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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?”