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Foucault and Pinker on Violence

Foucault and Pinker on Violence

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Published by John Wallen
Foucault is the master on this topic. Pinker came to the game rather late!
Foucault is the master on this topic. Pinker came to the game rather late!

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Published by: John Wallen on Dec 25, 2007
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12/16/2012

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A History of Violence
In a series of lectures at the College de France in the 1970s, Foucault put forwardthe interesting hypothesis that history is actually the history of violence. Accord-ing to Foucault, the history of every constitution retains evidence of every civilupheaval and war that has affected the state in question. Foucault was particu-larly making a point about the French constitution including, of course, the fun-damental changes brought in by the revolution of 1789. However, most influencewas always felt from the LAST war or civil upheaval.This is a thought-provoking hypothesis. It can certainly be applied to Europeanpower relationships after the Second World War, with the division of Europe intotwo hostile camps reflecting the reality of a world controlled by the two new su-perpowers, America and the USSR. The constitutions of the Eastern Bloc coun-tries, for example, clearly reflected the reality of the USSR's victory over fascistGermany, while the democracies that won the war were free to shape or developtheir constitutions as they liked. The instance of Japan is instructive: after losingthe war and suffering the devastation caused by the dropping of two atomicbombs, the Japanese gave up on their own world view completely and committedthemselves to imitating the American model: even to the point where in many ar-eas they surpassed the original.Foucault's ideas on history and violence are as relevant today as ever. It is inter-esting to note that we do not enjoy democratic privileges due to some divine de-cree: rather, they are the product of successful wars and civil struggles. On theother hand, it can also be said that these same privileges have come about, to alarge extent, as the result of successful violence.
 
Steven Pinker and Violence
As most people interested in the fields of psychology and linguistics will know,Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist best known for his tweaking of Chomsky'sidea that children possess a generative or universal grammar. For Chomsky, thismeant that all languages conformed to the rules of a kind of "proto" grammar thatchildren possessed instinctively and could apply on the basis of just a few exam-ples. Chomsky, however, didn't spend a lot of time describing where this abilitycame from: it was "innate" and all children possessed it. In some sense, it couldbe described as a by-product of mind. Now, Steven Pinker was not happy withsuch vagueness and developed the idea that children's innate grasp of grammar isa product of natural selection rather than mind per se. Natural selection devel-oped the neural networks conducive to language acquisition when it became nec-essary for people to speak. On the basis of this flimsy distinction, Pinker came upwith the idea that language is an "instinct". In essence, Pinker has been parasiticof Chomsky's ideas, but gives them a smart new twist which has succeeded in put-ting his name on the academic map. Pinker, in addition to his more serious workhas written a lot of science for dummies type stuff. Now, he has a new bookready, entitled: "A History of Violence" and earlier this year he gave a taster of itstheme at the TED conference in Monterey, California.In this short talk, Pinker states his belief that violence has been on the decline forcenturies and that today we live in the most non violent period in history. In orderto back this up, he inundates his listeners with warped statistics. Apparently maleIndians in America had a far higher risk of dying at the hands of another malethan we have today. Who would ever have guessed such a thing? Of course, hedoesn't take into account that all males in agricultural or hunter gatherer socie-ties were liable to be called upon to defend the tribe. Furthermore, he ignoresthe way modern society divides human labour: there are particular groups con-cerned with enforcing law and fighting foreign armies. The deaths may be innu-merable, but clearly in a world that has nearly quadrupled its population in thelast hundred years, most males are not going to be killed. Pinker, of course, setsup his statistics in a particular and biased way. What would his graph have looked

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