Book: The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Illuminating but somewhat miscellaneous

Steven Pinker
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
Viking, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-670-06327-7
439 pages (main text)

I've been a fan of Steven Pinker since the first book of his that I picked up. One reason for that is the remarkable clarity of his explanations. I know of no other writer on scientific or technical subjects who can match his clarity and persuasiveness. Not only is his prose style and argument structure as lucid and I can imagine, he always seems to have the perfect example at hand to clinch his argument. I've often wondered if he has a basement full of potential examples that he has noticed and cataloged for later use, or perhaps a battalion of graduate assistants to call on (he teaches at Harvard).

In any case, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature is very precisely about what the title says it's about. To a remarkable but not unlimited degree, it's possible to work out how the human mind works by investigating how people unconsciously follow the rules of the world's thousands of languages.

Professor Pinker begins the book's preface saying:

    There is a theory of space and time embedded in
    the way we use words. There is a theory of matter
    and a theory of causality, too. Our language has a
    model of sex in it (actually, two models), and
    conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness.
    Divinity, degradation, and danger are also
    ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a
    conception of well-being and a philosophy of free
    will. These conceptions vary in their details from
    language to language, but their overall logic is the
    same. (p. vii)

And in the book's first chapter, Professor Pinker poses a series of questions about our relationship to language and the relationship of language to the world that it's trying to describe. In the remainder of the book, he answers those questions and substantiates those statements very persuasively.

In the book's second chapter, Professor Pinker does something that should tax even his explanatory powers: he explains something in the way that he came to understand it in the course of his research. The danger of that sort of explanation is that it's almost always extra trouble to follow someone's thought processes as they circle in on the right answer. And when the idea is subtle to begin with, the reader may falter. The corresponding advantage, of course, is that the reader can share some of the delight in discovery. In my opinion, Professor Pinker succeeds handsomely in making his explanation work.

The subject he discusses in that chapter is how we sort verbs into certain categories and what those categories imply about how we conceive of the world. For example, he points out that some verbs can be used in either of two ways:

    Jeremy rubbed oil into the wood.
    Jeremy rubbed the wood with oil.
    (p. 35)

But compare:

    Tex nailed posters onto the board.
    *Tex nailed the board with posters.
    (p. 36)

The asterisk is conventionally used to introduce incorrect examples and, indeed, the second one sounds odd to a native-speaker of English. What is it about the difference between rubbing and nailing that allows rubbing to work in both examples and nailing not to? Professor Pinker persuasively argues that it's not an arbitrary distinction.

In the succeeding two chapters, Professor Pinker examines the theories that our minds have very many innate concepts and that they have very few or none and he finds both theories wanting. A reasonably small number of inherent concepts seems necessary to bootstrap language acquisition, but a large number would limit the flexibility that we clearly have in how we use language. In the succeeding chapter he finds many metaphors that are very commonly found in our languages and our thinking. Indeed, he finds that metaphors do even more than guide our thinking.

There follows a chapter on names, one on swearing (prudes may want to skip it), and one on some of the ways we negotiate relationships with others. The last chapter consists of a brief summary of the preceding chapters and a few paragraphs that suggest some larger meanings that can be drawn.

And that leads to my only complaint about the book: it doesn't hang together all that well. All the topics that Professor Pinker addresses are interesting and all of his discussions illuminate the relationship between language and human nature. But they don't feel as though they're working toward a single goal. As long as you take the book as a collection of semi-related articles, you won't be disappointed and you're likely to learn a great many interesting things.

There are two tiny editing errors in the book: GPS satellites are not in geosynchronous orbit (p. 143) and there's a colon that anticipates an illustration (p. 249), but the illustration comes a sentence and a half later, on the next page.

Posted: Sun - November 4, 2007 at 05:24 PM   Main   Category: