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The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker


My friend Fred (Fredcritter on LJ) sent me Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought presumably because he guessed I’d find a book about language and thought and their mutual interaction interesting. He was right. Mr. Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard, and has written several books advocating evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of the mind. Interestingly, among his credits I don’t see “linguist,” which may explain some of the problems I had with the book.

In general, I found the book consistently interesting, often insightful, but never profound. There are, to be sure, many delightful observations scattered throughout. His discussion of the legal case around the insurance payoff on the World Trade Center, which revolves around a question of semantics, is chilling and fascinating in its very ghoulishness. On the other hand, there are assertions, here and there, that make me frown and pen question marks in the margin. For example, on page 3 he says, “An event is a stretch of time.” It is? Isn’t it something that takes place in a stretch of time? I imagine sitting outdoors on a peaceful day and thinking of the last few minutes as an event. No, not really.

More significantly, he repeatedly asserts, when he discusses the creation of new words, that some individual, one person, first made it up, and it spread from there. Is that true? Isn’t it often the case that sometimes new terms are coined more or less simultaneously by several people? I might be wrong about that, but it seems plausible enough that I wish he’d spent a little time establishing his case, rather than merely repeating it.

The first hint of my more serious problem with his approach is on page 4, where he says, “The fact that rival construals of a single occurrence can trigger an extravagant court case tells us that the nature of reality does not dictate the way that reality is represented in people’s minds.” Well then, one must ask, what does? His answer is something like: the workings of the mind, in particular through language. But–isn’t it the case that our minds are part of reality? And isn’t language a part of reality? What he is doing here is creating a separation between mind and reality; rather than attempting to understand how the particular laws that govern the development of consciousness through reality have produced language that has a strong effect on how we think, he is simply separating the two; treating the mind as a given thing that emerged from–somewhere–and now sits around interpreting the world.

Now, there really are some delightful things in here. For example, his discussion of names, and the feel we get from those names, is fascinating. And he managed to explain tenses in such a way that I understood for the first time (though don’t test me on the terms like “past perfect”). And when he talks about which verbs can be used in what ways and why it excites all my writerly geekiness: We can say, “Kit threw the laptop to Reesa” and “Kit threw Reesa the laptop.” We can say, “Kit threw the laptop to the ground,” but not, “Kit threw the ground the laptop.” Interesting stuff, that I’d never considered.

But here we run into another problem that may stem from Mr. Parker not being a linguist: That is how it works in English; what about other languages? If one is going to discuss language and thought, it is terribly important to know: is this sort of distinction rare? Common? Universal? He only rarely mentions other languages. He certainly does not tell us often enough for me to know when certain sorts of verb behavior reflect universal facets of the mind, and when they reflect aspects of a particular culture. It’s even more frustrating because, in attacking certain other theories, he says things like, “If [these things were true], we should expect to see them in languages all over the world(page 78).” Well, yes; but the same thing is true of his theories, and only occasionally does he bring up other languages to support them, and then with qualifications like “most languages,” or, “nearly all languages.” On page 318, he says, “”Gender plays a role beyond the obvious fact that in almost all cultures, boys’ names can be distinguished from girls.'” Almost? Almost? In other words, there are exceptions? Or was he just afraid there might be one and so didn’t want to say all? If there are exceptions, that is interesting, and I wish to hell he’d stopped and talked about it.

Another problem with his method comes up on page 155: “But there is a crucial difference between space, time, and causality as they are represented in our minds and as they exist in reality. Our intuitions of these entities are riddled with paradoxes and inconsistencies. But reality can’t be riddled with paradoxes and inconsistencies; reality just is.” Oh? Why not? Why can’t reality be riddled with paradoxes? Can someone explain what “movement” is without describing an object that is in two places at once, or that simultaneously is and is not in a single place? Are there not aspects of reality that cannot be explained without using the square root of negative one, an obvious paradox? Indeed, the continuous creation and resolution of paradox and contradiction is the essence of reality.

And from here, unsurprisingly, he moves into Kantian philosophy–a world in which we are passive observers, and in which Kantian categories take the place of efforts to understand reality in all its constantly unfolding inter penetration and movement. On page 158 we find, “Though space, time, and causality (together with logic and substance) organize our world, the paradoxes that infect these concepts…prove they are not part of the self-consistent world, but of the not-necessarily-consistent minds.” In other words, following Kant, we once more have a strict duality: reality on one hand, mind on the other. Yet mind emerges from nowhere other than reality; is it any wonder confusion ensues?

Later, he seems to get lost in trying to figure out where the definition of a word actually resides, in the mind or in the world. My problem is with thinking that a definition “resides” somewhere, as if it were a cat that must either be in the house or outside the house. For someone as strong as he is on the subject on metaphor, I would have thought he would have examined the metaphor of a definition needing to “reside” somewhere.

All of which is not to say that there aren’t Cool Things in there. In addition to his analysis of verbs, and of tenses, there’s some really nifty stuff about dimensions–the way, for example we think of a lake as two dimensional (“under water” as opposed to “in water”), and lots of other fun bits about language. His discussion of metaphors and how we use them is quite entertaining, as is his discussion of swearing and taboo words (for example, I’m fascinated to read that when we hear a taboo word, it might actually engage a different part of our brain than non-taboo words). And now I have some vague idea of why “fuck you” is expressed as if it were a bad thing.

So, if this stuff interests you, read the book. It’s fun, and in spite of my problem with it (or maybe because of them) I’m very glad Fred sent it to me.

As I side note, I must mention something that frightened me. On page 84, we find: “Modern happyologists have confirmed that….”

Happyologists? There are happyologists? I’m living in a world where happyologists exist? I’m reminded of the punchline to an old joke: “From this he makes a living?”


Author: corwin

Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.


  1. Happyologists tries to pursue happiness by scientific means.
    Can’t they pursue happiness by doing fulfilling and fun stuff instead?

    There is an interesting article in the time magazine about happyologists.,9171,947045-1,00.html

  2. This sits right in my wheelhouse, so I’ll be back later. I was a linguistics/philosophy of language double major, and my view on Pinker comes from both directions.

    But one of my philosophy profs hated–hated–Pinker because he largely ignores the philosophy of language.

    I haven’t taken the time yet to test that.

  3. One of the great tragedies of my study of psychology (I got my B.A. a decade ago, and realizing that makes me feel ancient) was a course I was very excited to see offered, and terribly dissapointed by in its implementation: “The Psychology of Humor and Laughter.” I’m not sure if it was the absolutely most boring of the Psych courses I took, but it’s definitely in the top few. I hope the “New Happyologists” from Arphie’s link are writing books that can make that course be something interesting for modern students.

    I have more expansion on your evaluation of Pinker’s work, I think, but it will have to wait for later.

  4. Grad student in Linguistics here. Pinker isn’t a linguist. Some linguists reference him, at times. But he’s popsci. He’s fluff. He’s gearing for an audience that he assumes wants the easy way out. And those sweeping statements are just shoddy science. He’s gotten worse over time, I think.

  5. CJ: Gotcha. Pinker: out.
    I’ll probably read the remainder of Words and Rules anyway.

  6. One tiny bit of that to comment on: I would say an event is a region of space-time.

    Obviously time by itself is unsatisfactory. Of course my definition isn’t really strong enough either; I was tempted to add the word “localized” — but I think for example a galactic explosion could be described as an event, and such a thing is vast in both time and space.

    The definition is also not strong enough in connotation, because we usually think of an event as an atomic, or at least as a logically coherent thing, but coherence is in the eye of the beholder, so I can’t specify anything better than my original, really.

    Of course Webster 1913 says “That which comes, arrives, or happens; that which falls out; any incident, good or bad.” — But that is really rather vague.

  7. Pinker is not a linguist – he’s a specialist in how language is actually used: observed behaviour, not theory. He tends to take a very hard-science approach to areas that tend to get a softer-science treatment. As such, he often seems to go overboard … but this, to me, is not unreasonable. If he didn’t go all the way, he’d get attacked from the other direction for being “too soft”.

    I haven’t yet read this book, but one of his earlier works, “The Language Instinct”, is one of the books I’d take with me to that desert island. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I love his work and the points of difference fascinate me even more than the common points. It sounds here as if Pinker is pretty much assuming that the reader of “The Stuff of Thought” has already read “The Language Instinct” – which covers many of the lacunae cited here. Accordingly, Pinker has made the common error of assuming you’ve already read the previous books in the series; either that, or he’s exposed himself to the accusation of leaving things out rather than risking the accusation of being repetitive.

    And attacking Pinker is very common, especially amongst specialists in related fields. I’ve spoken to a leading scientist who hates the man’s guts, because some of the implications in “The Language Instinct” did not agree with this scientist’s theories. This doesn’t make Pinker either wrong or right – challenge, assessment and testing are all part of the scientific process. The hatred isn’t supposed to be part of it, though, although it seems to have become so. Accusing someone with whom you disagree of being fluffy, bogus, or a sell-out isn’t supposed to be part of this, either, nor is accepting, untested, the opinions of experts in one field on a practitioner in another … but there’s a lot of all of it going around.

  8. Oo, one more thing.

    As I understand it, in Chinese, given names are not standardized, though there are common tendencies, e.g. words like “learned” or “wise” tend to appear in names. Given names are usually one or two characters and carry their normal meaning as words for the most part, when they are not based on foreign names.

    So while various names may have masculine or feminine connotations based on their meanings, I believe there is no rule to determine gender from the name.

  9. SKZB, if this book is up your alley, but you want more linguistics, then I think you really need to be reading Language Log, a group blog by a bunch of linguists, with a wide range of interests from actual English grammar to language and the law to the inadequacies of science reporting. Lots of cross-language comparison and other-language study, too.

  10. Teacher to student: ‘A double negative makes a positive in English and many other languages. In some languages like Russian a double negative is still a negative. But in no language does a double positive make a negative.

    Student: Yeah. Right.

  11. For a more in-depth exploration of the relationship of the mind to reality (or the body, if you will have it so), check out The Mind and the Brain or The Brain that Changes Itself. Both deal with cognitive science and neuroplasticity. The Mind and the Brain shares research with persons suffering from OCD and their attempts to change their material brains with the conscious workings of their minds and provides a quantum mechanics explanation for the reality of free will. Great stuff.

  12. Oh, names. I recently learned that most people on the island of Bali have one of about seven names, regardless of sex. The first child is Wayan or Putu, the second child is Made or Kadek, the third is Nyoman or Komang and the fourth is Ketut. If there is a fifth or more, the cycle repeats itself.

    As for Chinese, no, it’s not entirely standardized in the way English names are. However, you can generally tell male and female names apart by the types of words used in the name. Females tend to have names of flowers or certain types of complementary words. Males tend to have strong, wise and educated-referencing characters in their names.

    Plus, I understand that each generation of a family would traditionally have one of the characters of their (two-character) name the same. An example of this would be the Soong girls, two of which married leaders of China in the early 20th. Their names were Soong Ai-ling, Song Ching-ling and Soong Mei-ling. Ching-ling married Sun Yat-sen and Mei-ling married Chiang Kai-shek.

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