The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker possesses that rare combination of scientific aptitude and verbal eloquence that enables him to provide lucid explanations of deep and powerful ideas. His previous books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Blank Slate, have catapulted him into the limelight as one of today's most important and popular science writers. Now, in Th...

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Title:The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
Author:Steven Pinker
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Edition Language:English

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature Reviews

  • Jafar

    It’s hard to review this book. The book starts off to look too heavy with a long chapter on verbs. If you think verbs are simple things that are classified into transitive and intransitive, you’re in for a big surprise. The chapter is named Down the Rabbit Hole after how Alice ended up in Wonderland. And the world of verbs is quite a Wonderland. This chapter can seem a bit too technical and tedious unless you really love language. There’s a chapter about the relationship between language and int

    It’s hard to review this book. The book starts off to look too heavy with a long chapter on verbs. If you think verbs are simple things that are classified into transitive and intransitive, you’re in for a big surprise. The chapter is named Down the Rabbit Hole after how Alice ended up in Wonderland. And the world of verbs is quite a Wonderland. This chapter can seem a bit too technical and tedious unless you really love language. There’s a chapter about the relationship between language and intelligence. Is intelligence possible, or even meaningful, without language, or is it a slave to language? Fascinating theories there. Another chapter is on how causality, time, and space are represented in language, and how this representation affects our understanding of these notions. More fascinating stuff. There are more chapters on metaphors, names, profanity, and indirect language. All intensely fascinating stuff. Steven Pinker is a genius, yessir!

    Pinker wants to show what language – words, their meanings, constructions, and how they’re used – can teach us about human nature. Except for the discussion on Nativism vs. Pragmatism (whether mental representation of word meanings are innate or not) he stays clear of the nature vs. nurture debate. In the course of the book, we do encounter a lot of insight into human nature based on language. It may seem obvious if put abstractly, but language, being the most prominent thing that separates us from other animals, do say a lot about what we are.

    I think the chapter on swearing by itself should qualify this book for some grand prize.

  • Joshua Nomen-Mutatio

    Listened to this on audiobook last night/this morning after having just returned from seeing Pinker speak at UW-Madison last evening, which was excellent and a real treat for this cognitive science and evolutionary psychology nerd and huge fan of Steven Pinker. Books like this are too rich and complex to give a half-assed review of, or one where I just write clever anecdotes about my life and vaguely tie them to some idea in the book, like a blog entry beneath a book, awaiting your votes. Not th

    Listened to this on audiobook last night/this morning after having just returned from seeing Pinker speak at UW-Madison last evening, which was excellent and a real treat for this cognitive science and evolutionary psychology nerd and huge fan of Steven Pinker. Books like this are too rich and complex to give a half-assed review of, or one where I just write clever anecdotes about my life and vaguely tie them to some idea in the book, like a blog entry beneath a book, awaiting your votes. Not that anyone actually does this around here...

  • Justin

    Great expose of how the mind can be exposed through the semantics and structure of language.

    I was bogged down my the technical aspects of verbs and grammar towards the beginning of the book but the second half really hit its stride as Pinker explains metaphors, the need for taboos, expletives and indirect language.

    A worthwile read for those wishing to learn more about humanity and the illogical quirks that make us interesting.

    Most importantly, the purpose of education is revealed. Not to conv

    Great expose of how the mind can be exposed through the semantics and structure of language.

    I was bogged down my the technical aspects of verbs and grammar towards the beginning of the book but the second half really hit its stride as Pinker explains metaphors, the need for taboos, expletives and indirect language.

    A worthwile read for those wishing to learn more about humanity and the illogical quirks that make us interesting.

    Most importantly, the purpose of education is revealed. Not to convey concepts in alien and unrecognizable form but to package concepts in a way that inspires original thought while relating ideas to past experience. Ideally we can educate people to compensate for the fallacies induced by normal brain operation. A noble and explicit goal for the teaching structure of society.

    Perhaps we are trapped in the cave that is the mind but every so often we have a book that shines some light in that cave. The Stuff of Thought is one of those books.

  • Alex

    The Stuff of Thought succeeds where his last book, The Blank Slate, failed. Here, Pinker largely abandons the heredity vs. environment debate for a discussion of the mind itself, and what role language plays in human thinking.

    Drawing from Immanuel Kant, who first proposed the concept of a priori cognitive frameworks of time and space (so-called "pure intuitions") in his Critique of Pure Reason, Pinker argues that the human brain comes equipped with an innate understanding of certain fundamental

    The Stuff of Thought succeeds where his last book, The Blank Slate, failed. Here, Pinker largely abandons the heredity vs. environment debate for a discussion of the mind itself, and what role language plays in human thinking.

    Drawing from Immanuel Kant, who first proposed the concept of a priori cognitive frameworks of time and space (so-called "pure intuitions") in his Critique of Pure Reason, Pinker argues that the human brain comes equipped with an innate understanding of certain fundamental attributes of the world like matter, causality and duration. Over the course of evolution, we developed basic preset cognitive models that allow us to navigate reality, tell past from present, evaluate volume, and square the perceived world with the self that perceives it. This runs counter to Wittgenstein's belief that thought is the slave of language. Rather, Pinker suggests, our core knowledge of space, time and identity

    . How those words and their usage come to reflect our inborn predilections of the world is the subject of the book.

    This is a tremendously ambitious undertaking, and Pinker for the most part rises to the challenge with clarity and gusto. As a non-linguist, I am severely handicapped in my ability to verify or contest his many assertions, but as a language enthusiast I found his evidence compelling and his investigation enthralling.

    Consider his opening example. On the morning of September, 11th, 2001, a hijacked plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, causing a deadly explosion killing thousands. Seventeen minutes later, a second plane crashed into the South Tower, incinerating more still, and within an hour an a half, both buildings were reduced to heaps of toxic rubble. By any standard, what happened in that small window of time changed the world. But of all the heavy themes and loaded issues debated by scholars and pundits in the years since, Pinker hones in a single, deceptively complex question: how many events took place on the morning of 9/11—one or two?

    Initially, the question seems so trivial as to be offensive—the reduction of a calamitous tragedy to a piddling cardinal distinction—but follow Pinker's thread a bit further and one finds oneself in a turbulent theoretical sea, light years away from "mere" semantics. What constitutes an

    ? What do we mean by

    ? These concepts, to say nothing of

    and

    are constants in the human mind—atomic units of comprehension—and Pinker exhaustively yet effortlessly analyzes how these irreducible meanings manifest themselves in the ever-shifting matrix of grammar and lexicon. As it turns out, many of these analyses turn out to have dramatic real-world consequences, such as whether or not a president should be tried for perjury due to a particular use of tense, or how much insurance companies must dole out to their clients on the basis of what determines a single event versus two separate events. (In the case of the World Trade Center attacks, this meant the difference between 3.5 and 7 billion dollars.)

    Not that the book is without its flaws. All along, one can't help sense the author's half-assed attempt to atone for the hostility he's exhibited towards the arts in the past (for instance, his famous dismissal of music as "auditory cheesecake"), and his awkward inclusion of familiar quotations and stock literary allusions comes off as amateurish and not entirely genuine. Does he really hold Shakespeare, whose vocabulary he once deemed inferior to that of modern third-graders, to be singularly capable of distilling profound psychological insights into mellifluous verse? Or is he just throwing a bone to his critics?

    The second half is also markedly less inspired than the first, and indeed actively disappointing. Linguistic factoids and etymological myth-bustings abound. Pinker chooses to spend a great deal of time on baby names, among other things, analyzing why certain trends arrive and depart when they do. My God, who cares? In the hands of Bill Bryson, such digressions might be worthy of a reader's attention, but here they feel like empty Gladwellisms, trivial observations dressed up in zippy anecdotes and cute funfacts.

    Uneven though it is, The Stuff of Thought generates enough escape velocity to merit a place among the strongest and most original works of popular science in recent memory. Not since The Astonishing Hypothesis, in which Francis Crick dismantled the longstanding myth of Cartesian Dualism, has a single work managed to elucidate such a mysterious and controversial realm, wedged as it is between cognitive science, philosophy of mind, neurology and evolutionary psychology.

    "I've never met anyone who isn't interested in language," wrote Pinker in the introduction to his 1994 bestseller, The Language Instinct. Too often, though, that fascination is squashed by pedantic grammarians bemoaning the degradation of standards on one side and pious sociologists extolling the virtues of primitivism on the other. The Stuff of Thought should provide an antidote.

  • Jen

    "Knowledge, then, can be dangerous because a rational mind may be compelled to use it in rational ways, allowing malevolent or careless speakers to commandeer our faculties against us. This makes the expressive power of language a mixed blessing: it lets us learn what we want to know, but it also lets us learn what we don't want to know. Language is not just a window into human nature but a fistula: an open wound through which our innards are exposed to an infectious world."

    It has

    "Knowledge, then, can be dangerous because a rational mind may be compelled to use it in rational ways, allowing malevolent or careless speakers to commandeer our faculties against us. This makes the expressive power of language a mixed blessing: it lets us learn what we want to know, but it also lets us learn what we don't want to know. Language is not just a window into human nature but a fistula: an open wound through which our innards are exposed to an infectious world."

    It has taken me three months, or thereabouts, to read this book. In an early status update I commented that this book was like a dense poundcake; the going was delicious but slow. That should probably be my whole review, but I am going to go on. Gird thyself.

    This book did indeed let me learn what I wanted to know. The chapters on metaphors, naming, and the taboo were incredibly interesting and insightful. Why isn't rape a taboo word, when the word that represents my genitalia is? How is it possible that the Morning Star and the Evening Star represent the same thing? What curious cerebral happening allows us to come to better understanding through metaphor and analogy? The book also let me learn what I didn't want to know, which mostly involved words that have -ing attached to them....the author's exuberance for verbs seemed to culminate in an almost orgasmic manner: "Our trip down the rabbit hole has taken us to a semantic wonderland. We encountered a lush profusion of verbs- a dozen verbs of emitting substances, twenty verbs of changing the aesthetics of a surface, and no fewer than sixty-nine verbs of manner of speaking." (!)

    It was during those passages that Pinker took on the voice of the count from Sesame Street in my head..."Crinkling! One verb! Crumpling! Two verbs! Screeching! Three verbs! AHAHAHAHA!"

    But perhaps Pinker would argue with me, in fact, I know he would. He argues with everyone! And he mostly wins, which makes him a genius in the field of linguistics AND a world class smartass, which makes me want to smack him over the head with his 499 page work. There are a few things I don't think he is fair about- and one of those things is religion (Surprise!) He makes this statement: "The earthly representatives of God would just as soon preserve the belief that he (God) does listen and act in matters of importance, and so are unhappy about people diluting the brand by invoking God as the muscle behind their small time deals. Hence the proscriptions against taking the name of the Lord in vain." Now, Pinker can say that this is how it is being used now,and he might even be right, (the smartass!), but it is wrong to assume that that is THE very reason that it was written down thousands of years ago. Pinker does this quite a bit- smacks down a topic or a rival linguist's theories and then uses the "hence" or "of course" and "obviously" to draw the reader to a conclusion that makes sense, but might not really be fully true or able to be conclusively proved to anyone but Pinker. He is a linguist, after all, and who can blame him for using his masterful command of language to explain, sway, discuss, or provoke- doing so butters his bread and gets him all "verbingly" excited. Did I just make a new word? I think I did! Curl my hair and color it gray and call me Pinker!

    4.5 stars for the Pinkerman from me, the coiner of "verbingly", and the mistress of nothing in particular

  • Hadrian

    A bit tough, but still interesting look at the relation between language and the mind as well as language's role in society. Covers a wide field of topics, with some success in pragmatics, and becomes a bit tough over analysis of verb types.

  • Trevor

    It is remarkable how much of modern thought can track its genetic heritage back to Kant. When I studied Kant at uni I was told that there was an entire school of philosophy that was formed on the basis of a poor (mis)translation of Kant’s

    into English. I always liked the idea of that.

    It is also nice to hear someone talking about Kant and not talking about ‘the unknowability of the thing in itself’ – often the only bit of Kant anyone knows. One of the things Kant sought to do i

    It is remarkable how much of modern thought can track its genetic heritage back to Kant. When I studied Kant at uni I was told that there was an entire school of philosophy that was formed on the basis of a poor (mis)translation of Kant’s

    into English. I always liked the idea of that.

    It is also nice to hear someone talking about Kant and not talking about ‘the unknowability of the thing in itself’ – often the only bit of Kant anyone knows. One of the things Kant sought to do in his philosophy was to find a way out of the endless debate (war?) between Empiricism (knowledge comes from experience) and Rationalism (knowledge is innate and logic eternal). Kant rejected both of these views and sought a compromise. He put forward that we had to have already existing structures in our minds that allowed us to frame the world and thereby understand it – these already existing structures – a priori categories he calls them – are the lenses we use to bring the world into focus.

    This is much the same as Chomsky’s view that we learn language because we have evolved mental pathways that make learning language easy – if not virtually inevitable. Pinker is perhaps the greatest populariser of Chomsky living today. His earlier books – particularly

    (ironically titled this, despite him arguing against notions of blank slates) and

    - are virtually treatises on the victory of nature over nurture. As such these two have been my least favourite of his books. As a recovering meliorist I still struggle with ideas that fix human nature quite as firmly as I feel Pinker – and oddly enough, even Chomsky – would seem to require it to be fixed.

    All the same, his other books, and large parts of this one, make me wish I’d become a Linguist. There is a long and amusing – well, I found it amusing, anyway – discussion about sexual intercourse and the various ways one can refer to it. Basically there are two ways – a series of ‘polite’ forms: they were intimate, made love, (or my current favourite which my daughter told me tonight) they had a marital embrace. (Sorry, I’ll need to pause for a moment while I stop laughing).

    The other way one can refer to sex is somewhat less polite. Without using any words that will require asterisks, these might involve verbs such as 'to rut' or 'to nail'. Okay, they are clearly less pleasant than 'to make love' or 'to engage in marital embracing' – but what I liked most about this was his explanation of why one lot are polite and the others less so. Pinker points out that all of the polite forms are intransitive verbs (verbs that don’t take an object and so the act 'just happens', rather than being done) whereas the impolite forms are all transitive – one person does something to someone else. So, I shagged her – is going to be impolite. Now, isn’t that interesting?

    There was also a long discussion in the middle about a book I read a couple of years ago called

    - I really didn’t think too much of that book at the time. It all seemed a bit simple-minded to me - a bit like an advertising man getting into politics. So I was very surprised to see so much space devoted to it here. I think Pinker is right – it is not enough to ‘reframe the debate’ and I also think there is a reality below the fluff of political debate that eventually asserts itself - frame or no frame.

    One thing you can say about Pinker is that he has many more thoughts per page than your average book. The fact that I don’t agree with everything he says is hardly a criticism compared to the pleasure I get out of reading him. Sometimes he makes me smile, sometimes I can't help laughing out loud.

  • Ana

    This could've been shorter, but I liked a lot of the arguments presented.

  • Miles

    I am a big fan of Steven Pinker. I think he's a very smart man, and a great advocate for science and reason in the public sphere. In interviews, he's witty, informed, and able to make concise points about a vast swath of intellectual topics. His book

    had a very significant impact on me when I read it in late 2011. I had just finished a teaching credential program and was unsure about my next step in life; one of the only things I knew I wanted to do for sure was to read and self-educa

    I am a big fan of Steven Pinker. I think he's a very smart man, and a great advocate for science and reason in the public sphere. In interviews, he's witty, informed, and able to make concise points about a vast swath of intellectual topics. His book

    had a very significant impact on me when I read it in late 2011. I had just finished a teaching credential program and was unsure about my next step in life; one of the only things I knew I wanted to do for sure was to read and self-educate as much as possible.

    helped me understand psychology via methods I didn't encounter in my undergraduate philosophy classes, and pointed me in directions that would further integrate my love of philosophical inquiry with a more scientifically-informed perspective. Pinker is famous for being polemical and is often disparaged by conservatives and liberals alike, but I typically find his opinions to be well-reasoned and as responsibly middle-of-the-road as possible. Even so, my respect for Pinker was not enough to guide me contentedly through this book, which I generally found repetitive, esoteric, and––worst of all––boring.

    Though he has suffered much criticism for his flouting of traditional psychological theories and the pleasure he seems to take in prodding people toward revisiting their foundational ideas and values, I actually think Pinker is at his best when he has a bone to pick. If I had to identify just one reason why this book didn't work for me, it would be that Pinker doesn't have anyone to argue against––no unifying target on which to set his intellectual sights. There are a couple minor exceptions to this, the first of which is Pinker's advocacy for the theory of conceptual semantics, which he posits as superior to extreme nativism, linguistic determinism, and radical pragmatics (all of which Pinker portrays as rather extreme positions, possibly falling into straw man territory). In another chapter, Pinker challenges Johnson and Lakoff's theory of metaphor with varying success, making a few good points but also portraying their theory as far more relativistic than it truly is. These are interesting but not hotly controversial arguments, and neither provides the kind of overarching strength that would provide the book with a firm thematic backbone.

    The rest of the book is essentially a group of loosely related chapters that all center around the idea that "language is a window into human nature"––a claim I can't imagine anyone trying to refute. So while this might represent the side of Pinker who is more concerned with responsible scholarship in his particular field of study rather than shaking things up in town square, I didn't find the premise intriguing enough to explore with much enthusiasm.

    This book also reminded me why I studied philosophy instead of linguistics. Past a certain point, I just don't care enough about the intricacies of language. When I feel like the conversation has traveled away from pragmatic explications of how language helps or hinders people and toward abstruse descriptions of grammatical and speech constructions, I begin to check out. To be fair, Pinker does include many examples of how such rules can be relevant to the lives of normal people, but over the course of the book I wasn't convinced that most of the topics were adding anything significant to my understanding of people's relationship with language.

    This disappointment is probably my fault more than Pinker's. I've read many popular science books over the last few years, so I was already familiar with much of his research, some of which was probably cutting-edge when the book was first published in 2007. However, many of the insights found here would no longer be considered news to anyone with a passing interest in modern psychology. As a result, the information that was new to me almost exclusively had to do with obscure linguistic theories I'd never heard of, and I finished the book feeling like there are probably many good reasons for that. Much of the first half felt like repeated instances of Pinker saying gleefully: "You can do this with language, but you can't do that! And it's all because of this: (insert recondite linguistic theory here)!" This approach sent me spiraling into inanition, and also opened the way for an additional problem: Pinker occasionally comes off as being imperialistic with language rules in a way that excludes the important contributions of poets and creative writers, who often work very hard to challenge or reformulate traditional methods of usage and structure.

    There are definitely some strong points to be found in these pages. Pinker includes many visual aids that helped me understand some of the finer points of grammar that have eluded me over the years, which made me wish such aids were more widely used in junior high and high school classrooms. Ironically, sometimes an image is a better vehicle for explaining a language construction than language itself. He also offers some good information about why early exposure to linguistic conventions is so crucial in developing the basic tools for success in modern education. In my experience, this is especially important when the time comes in adolescence for young people to start formulating their ideas using academic concepts, abstract language, and advanced argumentation. Finally, the second to last chapter provides salient (if not exactly solution-based) explanations of why people have such a difficult time with directness, causing us to create all kinds of elaborate ways to communicate without having to take full responsibility for the possible negative outcomes of our intimations to others. This is an important issue in social life, but I was dissatisfied that Pinker didn't offer many thoughts about how we can overcome this problem; he seemed more concerned with justifying why it is okay for people to avoid being open about their motives and desires. I'm not naive enough to advocate for complete honesty all the time, but I think our social lives would improve immensely if we consciously developed new linguistic and behavioral mechanisms for being upfront about what we want from ourselves and others, while still allowing a safe space for people to give potentially disappointing responses to our entreaties. It's a tough project, but one with potentially huge gains for quality of life. I wonder if Pinker would agree.

    I'm sure this is a great book for the right kind of reader. For those who don't enjoy Pinker's snarky side, this would perhaps be a better choice than one of his works in which he seeks to subvert what he perceives as unfounded popular beliefs or sentiments. This is in no way a book rife with objectionable claims or disingenuous scholarship––it's just not my cup of tea.

  • Gwen

    A friend gave me this book. I didn't like Pinker's other one and I don't like this one. This isn't a knee-jerk reaction from a sociologist; socio-biological explanations are generally examples of people reading their own interpretations of the social world, and how it "ought" to be, back into "history" and saying that it's natural. The arguments themselves are contradictory--men evolved to be promiscuous and sleep with any woman, except they also evolved to not sleep with ugly women. So they'll

    A friend gave me this book. I didn't like Pinker's other one and I don't like this one. This isn't a knee-jerk reaction from a sociologist; socio-biological explanations are generally examples of people reading their own interpretations of the social world, and how it "ought" to be, back into "history" and saying that it's natural. The arguments themselves are contradictory--men evolved to be promiscuous and sleep with any woman, except they also evolved to not sleep with ugly women. So they'll sleep with anyone to spread their seed, but not take a chance of impregnating a less-than-attractive woman? Huh. Interesting.

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