While holed up in Widener Library several years ago doing research for his bestseller, The Blank Slate, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker found himself fixating on a dying man clutching an angel. Both man and angel were the subjects of a John Singer Sargent painting that illustrates a dying soldier’s glory.
“It was a kind of horrifying kitsch,” he recalls. “I used it in the book as an example of how attitudes towards violence have changed over the twentieth century. The idea is that you can die for your country and you are really happy. You get to clutch a sexy angel. Nowadays, we [think of] Saving Private Ryan... there is a general repugnance towards war.”
For Pinker, it was a rare case of being inspired by his surroundings at Harvard. When immersed in his work, he rarely even notices them. He says that he is not “directly inspired by physical surroundings in a kind of romantic way.” Rather, he “get[s] ideas from ideas.”
Thirteen years ago, Steven Pinker declined a full professorship at Harvard because he did not think the ideas floating around here were inspiring enough. At that time, Pinker says, the Psychology Department was dominated by mathematical psychology. This year, an enticing offer—including a spacious office on the ninth floor of William James Hall—made him reconsider. “For a long time, Harvard had a pretty geriatric faculty. Not just in sheer age, but in the set of topics and the whole approach to the field.” Although he has only been a professor here for several months, Pinker’s Harvard experience extends back to his days as a doctoral student in psychology.
An avid reader of books and articles on a variety of topics ranging from art to politics to science, Pinker finds stimulation in more departments than his own. The opportunity Harvard offers to be interdisciplinary is a boost to creative energy. “I write these long sprawling books that cover everything from war to art to religion to brain science. Being in a place that has experts in all those fields is a real attraction to me.”
Engulfed by his work, Pinker is a self-proclaimed night owl, especially when working on finishing his books. “I tend to have mujahideen-like intensity. I will work morning, noon, and night, seven days a week... until I am finished.”
In addition to his outside research, Pinker says sometimes inspiration flows from working with Harvard students. “At MIT, students are more likely to punch a clock, whereas at Harvard, students are more likely to be collaborators.” Although he is excited about his move down the river, Pinker argues that the Harvard bureaucrats often hinder his research efforts.
“They are a self-contained fiefdom and researchers are kind of a nuisance,” he says. “The number of hoops you have to go through to get reimbursed for a taxi is astonishing.”