First: ACD acknowledges that Pinker has misquoted Woolf, but feels that the terms "human character" and "human nature" are so close in meaning as to make no difference in context. I can only disagree. To me, the terms have entirely different connotations; "human nature" refers to the immutable qualities shared by all human beings, regardless of their life experience and social context, while "human character" is something which differentiates individual people, and which can be altered by events in a person's life. This problem, of course, is Wittgensteinian; we're using the same words, we just disagree on what they mean.
Yet in this context, it doesn't matter how ACD or I want to use the terms "human character" and "human nature": what matters is how Woolf and Pinker uses them. It's instructive, then, to consider how Woolf uses the two terms; first, "character":
My first assertion is one that I think you will grant - that every one in this room is a judge of character. Indeed it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practices character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help. And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December, 1910, human character changed.It seems fairly clear here that she intends the term to mean not some immutable set of human qualities, but the unique behaviours and quirks of individuals. The change of human character she describes, then, is not a change in our essential genetic makeup, but a change prompted by a new social and political environment. For example, the influence of the womens' suffrage movement causes us to look at characters like Clytemnestra, or historical figures like Thomas Carlyle's socially repressed wife, with new sympathy. (This example is Woolf's.)
So much for "character". What does Woolf say about "human nature"?
There she sits in the corner of the carriage - that carriage which is travelling, not from Richmond to Waterloo, but from one age of English literature to the next, for Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs. Brown is human nature, Mrs. Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out - there she sits and not one of the Edwardian writers had so much as looked at her.To read an essay that contains this statement as a "militant denial of human nature" is, I believe, stretching Woolf's meaning somewhat. Pinker, anxious to pursue his agenda of radical genetic determinism, is forced to acknowledge only one side of the nature/nurture debate; Woolf, however, is able to encompass both the changeable and permanent aspects of the human psyche. As a writer, it is her business to understand both.
I am further accused of misunderstanding the purpose of Woolf's essay. Perhaps my understanding of the essay is not complete, but I great have difficulty following ACD when he states that "Woolf's essay's intent was to fire a warning shot over the heads of the Georgians, so to speak, by admonishing them to take a lesson from the Edwardians". Woolf goes to great lengths in her essay to demonstrate how artificial the technique of the Edwardians was; how it focuses on the irrelevant details of people's houses, occupations, and economic circumstances at the expense of exploring their character. If Woolf expects any lesson to be gleaned from the Edwardians at all in terms of depicting character, it's a purely negative one. It's the Georgians who are attempting, in their halting way, to paint a fuller picture of "Mrs. Brown".
I should add, for readers who are patiently sloughing through all of this, that the Woolf essay in question is entitled "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown", and can be found widely anthologized. If you've read all the quotations that ACD and I are throwing at each other, you've read a significant portion of the essay already. It is worth tracking down a copy; this is a crucial piece of literary criticism.
Finally, ACD points out that Pinker is talking about the theories underlying works of art, not the aesthetic objects themselves. I understand this, but feel the distinction to be a porous one for several reasons. First, many artists throughout history are poor critics of their own work; therefore, one cannot assume that the aesthetic theories of a writer or composer represent accurately the content of their output. Second, Pinker directly refers to twentieth-century art works as "ugly, baffling and insulting"; because this is an aesthetic judgment on a group of works, it is best answered by aesthetic judgments of our own. Finally, it's been my observation that the twentieth-century saw a particularly wide schism between theory and practice; composers preached an intellectual and ascetic approach to art, but they could not prevent their works from having emotional and expressive content. Books by Boulez and Xenakis scowl at the reader, and say "No", but their music, heard properly, says "Yes".