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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature Paperback – August 26, 2008
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Is there a difference between the meanings of these two sentences?
(1) Hal loaded hay into the wagon, and,
(2) Hal loaded the wagon with hay.
Well, Steven Pinker claims there is a difference and it's a difference that reveals something about the way the mind conceptualizes experience. That is "the stuff of thought" with which Pinker's latest book is concerned, and this "stuff," as he convincingly demonstrates, can be made accessible through a careful analysis of "the stuff of language," i.e., word categories and their syntactic habitats.
In the case of the two sentences above, we can see the human capacity to frame events in alternate ways through the dual function of verbs like "load." This verb draws attention to the hay and its movement in the first sentence, but to the transformation (a kind of metaphorical "movement") of the wagon in the second.
That children can learn the dual use of "load" and the dual conceptualizations that it entails, and distinguish this verb from others (like, say, toss) that don't work in both sentences (E.g., we don't say "Hal tossed the wagon with hay" even though we can say "Hal tossed the hay into the wagon") is evidence that distinct ways of thinking underlie our ability to master language. There are, after all, many thousands of verbs that fall into scores of different categories based on their applicability to different contexts like those involving Hal's hay in the cases above.Read more ›
The Stuff of Thought can be a little technical as well. After an introduction in the most appealing Pinker style, chapters 2 and 3, on the ways verbs imply metaphorical categories and the reasons competing language theories are wrong, are both persuasive and engaging, but only if you think about them really, really hard. I remember feeling the same way about the sentence trees and bushes early on in The Language Instinct. But the rewards for the persevering reader comes later. Should you find yourself bogging down, skip to the chapter The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, which treats the subject of George Carlin's famous monologue in a manner that is more comprehensive and penetrating (sorry), but at times equally hilarious. That should provide the fuel to travel the rest of his landscape.
The subject of this book is incredibly important and it represents the culmination of a number of themes. Pinker himself says that it completes two parallel trilogies of books he has been writing for the past ten years, and I also read this as the fulfillment of Lakoff and Johnson's brilliant 1980 book "Metaphors We Live By," which lists the fundamental ways our physical reality structures our mental constructs, as revealed by pervasive metaphors.Read more ›
Pinker cites hundreds of references, dozens of fascinating experiments, and calls on - often with great wit and brio - many entertaining examples of our language and what it really says about us. A whole chapter on "the seven words you can't use on television" shows the almost magical qualities we attach to words.
For me the most fascinating work in this book focuses on the way we speak indirectly to each other, often alluding to what we mean to say. Why say: "It would be awesome if you would pass the ketchup," when we really mean "Pass the ketchup." The answer lies in our complex social brain: and our desire to get on with others by removing the power implications of a direct order. Pinker takes his examples much deeper than this.
This is wonderful reading for people who are either fascinated by the human mind, or fascinated by our living language - or both. Five stars.
The book's central premise is that universal patterns of human thought can be adduced from common patterns observed in many natural languages. The bulk of the book is about the patterns, and the connection back to conclusions about the innateness of various ways of looking at the world sometimes takes the back burner. But what is useful about the book is that he does it in a way that is not as complex and convoluted as the previous sentence. The book is quite heavy with endnotes and references, and at times he seems to be looking to score points in a debate among academics that is going on in the background. I do not know enough about the field to understand the subplots. The net effect to me was a perhaps avoidable distraction.
I would suggest reading the last chapter (number 9) first or else after chapter 1 - it is short and sweet and lays out what he claims to have established in the rest of the book. Chapter 2 will be heavy going for those without prior exposure to formal grammars or current views of linguistics, but much of the later argument is not lost by skimming if it gives the impression of endless hair-splitting.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Just great fun to read for people who are interested in language and its complexity.Published 1 month ago by Sheng
One of the best authors on Evo Psych around. Highly recommended. I've read all of his books so many times the spines are coming loose on a few. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Arianna
The book looked older and more used up that I thought it would.Published 3 months ago by John Joson Ng
This is a book on linguistics - but not written for the linguist. It discusses pragrmatic implicatures constantly - but fails to acknowledge what they are, or Gricean theory until... Read morePublished 5 months ago by Forwhatitsworth
Pinker's written style is exceptional, and the material of the work is inherently fascinating, but this book lacks a coherent structure. Read morePublished 8 months ago by Ryan Mease
Excellent book about language acquisition theory, different from mainstream. Pretty easy read.Published 10 months ago by Karla Winick-Ford