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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Natureby Steven Pinker
With The Stuff of Thought, linguist Steven Pinker returns to the themes of language and human nature to examine how words express the workings of our minds. Dealing with many aspects of human cognitive and social evolution, Pinker demonstrates his complex ideas with real-world examples, making for mind-stretching yet accessible reading.
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"'Bestselling Harvard psychology professor Pinker (The Blank Slate) investigates what the words we use tell us about the way we think. Language, he concludes, reflects our brain structure, which itself is innate. Similarly, the way we talk about things is rooted in, but not identical to, physical reality: human beings take 'the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them' and 'package their experience into objects and events.' Examining how we do this, the author summarizes and rejects such linguistic theories as 'extreme nativism' and 'radical pragmatism' as he tosses around terms like 'content-locative' and 'semantic reconstrual' that may seem daunting to general readers. But Pinker, a masterful popularizer, illuminates this specialized material with homely illustrations. The difference between drinking from a glass of beer and drinking a glass of beer, for example, shows that 'the mind has the power to frame a single situation in very different ways.' Separate chapters explore concepts of causality, naming, swearing and politeness as the tools with which we organize the flow of raw information. Metaphor in particular, he asserts, helps us 'entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs.' His vivid prose and down-to-earth attitude will once again attract an enthusiastic audience outside academia. (Sept.)' Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Language comes so naturally to us that it's easy to believe there's some sort of intrinsic logic connecting the thing and its name, the signifier and the signified. In one of Plato's dialogues, a character named Cratylus argues that 'a power more than human gave things their first names.' But Cratylus was wrong. Human language is an emanation of the human mind. A thing doesn't care... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) what we call it. Words and their rules don't tell us about the world; they tell us about ourselves. That's the simple premise behind Steven Pinker's latest work of popular science. According to the Harvard psychologist, people are 'verbivores, a species that lives on words.' If you want to understand how the brain works, how it thinks about space and causation and time, how it processes emotions and engages in social interactions, then you need to plunge 'down the rabbit hole' of language. The quirks of our sentences are merely a portal to the mind. In 'The Stuff of Thought,' Pinker pitches himself as the broker of a scientific compromise between 'linguistic determinism' and 'extreme nativism.' The linguistic determinists argue that language is a prison for thought. The words we know define our knowledge of the world. Because Eskimos have more nouns for snow, they are able to perceive distinctions in snow that English speakers cannot. While Pinker deftly discredits extreme versions of this hypothesis, he admits that 'boring versions' of linguistic determinism are probably accurate. It shouldn't be too surprising that our choice of words can frame events, or that our vocabulary reflects the kinds of things we encounter in our daily life. (Why do Eskimos have so many words for snow? Because they are always surrounded by snow.) The language we learn as children might not determine our thoughts, but it certainly influences them. Extreme nativism, on the other hand, argues that all of our mental concepts — the 50,000 or so words in the typical vocabulary — are innate. We are born knowing about carburetors and doorknobs and iPods. This bizarre theory, most closely identified with the philosopher Jerry Fodor, begins with the assumption that the meaning of words cannot be dissected into more basic parts. A doorknob is a doorknob is a doorknob. It only takes Pinker a few pages to prove the obvious, which is that each word is not an indivisible unit. The mind isn't a blank slate, but it isn't an overstuffed filing cabinet either. So what is Pinker's solution? He advocates the middle ground of 'conceptual semantics,' in which the meaning of our words depends on an underlying framework of basic cognitive concepts. (As Pinker admits, he owes a big debt to Kant.) The tenses of verbs, for example, are shaped by our innate sense of time. Nouns are constrained by our intuitive notions about matter, so that we naturally parcel things into two different categories, objects and substances (pebbles versus applesauce, for example, or, as Pinker puts it, 'hunks and goo'). Each material category comes with a slightly different set of grammatical rules. By looking at language from the perspective of our thoughts, Pinker demonstrates that many seemingly arbitrary aspects of speech, like that hunk and goo distinction, aren't arbitrary at all: They are byproducts of our evolved mental machinery. Pinker tries hard to make this tour of linguistic theory as readable as possible. He uses the f-word to explore the topic of transitive and intransitive verbs. He clarifies indirect speech by examining a scene from 'Tootsie,' and Lenny Bruce makes so many appearances that he should be granted a posthumous linguistic degree. But profanity from Lenny Bruce can't always compensate for the cryptic vocabulary and long list of competing 'isms. Sometimes, the payoff can be disappointing. After a long chapter on curse words — this book deserves an 'explicit content' warning — Pinker ends with the banal conclusion that swearing is 'connected with negative emotion.' I don't need conceptual semantics to tell me that. '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. Flaubert was right: 'Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.' Jonah Lehrer's first book, 'Proust Was A Neuroscientist,' was published last month." Reviewed by Jonah Lehrer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Pinker is a star, and the world of science is lucky to have him." Richard Dawkins
"The Stuff Of Thought is an excellent book, and while it may not be as groundbreaking and controversial as some of his earlier works, it is easily his most accessible and fun book to read." Dan Schneider, Monsters and Critics
"A fascinating look at how language provides a window into the deepest functioning of the human brain." Josie Glausiusz, Wired
"[A] stimulating volume....From politics to poetry, children's wonderful malapropisms to slang, Pinker's fluency in the nuances of words and syntax serves as proof of his faith in language as 'a window into human nature.'" Booklist
"A book on semantics may not sound especially enticing, but with Pinker as your guide, pondering what the meaning of 'is' is can be mesmerizing." Details
New York Times bestselling author Pinker marries two of the subjects he knows best: language and human nature. The result is a fascinating look at how words explain human nature.
The bold futurist and bestselling author explores the limitless potential of reverse-engineering the human brain
The bold futurist and author of The New York Times bestseller The Singularity Is Near explores the limitless potential of reverse-engineering the human brain.
Ray Kurzweil is arguably todayandrsquo;s most influentialandmdash;and often controversialandmdash;futurist. In How to Create a Mind, Kurzweil presents a provocative exploration of the most important project in human-machine civilizationandmdash;reverse engineering the brain to understand precisely how it works and using that knowledge to create even more intelligent machines.
Kurzweil discusses how the brain functions, how the mind emerges from the brain, and the implications of vastly increasing the powers of our intelligence in addressing the worldandrsquo;s problems. He thoughtfully examines emotional and moral intelligence and the origins of consciousness and envisions the radical possibilities of our merging with the intelligent technology we are creating.
Certain to be one of the most widely discussed and debated science books of the year, How to Create a Mind is sure to take its place alongside Kurzweilandrsquo;s previous classics.
This New York Times bestseller is an exciting and fearless investigation of language
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 popular science writers. In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker presents a fascinating look at how our words explain our nature. Considering scientific questions with examples from everyday life, The Stuff of Thought is a brilliantly crafted and highly readable work that will appeal to fans of everything from The Selfish Gene and Blink to Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
About the Author
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of psychology at Harvard University. In 2006, Time named him one of the 100 most important people in the world. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as The New York Times, Time, and Slate, and is the author of six books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate.
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