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

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

Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Energetic, passionate, intelligent and lively, Pinker is erudite but accessible, lucid and precise but never stifled, conversational and occasionally colloquial but never crude. Fittingly, this language scholar is also an excellent writer and Pinker carries this double mantle with aplomb occasionally bordering on chutzpah and plenty of style. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: June 2008
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141015477

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Allen Lane have a rather diverse and truly impressive line-up this autumn, including the topical Alan Greenspan and a rather groundbreaking Naomi Klein. However, it's the latest offering from Steven Pinker that's likely to stand the test of time - if a label of an "instant classic" was ever justifiably applied, it should be applied to The Stuff of Thought.

A culmination of more than a decade of Pinker's popular science writing and the crowning glory of both his language trilogy, encompassing The Language Instinct and Words and Rules and his mind & human nature trilogy with How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought is an exceptional book and anybody - and I mean anybody - interested in language or human mind should read it, while all psychology, linguistics and sociology students should buy a copy.

The Stuff of Thought is subtitled Language as a Window into Human Nature and deals with meaning and some usage conventions, or - to apply linguistic terms - with semantics and pragmatics of the language. Those who get bored by or lost in the more intricate details of grammar, syntax and word construction but feel ready to go beyond surprised wondering why do we say that? would do well to read this book, but it goes well beyond the linguistic and truly fulfils its title promise of providing a window into how the mind works, how human beings perceive, classify and order the world, what they value and how they interact with each other. Of course, not every aspect of mental functioning is exhibited in the language, but we are a garrulous species and a lot can be read about us from the way we use words.

Some of the ideas explored in The Stuff of Thought have been touched on in the previous books by Steven Pinker, but a surprisingly large part of it feels new. Pinker starts big, by putting a price on the semantics of the toppling WTC towers ($3.5bn, roughly) and then presents a dazzling exposition of various ways the meanings and usage of words illuminates the mechanics of thought.

The first part of the book is devoted to basic units of thinking as revealed by language, and with the specifically human concepts (and obsessions) of time, space and causality (as well as the consequences of these concepts for our personal and social lives). We all probably know that the ideas of space , time, forces and causality that humans instinctively employ are not compatible with modern physics post-Einstein and quantum theory. Pinker shows that they are also incompatible with classic Euclidean and Newtonian takes on the physical word.

Theories concerning the degree to which meanings are relative or absolute, innate or learned and whether it's the underlying mind that shapes the language or the language that shapes the mind. A lot of space is devoted to the arguments against the (recently resurrected) neo-Whorfian language relativism, which claims that structures of our native language mould our thoughts to a very high degree and make if very hard to even think thoughts that are contrary to the patterns of our language. Pinker shows that, although the relativistic claims have some reality and the language patterns guide and make certain ways of thinking more likely, they are fairly easy to transgress if circumstances demand. As an example, it's fairly obvious to anybody that believes in the species unity of humanity that the "primitive" societies don't have sophisticated number language and counting systems because they are not needed in the environments their members operate; rather than those societies having failed to develop sophisticated civilisations because their languages lack such number systems.

Pinker analyses the popular concept of "metaphors we live by" and shows what can be extracted from the idea that humans, essentially, use metaphors taken from the behaviours of physical objects to talk (and think) about pretty much everything else; as well as quoting several convincing results showing that majority of the conventional metaphors (of the "love is the journey" or "argument is war" type) are just that, conventional, and that the original meaning of the underlying literal expressions is lost even to our automatic processing.

The chapter on nouns, or more specifically, names of things is truly fascinating and the explorations there afforded a truly unique view of the almost-mystical process of naming things and people. ...suppose scientists made an amazing discovery: cats are really daleks, the mutated descendants of the Kaled people (...), a ruthless race bent on universal conquest and domination, who travel around in mechanical casings cleverly disguised as animals. Would we say that there is no such a thing as a cat, since the definition of "cat " specifies a furry animal? Or would we say that contrary to our previous beliefs, cats aren't animals?

Among the most entertaining sections is an extensive chapter on swearwords and obscenity (which, among other things, clearly shows how two concepts of what sex is like are reflected in the grammar and usage; explores the neuro physiology of swearing, shows compelling reasons for the lack of a polite but grammatically identical verb in the John verbed Mary phrase and the lack of a polite but everyday and universally applicable term for faeces.

And finally, the extensive exploration of polite conventions for expressing requests, threats and sexual come-ons reveal fascinating stuff about human social hierarchies and rules of sharing and exchange.

The only thing that I found occasionally missing was more material from other European languages and some filtering of the English examples to remove the most obviously English-specific usages. Pinker does meticulously refer to "English speakers" wherever appropriate, and his general claim that phenomena he covers are pretty universal to a greater or lesser degree in all languages stands well; but there were several times that I could immediately come up with a counterexample to his from my own language, and at least some of them could have been adjusted.


The writing is, as usual, brilliant. Energetic, passionate, intelligent and lively, Pinker is erudite but accessible, lucid and precise but never stifled, conversational and occasionally colloquial but never crude. Fittingly, this language scholar is also an excellent writer and Pinker carries this double mantle with aplomb occasionally bordering on chutzpah and plenty of style.

Apart from providing a fascinating, if not to say exhilarating exposition of its main ideas, in The Stuff of Thought shows not only what the mind-scientists discover but also how they do it; not just the content of science but also its methods. Pinker describes countless experiments and studies, with just a right amount of information to make the inclusion meaningful but succinctly enough not to bore. That inclusion of the method, showing how the science is done is also why The Stuff of Thought should be required reading for all the students of the human sciences.

Wholeheartedly recommended, and full 5 stars, both from me personally and from the Bookbag.

Thanks to Alen Lane for sending this trully enjoyable & informative volume to the BookBag.

David Crystal's How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die provides a more conventional but informative and useful introductory tour of language in all its variety.

Booklists.jpg The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker is in the Top Ten Books About Language.
Buy The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker at Amazon.com.


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