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

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Every time we swear, we reveal something about human emotions. When we use an innuendo to convey a bribe, threat, or sexual come-on (rather than just blurting it out), we disclose something about human relationships. Our use of prepositions and tenses tap into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and our nouns and verbs tap into mental models of matter and causation. Even the names we give our babies, as they change from decade to decade, have important things to day about our relations to our children ...
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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

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Overview

Every time we swear, we reveal something about human emotions. When we use an innuendo to convey a bribe, threat, or sexual come-on (rather than just blurting it out), we disclose something about human relationships. Our use of prepositions and tenses tap into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and our nouns and verbs tap into mental models of matter and causation. Even the names we give our babies, as they change from decade to decade, have important things to day about our relations to our children and to society. By looking closely at our everyday speech-our conversations, our jokes, our legal disputes-Pinker paints a vivid picture of the thoughts and emotions that populate our mental lives.

Pinker takes on both scientific questions-like whether language affects thought, and which of our concepts are innate-and questions from the headlines and everyday life. Why does the government care so much about dirty words? How do lobbyists bribe politicians? Why do romantic comedies get such mileage out of the ambiguities of dating? Why do so many courtroom dramas hinge on disagreements about who really caused a person's death? Why have the last two American presidents gotten into trouble by the semantic niceties of their words? And why is bulk email called spam?

The Stuff of Thought marries the two topics of Pinker's earlier bestsellers: language (The Language Instinct, Words and Rules) and human nature (How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate). It presents entirely new material, while written in the style that made those books famous: lucid explanations of deep and powerful ideas, presented with irreverent wit, elegant style, and a deft use of examples from popular culture and everyday life.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has a publishing history that stretches back to the mid-'80s, but it was his 1994 book, The Language Instinct, that marked him as a major public intellectual. In The Stuff of Thought, he returns to questions about language; in Pinker's words, "how a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies can invent physics and math." As in all his writings, he translates his advanced ideas about evolutionary psychology into real-world examples accessible even to general readers. The Harvard professor's theories of language and mind have far-reaching implications for scientist and philosophers, but his discussions here about semantic wars and metaphor battles can fascinate all of us. A major book by one of the world's most influential public intellectuals.
William Saletan
…Pinker's nature turns out to be the book's organizing principle. The linguistic arcana, the academic squabbles, the Tom Lehrer songs, the Lenny Bruce quotations—they're all part of the tale of one man's journey to understanding human nature. The majesty of Pinker's theories is only one side of the story. The other side is the modesty of how he built them. It all makes sense, when you look at it the right way.
—The New York Times
Johah Lehrer
"In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker pitches himself as the broker of a scientific compromise between "linguistic determinism" and "extreme nativism." ... He advocates the middle ground of "conceptual semantics," in which the meaning of our words depends on an underlying framework of basic cognitive concepts. ... Pinker tries hard to make this tour of linguistic theory as readable as possible. ... But profanity from Lenny Bruce can't always compensate for the cryptic vocabulary and long list of competing 'isms. ... The Stuff of Thought concludes with an optimistic gloss on the power of language to lead us out of the Platonic cave, so that we can "transcend our cognitive and emotional limitations." It's a nice try at a happy ending, but I don't buy it. The Stuff of Thought, after all, is really about the limits of language, the way our prose and poetry are bound by innate constraints we can't even comprehend."
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Unless you have a reasonably good background in linguistics, you'll find this excellent book much easier to read than to listen to. Olsher is not to blame; he reads clearly and at a (slightly rapid) conversational speed. Pinker aims for the educated lay reader, using wit and popular metaphor to clarify his meanings and bring abstruse linguistic concepts to life. But his sentences are dense; you need to reread them and think them through. And the jargon, though clearly defined, requires time and thought to absorb: "Though hypernyms are not really examples of polysemy the way metonyms are, their use in emotionally tinged speech is another illustration of how choice among words can make a psychological difference." Such sentences are followed by clarifying illustrations, but they require cogitation-work that is well rewarded by a deeper and more complex understanding of language as a window into the mind. The chapter on the semantics of swearing is particularly fun and enlightening. In every culture swear words concern gods, diseases, excretions and sex, and Pinker tells us why. A person with some knowledge of linguistic theory will enjoy this audio enormously; a person without it will be enriched and delighted by the book, but have great difficulties with the audio version. Simultaneous release with the Viking hardcover (Reviews, May 21). (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Douglas Hofstadter
Engaging and provocative . . . filled with humor and fun.
Los Angeles Times
The Boston Globe
Pinker is not only wonderfully clear; he is also blessedly witty.
Kirkus Reviews
Consider the lexicon, Watson: The words a person uses tell you who that person is. Language shapes thought; language, at least in some senses, is thought. How words relate to thoughts is the object of semantics, which, writes Pinker (Psychology/Harvard; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, 2002, etc.), "is about the relation of words to reality-the way that speakers commit themselves to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way their thoughts are anchored to things and situated in the world." Of course, there is one planet but many different worlds, and so there are many different truths. Or are there? Pinker considers many cases, including the one in which George Bush lied-maybe-when he claimed that "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Learn, Pinker points out, is a factive verb: It requires a degree of certainty that does not attend to semantically allied verbs such as think, so that when Bush used it, "he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed it did." Were we more certain about what goes inside Bush's brain, we could call it a lie pure and simple, but the brain is a curious thing, capable of equating and uniting "events that have nothing in common," such as, perhaps, reality and politics. Pinker's narrative makes for an advanced textbook in semantics and linguistic theory, and none too lightly worn; each page is a challenge, full of packed sentences that require careful reading ("Several experiments have shown that people distinguish causal chains that exemplify different force-dynamicinteractions even when they are logically equivalent"). Yet Pinker writes clearly and has an eye for meaningful real-world examples such as the "Prenup Paradox" to bring his points home. Call it continuing education for brain owners, an instruction manual on how thought works-and how to think better. Agent: John Brockman/Brockman, Inc.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670063277
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/11/2007
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.34 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers.

Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers.

Biography

"When a gifted scientist and a gifted writer are all in one, you have Steven Pinker," writes fellow cognitive scientist Michael S. Gazzaniga. With his crisp prose style and zany, pop culture-inflected sense of humor, the MIT psychology professor has become famed for his ability to turn something like a discussion of regular and irregular verb forms into a rollicking good read.

As a psychology student at McGill University in Montreal, Pinker was drawn to the emergent field of cognitive science: "I found alluring the combination of psychology, computer science, artificial intelligence, the philosophy of mind, and linguistics," he said in a Scientific American interview. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard, where his mentor was the psychology professor Roger Brown, who was a pioneer in the study of language acquisition and one of the first to apply Noam Chomsky's theories of language to field research. After accepting a post at MIT in 1982, Pinker began studying language acquisition in children, amassing enough data to demonstrate that children have an inborn facility for language.

Pinker's academic works on language development were admired by many of his peers, but in 1994 he sought—and gained—a broader audience with The Language Instinct, which suggests that human language is a biological adaptation, like web-spinning in spiders, rather than (as it is sometimes seen) a cultural invention, like the wheel. Pinker's lively and engaging treatise held tremendous appeal for a popular audience. Michael Coe, writing in The New York Times, called The Language Instinct "A brilliant, witty and altogether satisfying book."

But if humans have an instinct for language, how was that instinct acquired? That question led Pinker to the field of evolutionary psychology, and to the writing of his next book, How the Mind Works. If a particular behavior is common among humans, evolutionary psychologists reason, that behavior probably contributed to the ability of earlier humans to survive and pass along their genes. How the Mind Works, which uses this approach to examine behaviors from music-making to murder, was a finalist for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Following its release, Pinker publicly tangled with Stephen Jay Gould over the scientific legitimacy of evolutionary psychology. Although the two scientists clashed on some issues, Pinker admired Gould's ability to write entertaining explications of complex ideas—"profundity with a light touch," as Pinker wrote in his Time magazine eulogy for Gould.

Pinker's next book, Words and Rules, returned to the subject of language; specifically, it explores the different mechanisms involved in learning regular and irregular verb forms. In a recent book The Blank Slate, Pinker tackled the objections some people have to a biological view of human nature. "There are fears that if you acknowledge that people are born with anything, it implies that some people have more of it than others, and therefore it would open the door to political inequality or oppression, for example," he explained in a New York Times interview. The Blank Slate is Pinker's attempt to demonstrate that there's no inherent contradiction between evolutionary psychology and the concepts of free will and moral behavior. "It's a fallacy to think that hunger and thirst and a sex drive are biological but that reasoning and decision making and learning are something else, something non-biological," he said. "They're just a different kind of biology."

Good To Know

Journalists often comment on Pinker's rock-star mane of curls, and indeed Pinker once flirted with the idea of becoming a rock musician: "I have to confess that watching rock 'n' roll concerts, I did fantasize about being up on stage," he told The Guardian. "Not in the lead. I never wanted to be Mick Jagger. Maybe the bass-player or the drummer. But I never, ever played air guitar."

Research at Pinker's lab, in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, focuses on the different mental processes involved in using grammatical rules (e.g., an English plural can be formed by adding –s to the end of a noun) and using exceptions to the rules (e.g., the plural of mouse is not mouses but mice). The lab has undertaken magnetoencephalographic (MEG) studies to identify "the time course of the processing of words and rules in the brain."

Pinker was named among Newsweek's "100 Americans for the Next Century" and included in Esquire's "Register of Outstanding Men and Women."

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    1. Hometown:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 18, 1954
    2. Place of Birth:
      Montreal, Canada
    1. Education:
      B.A., McGill University, 1976; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1979
    2. Website:

Table of Contents


Preface     vii
Words and Worlds     1
Down the Rabbit Hole     25
Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts (and Other Radical Theories of Language and Thought)     89
Cleaving the Air     153
The Metaphor Metaphor     235
What's in a Name?     279
The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television     323
Games People Play     373
Escaping the Cave     427
Notes     441
References     459
Index     483
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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 26 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 29, 2007

    Pinker's clinker.

    I would have loved a book that lived up to this book's promise. Sadly it fails. To give just three examples among hundreds: if you agree that a church cannot be hit by lightning on the steeple because a building is not sentient, you may enjoy this book. If you agree that it would not be killing a man to intentionally trap him with a mad dog resulting in the man's death, since all you would have done was 'cause him to become not alive,' this title may be a good read for you. If you don't mind the author listing the shortening of 'refrigerator' to 'fridge' as a transition to 'a single word,' you may be fine. But to me a church includes its steeple, a dog can be a weapon as truly as a dagger, and 'syllable' and 'word' (and 'morpheme') are not synonyms. Thus this book is gobbledegook to me, and I'd recommend reading something else.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2010

    Not a Casual Read

    This book is a blend of cognitive psychology, linguistic theory, social psychology and philosophy. Pinker raises questions that address the debate of extreme nativism (words shape our thoughts) vs linguistic determinism (word concepts are innate, fundamental building blocks, set by the physical constraints of our evolved brains) and settles upon a compromise: cognitive semantics. Pinker thinks that our words are shaped by some innate concepts, like a sense of time, or space, of big vs. little, etc, and that our experiences then come into play.

    Although interesting, this book is very slow-moving and laborious to read. There's one section which explores our love/hate relationship with obscene expletives. Clearly, they are part of our lives, but we tend to have sets of judgment and visceral reactions to these words, which really doesn't seem quite logical. Pinker makes the logic explicit, and clarifies the "rules" we've developed regarding our swear and epithet-hurling words. This part of the book was definitely entertaining, but for the most part, this is a book most likely to appeal to a specific, limited, audience.

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  • Posted August 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Theoretical discussion of language

    Steven Pinker's enthusiasm about language comes through everywhere in this book - which is a good thing, because the subject matter itself is dense and complex. This combination results in a curious reading experience: Pinker's lively style, many anecdotes and extreme lucidity pull you forward in the text, but the difficulty of the questions he raises could stump you for some time. He explores many linguistic theories in such depth that readers without a particular interest in the field may, frankly, get lost or find the book too abstract, despite Pinker's numerous attempts to ground his discussions in reality. Therefore, while this is a fine book, getAbstract recommends it primarily to patient readers who have a strong interest in language and philosophy. Bring along an open mind and a sense of humor, since Pinker explores language practices - such as obscenities and insults - that may provoke emotional responses.

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  • Posted June 5, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought

    Pinker is a competent student of language and occasionally has interesting things to say about the various topics he chooses to discuss in this book. But he does not come close in terms of brilliance and insight when compared with George Lakoff.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2008

    The right televised read...

    I haven't had the pleasure of actually reading Steven's 'The Stuff of Thought'. However, his televised rendition on C-Span with language usually rated as un-acceptable for all ages was a breath of fresh air in communications. I strongly advise everyone over 18 grab this book, read it, and explain his dignified guidance to any youth. The Stuff of Thought will guarantee assistance to anyone the right ways of communicating with children and young adults that usually leaves people in distress. Furthermore, excerpts from Mr. Pinker's book should be morethaneverso extended to all High School Faculty to be considered as curriculum in this early 21st Century! Jared

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2008

    refreshingly intelligent and witty

    A wonderful, witty look at the way our mind works when putting together what comes out of our mouths, reflecting or social and historical past.

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