Book Reviews the Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Allen Lane had a rather diverse and truly impressive line-up in the autumn of 2007, 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.

Another section is devoted to 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 merit 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. He also quotes 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 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 native 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 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, “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.

Allen Lane; 1st edition (27 Sep 2007), 512 pages hardback.