven't got time to go into here. What else? Oh yes: the very Whiggish-sounding 'Escalator of Reason': 'an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs' that 'force[s] people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.' So there you have it.


  1. I'll say something more about the 'frustration' thesis; although to do it justice I'd need a book-length amount of text. The obvious objection, I suppose, is that the history of human oppression (let's say: slavery, or men oppressing women) shows the oppressors being more violent than the oppressed. This, I think, has two elements to it. One is that the oppressed have always used violent tactics precisely to bully the oppressed, to dissuade them from rising up -- that there is, in other words, a tactical aspect to such violence. But I also think there's a more Hegelian aspect to it. It does a kind of violence to the self to oppress others, and that violence inflects others. So the model is not that a woman who has spent her life trodden underfoot suddenly snaps and knifes her horrible husband (the 'hydraulic' model of human violence Pinker dismisses); it is that oppressing somebody else is in itself a frustrating business. You do it in order to prove to yourself that there is somebody worse off that you; but the net result is almost always only to remind yourself, on a conscious or less than conscious level, that you are very badly off indeed, not only because your options are only marginally better than the Untouchables you despise, but because you are a bully as they are not. But maybe that's too metaphysical for the sort of analysis Pinker undertakes in this book.

  2. Some scattered thoughts. Firstly, the Escalator of Reason strikes me as very dodgy, vulnerable to confirmation bias in more ways that one ("every day, more people are doing more things in ways that I approve of"). Also very un-materialistic, but I guess we aren't going to get a materialist account of society from Pinker. Secondly, I'm interested by the Victorian novel angle - are you thinking of the likes of Esther Summerson or some of Wilkie Collins' heroines, with that queasy sense that the true and real person of a woman who is not just someone to be put on display and gawped at... is being put on display to be gawped at? Feminisation is also one of the more interesting and persuasive explanations for the world-wide drop in crime over the last 15-20 years; I'm intrigued that Pinker extends it backwards in secula seculorum.

    As for the 60s, there certainly was a bit of an uprising of people who wanted nothing more than to lie around and get stoned - and talk at great length about how great it was to want nothing more than to lie around and get stoned. But the more political end of the decade was pretty frisky, violence-wise. Certainly by the time you get to the mid- to late 70s you're seeing some quite open (and in some cases theoretically coherent) adoption of violent forms of activism. As you can probably tell, I don't think that this was entirely a bad thing, or that the subsequent, and to some extent forcible, fluffyisation of protest was necessarily a good one. But that thought puts me right outside Pinker's audience, so it's probably not worth pursuing it here.

  3. Phil: very interesting. There's certainly something in what you say about the 'escalator of reason'.

    The Victorian novel angel starts from a less well-known text: Charles Reade's Put Yourself In His Place! (1870) -- its online for free in several places if you google. Strange novel, set in a northern working town. It's about trade union unrest; but the hero solves the mystery by doing what the title suggests; and then he makes a big deal of explaining that this is how he has solved the mystery -- 'I thought about so-and-so, and then I put myself in his place! and considered what he might do next ...' And everyone is astonished. It reads as though the very core concept of 'empathy' was so remarkable -- and this in 1870! -- that it needed to be carefully spelled out. Which in turn makes me wonder how rarely this explicit invocation of empathic identification with another crops up in the 19th-century ..

    But as I say: that's a long post for another time.