THE THEAETETUS AND THEE: As the linguists denounced Pinker's tweets...


...the logicians debated Plato: On June 14, 2020, Steven Pinker made a major mistake.

Everyone makes mistakes, of course, but this was a major mistake. In fact, Pinker may have made two such mistakes that day, depending on how you count them.

On that day, Pinker tweeted links to two opinion essays which had appeared in the Washington Post. One essay had been written by Patrick Sharkey, a sociology professor who's currently at Princeton.  

The other essay had been written by Rod Brunson, described by the Post as "the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. professor of public life in the school of criminology and criminal justice and the department of political science at Northeastern University."

Pinker had tweeted links to those two essays. These were his major mistakes:

When he linked to the essay by Sharkey, he described Sharkey as "a researcher on urban violence & its decline." And not only that! When he linked to the essay by Brunson, he described Brunson as an "expert on urban crime."

In that way, Pinker committed two major mistakes. Here's what happened next:

One month later, more than five hundred academics "signed a letter seeking to remove him from the list of 'distinguished fellows' of the Linguistic Society of America." 

(We're quoting from Michael Powell's news report in the New York Times.) 

The scholars cited several grounds for Pinker's removal. One complaint concerned the fact that Pinker had used the terms "urban crime" and "urban violence" in those recent tweets.

According to the marauding linguists, the two-word phrases used by Pinker had been a pair of "dogwhistles." More specifically, they said the word "urban" "signals of views that essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals."

No, we aren't making this up—and no, there's no longer any point in discussing or debating such matters within the tents of our own failing blue tribe. As our rapidly failing nation has slid into undeclared civil war, there's no way to slice the baloney too thin for various embattled groups, including some in our tribe.

In this case, the more than 500 academics are a subset of our own blue tribe. There's no longer any point in discussing or debating any matters concerning gender or "race" within that failing tribe. The ability to conduct such discussions is, by now, long gone.

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf hadn't yet thrown in the towel on such attempts at discussion. Last July, he went through several of the charges levied at Pinker, and—believe it or not—this one wasn't the dumbest.

You can read Friedersdorf's full piece if you want, but there's no longer any way to discuss or debate such matters within our blue tribe. By now, our practices are too far gone. Quite literally, it's all over now but the shouting.

Last weekend, we watched as Pinker and Jonathan Rauch discussed such matters on C-Span. For the record, the gentlemen agreed on a basic point:

The "trolling culture" of the right is a more serious problem at this point than the "cancel culture" of the left, Pinker and Rauch both said. But the cancel culture is very dangerous, they agreed, because of the role it's playing with our universities.

What is happening within our universities as our current breakdown proceeds? More specifically, where were the nation's logicians over the past (let's say) three decades as various groups—the mainstream press corps very much included—increasingly made a rolling joke of our failing discourse?

What were the logicians doing? How about the rest of the academic philosophy crowd? Over the weekend, we got an extended glimpse of that matter, thanks to the way Rauch started his new book.

Rauch's book is called The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.  Based on his hour-long conversation with Pinker, we'll guess that it's very good.

But dear God! The book starts with the Theaetetus! As we noted on Monday, Rauch starts off like this:

In the public square of Athens, a homely, snub-nosed, bulgy-eyed  old man encounters a homely, snub-nosed, bulgy-eyed young man.  Hailing the young man and remarking on their resemblance, Socrates begins a conversation with Theaetetus and sets out to determine  whether they also resemble each other in their love of philosophy. Theaetetus protests that he is no great intellect; philosophical puzzles make him quite dizzy, “wondering whatever they can mean.” Ah! Then you are a philosopher: “This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” insists Socrates. “Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

With that, in a conversation imagined by Plato 2,400 or so years ago, the old man commences to lead his new friend on an expedition into the densest thickets of epistemology. What is knowledge? What is error? How does error arise? Why is error even possible? Each question would seem to have an obvious answer, yet each obvious answer collapses upon examination.

To peruse the whole chapter, click here.

"What is knowledge? What is error? How does error arise? Why is error even possible?"

To the extent that those questions (in the abstract) make sense, it does seem that they might have fairly obvious answers. 

("How does error arise?" Today, the more relevant question might be, "How doesn't error arise?")

The Theaetetus is apparently viewed as one of Plato's major dialogues. Shortly after offering that account, Rauch volunteers a confession:

At age eighteen, as a college freshman, I encountered Theaetetus with a jolt. I sensed that it asked an important question, yet it provided no answer. Instead, it was an exercise in relentless deconstruction, in gentle but ruthless analytical demolition. Plato’s message came through in bold relief: this business about truth, about distinguishing reality from error—it is not easy, and if you think otherwise, go away!

When Rauch was a college freshman, he thought the Theaetetus was asking an important question (of some sort). You can't blame a freshman for that!

We're fairly sure that we were assigned that astoundingly tedious text in our first year of college too. Over the weekend, we learned more about the way the text has been treated by the academic powers-that-be down through these long, failing years.

Even as our failing society has been sliding toward the sea, the logicians and their colleagues have still been thumbing the Theaetetus! Tomorrow, we'll offer the shocking details.

After that, it's on to the saga of Rachel Nichols. Our logicians aren't going to notice, but that saga raises the age-old question concerning justified true belief. 

Tomorrow: From The Planet of the Toffs, a shocking state of affairs!


  1. "According to the marauding linguists, the two-word phrases used by Pinker had been a pair of "dogwhistles." More specifically, they said the word "urban" "signals of views that essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals.""

    Then Somerby says "we aren't making this up," as if this were an unbelievable complaint. But the use of the word "urban" to refer to inner city blacks is longstanding and Pinker should have known better, as a linguist.

    And Somerby's tone implies that no one should care whether Pinker's discussion of crime uses a term referring to blacks, as if black people accounted for even the majority of crime (they don't). 99.9% of black people are never charged with a crime, so equating urban with black and especially black crime is derogatory stereotyping on the basis of race. Pinker should know better as an academic and also as a linguist. That is why he received the ire of his colleagues.

    This is far from "thin sliced baloney"!

    1. anon 12:30 - you should read the Atlantic article. In some stray email Pinker referred to "urban" crime. He meant crime occurring in cities, that's what "urban" means. The attack on him was utterly absurd. Dems will get killed by this hyper-woke stuff. That you defend the attack on Pinker in part over his use of the word "urban" shows that you are utterly clueless.

    2. There were 6 emails and he referred to urban crime twice, among other things he said that were a focus of that letter.

      I read the Atlantic article. You should read the letter to the Linguistics Society and see what they were objecting to.

      There is no reason to call me "clueless" for disagreeing with you. It doesn't strengthen your arguments and it makes it harder to conduct a civil discussion.

    3. The reason the term "Urban crime" suggests black crime is that blacks commit far more crimes per capita than Asians or whites. BTW most of the victims of black urban crime are other blacks.

      How can we solve this problem, if we're forbidden from even stating some basic facts?

    4. "per capita"?
      If we judged elections by votes "per capita", Democrats would have a 7-2 advantage on the Supreme Court.

    5. David in Cal,
      Even though whites commit way more crime than blacks, blacks are killed by cops at a much higher rate per capital.
      The reason it's forbidden to talk about the HUGE disparity between the number of blacks killed vs. whites by cops is exactly for the reason that the Right doesn't want to solve that problem.

    6. 8:09,
      We're forbidden to talk about that, because it might solve the nation's problems.

    7. @12:13, What better demonstration that the word "urban" coupled with crime is a dog whistle than that it has brought David out of the woodwork to talk about black-on-black crime!

      Never mind that the bias in law enforcement results in blacks being arrested more often than white (per capita), whether they committed any crime or not, and never mind that the bias in our justice system results in blacks being convicted and serving more jail time than whites, whether they committed any crime or not.

      From The Guardian: "A new civil rights lawsuit filed against the wealthy California city of Beverly Hills alleges that out of 106 people arrested by a Beverly Hills police “safe streets” taskforce, 105 were Black and one was a dark-skinned Latino person. The lawsuit was filed by a couple on vacation in Beverly Hills last September who had been riding a scooter when police detained them “without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause”, according to the lawsuit."

      But the word urban supposedly just refers to cities versus country.

      This misuse of the term also illustrates what happens when an asshole with a doctorate thinks he has license to "study" whatever he wishes (regardless of his training) and wades into discussion that he has no background to understand.

      Yesterday, I saw someone proudly proclaim that covid couldn't have come from bats because no one eats them. This is the same level of ignorance Pinker shows when he claims that women don't do science because they prefer to play with dolls.

      And David, the actuary, remains stubbornly insistent that blacks are just more criminal by nature, which is the underlying belief of everyone who rejects social science explanations, including Somerby.

  2. "In this case, the more than 500 academics are a subset of our own blue tribe."

    Somerby has no idea what the politics are of those 500 linguists. Blue means Democrat, but unless they stated their voter registration, they can be of either party. Academia is fairly evenly divided politically. The stereotyping of academia as leftist is a conservative shibboleth that is inaccurate when it comes to actual voting patterns among professors in various disciplines.

    Linguistics is part of the humanities, not the social sciences. One might confidently expect a sociologist to be liberal, but linguists are simply people interested in language and there is no reason for them to be left instead of right.

    Somerby shows the same carelessness with stereotyping as Pinker, so it is small surprise that he sees little wrong with Pinker's tweets.

    1. anon 1:03, I have to suspect you are joking. It doesn't seem possible that anyone could be so dumb. Republicans say a lot of things, but it is inconceivable that the criticisms against Pinker, e.g., use of the term "urban crime" come from Republicans. Read the Atlantic article. The attack on Pinker was crackpot ridiculous. Do you want to defend everything, as long as it is something TDH disapproves of, as a matter of principle, no matter what?

    2. So, you believe that there are no Republicans who care about racial injustice? That's sad.

      Republicans are the people who use the word urban as a euphemism for "black inner city".

      If you look at the link posted below in the comments, you will see that 44% of academics consider themselves moderate, not liberal. Beyond the use of the word urban, there are several other accusations against Pinker. Is it conceivable to you that a Republican linguist might be concerned about Pinker's relationship with Jeffrey Epstein? Don't Republicans care about child sexual abuse? I think some do. Pinker has also endorsed oppressive views of women. Do you think there are no female linguists who might be Republican and yet concerned about Pinker's statements about innate gender differences making women unfit to be linguists? Remember, these are academics complaining, not random Republican women at a Trump rally.

      Somerby is willing to classify anyone who disagrees with Pinker as a lefty. That is stereotyping, since he has no knowledge whatsoever of the politics of those signing that letter. Perhaps Julian McWhorter, a black linguist and a conservative, signed the letter because of Pinker's use of the word urban. Who is Somerby to say that diversity of opinion couldn't happen? Somerby has no evidence to back up his stereotyping -- that was my point.

  3. "The scholars cited several grounds for Pinker's removal."

    Removal from what? Not from the Linguistic Society, not from his job. They wanted him removed from a list of eminent linguists offered as speakers on behalf of the organization. That's all. They felt his views were not representative of the membership of their organization and didn't want him speaking to the public on behalf of their group.

    Here is what their letter says:

    "This is an open letter by members of the linguistics community calling for the removal of Dr. Steven Pinker from both our list of distinguished academic fellows and our list of media experts. We, the undersigned, believe that Dr. Pinker’s behavior as a public academic is not befitting of a representative of our professional organization, that the LSA’s own stated goals make such a conclusion inevitable, and that the LSA should publicly reaffirm its position and distance itself from Dr. Pinker."

    Somerby doesn't tell his readers that. He leaves it vague so that conservatives can claim that this is another example of cancel culture. It seems to me entirely reasonable to exclude someone with an unrepresentative, controversial or extreme view from a position speaking on behalf of a mixed group such as the Linguistic Society.

    But note Somerby's dishonest here, once again misleading readers by omission of important facts.

    1. anon 4:09, if you are so honest, please explain, in an "honest" manner which of Pinker's views were "unrepresentative, controversial or extreme."

    2. All of the views in the paragraph cited in the Atlantic article, listing his support for Brooks, Epstein, and the stats in The Bell Curve. The linguists were unwilling to call that racist science, but I think those views are definitely controversial, unrepresentative of what most scientists believe, and extreme. Further, there is a lot of consensus findings that contradict those views, to the point that someone who holds them is very suspect and most likely motivated by racial and gender bias. I know a lot of people on the internet hold these sorts of views, but among academics, these are not legitimate scientific questions any more. The science is largely settled and does not support the prejudices of people attracted to such views.

      Remember that Pinker is not a gender scientist and has no background whatsoever in ethnic studies or women's studies. He is a linguist who has dabbled in writing books outside his field of expertise, for which he has been strongly criticized for errors by those who do have expertise in such fields.

  4. "there's no longer any point in discussing or debating any matters concerning gender or "race" within that failing tribe."

    Those linguists are debating the use of an inappropriate term by Pinker. Are they not permitted to express their opinions or is Somerby's idea of debate only Pinker using a racially loaded term without objection by anyone else?

    It seems to me that Somerby is trying to stifle debate, not those linguists who complained about Pinker's tweets.

  5. The linguists state that they are not accusing Pinker of scientific racism, but Friedersdorf nevertheless spends half of his article defending Pinker against such a charge.

    Friedersdorf then complains that merely mentioning such controversies will have a chilling effect on those who might wish to move in such a direction. My opinion is that such chilling is a good idea, especially for newer faculty, because these are only "debates" in the sense that climate science deniers are debating science, or Holocaust deniers are debating history. These are cans of worms better left unopened by non-tenured faculty, primarily because they will offend the targets of such racial denialism, women and minorities. There is a consensus that excludes such "debates," not because of PC culture but because this is settled science and any continuing debate reflects bias. That is why Pinker's flirtation with such issues is distressing. To be clear, he is expressing fringe views inconsistent with consensus among those who study such things as their primary field of expertise (Pinker is a linguist by training, not a sociologist).

    It is not OK to be a blatant racist in academia, any more than in any other field (short of policing or conservative politics). Somerby's coyness about this is noted.

  6. "Applying the standards the signatories set forth, a linguist may violate professional standards by citing a Black academic, with the core scholarly practice of citation selectively reframed as co-option."

    When you cite a scholar to support an opinion that scholar would not endorse, you are misusing that person's work.

    Somerby does this all the time, when he lifts lyrics from Bob Dylan or Robert Frost in service of opinions neither of them would likely support. His quoting while ignoring the larger context of belief of authors is an abuse of those authors.

    In Pinker's case, he appears to be also suggesting that the black author whose work he used to support a contrary opinion is some sort of hypocrite or in covert agreement with Pinker's own views, which is not the case. Again, because he is an academic, Pinker should know better than to play such games.

  7. "But Pinker’s prestige doesn’t come from the list. And his visibility to members of the press and the public far exceeds that of the list."

    Friedersdorf misses the point. The linguists are concerned that the prestige of the group would be diminished by Pinker's presence, not vice versa.

  8. The letter was an utter failure and did nothing. It was never clear if Pinker was being accused of believing false things or being dishonest about things that he knew were true. The letter was a total mess and accordingly, it was roundly rejected and maligned. It will always be there for history to judge as they look back at this time when parts of academia and other ghettos of the left used neo-McCarthyism and authoritarianism to make up for their frustrated lack of power.

    1. Denizens of academia, the so-called ghetto of the left, include Alan Dershowitz, Jordan Peterson, Kenneth Starr.

      Here is an examination of the actual political views held by professors:

      And here is a book about how conservative progressives behave in academia:

      It says: "Most conservative professors told them that the university is a far more tolerant place than its right-wing critics imagine. Many, in fact, first turned right in the university itself, while others say they feel more at home in academia than in the Republican Party."

      But why confuse yourself with the facts?

  9. "The desire to significantly narrow the bounds of acceptable speech is not a fringe proposition; it is a project that hundreds of people in a single academic field are willing to pursue openly."

    Friedersdorf claims that the linguists are attempting to suppress Pinker's speech. That isn't the goal of the letter. The linguists do not want Pinker to speak for them or the broader linguistic society. That is the goal of their letter -- to remove Pinker from a position where he represents other linguists, so that others are not tarred by his controversial positions on issues affecting stigmatized groups. The letter in no way seeks to restrict Pinker from saying whatever he wants. They just do not want to join in his opinions, which are not only controversial but viewed as harmful to others by those signatories and most other academics in other fields as well. Pinker has wandered out of bounds. He should bear the consequences of that, one of which is no longer being an appropriate speaker for that group of linguists.

    After making the statements Pinker made, how will a black student or a female student feel sitting in one of his classes and wondering how he will treat them? This is why most academics do not go out of their way, as Pinker has done, to express controversial views about groups of people. Somerby wants to call this suppression of debate, but it is a matter of making all students feel like their professor will treat them and grade them fairly, since professors have a great deal of power over students in ways that affect their lives and future income.

  10. Somerby says:

    ""What is knowledge? What is error? How does error arise? Why is error even possible?"

    To the extent that those questions (in the abstract) make sense, it does seem that they might have fairly obvious answers. "

    But Rauch says:

    "At age eighteen, as a college freshman, I encountered Theaetetus with a jolt. I sensed that it asked an important question, yet it provided no answer. Instead, it was an exercise in relentless deconstruction, in gentle but ruthless analytical demolition. Plato’s message came through in bold relief: this business about truth, about distinguishing reality from error—it is not easy, and if you think otherwise, go away!"

    Rauch then spends considerable time discussing how he applied the search for truth to his work as a journalist and why the truth has been important to him. There is nothing easy about the answers to questions about knowledge for Rauch. It is hard work.

    It seems telling, to me, that Somerby thinks these are easy questions and has no respect for the work done by today's journalists, without in any way examining their success in finding and reporting truth. Disparaging Theaetetus serves as a proxy for disparaging truth and those who seek it, whether journalists or professors. I would say that Somerby has given up seeking truth, but I am not sure he ever pursued it in the first place. Plato is boring and silly, says Somerby.

  11. Somerby is constantly irritated when the New York Times reports on admission of black students to elite institutions, such as the specialized high schools in New York City or Harvard or what have you. He accuses the paper of ignoring the needs of average black students and catering to its Hamptons-based readership.

    Here, Somerby focuses on the complaints of an elite man, who belongs to an elite organization and is employed at an elite institution (Harvard) and worries over the goings-on at elite institutions.

    Pinker’s so-called sufferings include continued membership in the Linguistic Society (they refused to kick him out), continued employment at Harvard, continued high-profile appearances (C-Span for example). But the kicker is that some of his controversial remarks were criticized!

    Did the media report on the new draconian Texas anti-abortion law that apparently went into effect, essentially turning its citizens into spies, or are they more interested in the tyrannical ‘wokeness’ on Ivy League campuses to notice?

    At least Kevin Drum is asking for more information, rather than assuming it is the existential problem it is made out to be:

  12. "According to the marauding linguists, the two-word phrases used by Pinker had been a pair of "dogwhistles." More specifically, they said the word "urban" "signals of views that essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals.""

    Ha-ha. Thank you for documenting more liberal-hitlerian atrocities, dear Bob -- and for the laughs, of course.

    Occasionally, we must admit, you don't disappoint. Although, alas, not too often recently.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. It isn’t exactly clear how the travails of Steven Pinker impact the lives of the economically anxious Trump voters and the left-behind black public school students. Surely some day Somerby will fill us in on that.

  15. More specifically, where were the nation's logicians over the past (let's say) three decades' ?

    More importantly, where was Somerby over the last 4 years ? Defending Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Ron Johnson, Devin Nunes and (recently) Matt Gaetz with every ounce of his (fortunately) pathetic ability.

    Fortunately, Somerby is a total moron who doesn't understand percentages or acres or high school physics and his Trumptardism was so transparent that he ended up being a useless idiot for Trump rather than the useful idiot he wanted to be.

  16. Here is Biden, a Democrat, addressing a class issue:


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