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395 of 404 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Stuff
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker

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...
Published on September 11, 2007 by Robert L. Moore

versus
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and well worth a reading but...
It should be noted that this book is primarily the follow-up of 'The Language Instinct'.
Readers who were expecting something along the lines of "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate" might encounter a slight disappointment since some chapters of the book are somehow less fun and engaging for the lay person who is not very much into linguistics.
Having said...
Published on December 13, 2007 by Goffredo Puccetti


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395 of 404 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Stuff, September 11, 2007
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker

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. Pinker believes that our ability to learn the subtle distinctions that control these and other word usages is evidence of their role as reflectors and enablers of the basic elements of human thought, elements like causality, animation, possession, time-as-space, and so on.

Pinker faces quite a challenge in bringing to life profound truths about human nature through a systematic, fine-grained analysis of mundane words like "drip" and "pour," but he succeeds admirably. This is a book that will amply reward a careful reading.

Of course some words are inherently more interesting than others, and for my money the chapter on "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" is by itself worth the price of the book. A number of features that help condemn a word to the realm of taboo are revealed here. For example, there are clear syntactic distinctions between the usually unprintable words for sex (which Pinker, I'm happy to report, audaciously prints) and their more presentable cousins, such as have sex, make love, sleep together, copulate, etc. I had never before noticed that the taboo and vulgar forms, which tend to specify physical motion, differ from the non-taboo terms in that they usually occur in a subject-verb-direct object construction (e.g., Austin shagged Vanessa). The more respectable terms lack a direct object and do not specify "a particular manner of motion or effect." Furthermore, they are semantically symmetrical, so that if Austin had sex with Vanessa, Vanessa also had sex with Austin. More fundamentally Pinker ties the cathartic effect of some swearing with "the Rage circuit, which [is]... connected with negative emotion." The Rage circuit, as part of the limbic system, is found in other animals and is associated with "a reflex in which a suddenly wounded or confined animal would erupt in a furious struggle to startle, injure and escape from a predator, often accompanied by a bloodcurdling yowl."

This is rich stuff, the drawing of a neat connection between a specific category of words and an emotional pattern linked to specific parts of the brain. This chapter also helps make sense of Tourette's syndrome and otherwise identifies swearing as "a coherent neurobiological phenomenon." Other chapters are similarly rewarding. Pinker's analysis of metaphors both expands on, and, to an extent, revises the classic works in this field by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and others.

I have some quibbles with parts of Pinker's overall model, but this is to be expected with a work so ambitious and wide-ranging. I am surprised, for example, that Pinker doesn't mention the extensive work on cognitive prototypes by such authors as Brent Berlin and Eleanor Rosch since their research seems to overlap with his.

Another point: His arguments against connectionist models of language and thought I found to be not quite convincing. Here Pinker is arguing for a genetically-based set of neural patterns to explain the complexities of language, where connectionism points to a more flexible, post-natal learning system. Pinker demonstrates that connectionism is probably not adequate to explain language learning if one assumes (as he apparently does) that learning after puberty is just as permanent as that which is learned in childhood. But such an assumption is unwarranted, and if childhood learning does have a special durability, his criticism of connectionism loses its punch.

Also, in discussing social change (part of his analysis of changing tastes in the naming of children), he cites data indicating that most disappearances such as the end of hat-wearing among men in the 1960s, were the natural outcome of a long and steadily declining trajectory for this fashion. However, there are so many distinctly abrupt social changes that can be identified in this era (including such linguistic ones as the disappearance of the basic slang term "swell" and its replacement by "cool") that this argument for gradual social change leaves me skeptical.

Naturally these are the kinds of disputable points that a book like this is bound to stir up, and that's, of course, all to the good. All in all, Pinker has succeeded, once again, in writing a book which, while effectively tackling a very knotty set of issues, manages to be both accessible and engaging. Five stars.
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133 of 141 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best writer on the subject of language, September 14, 2007
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For the verbivore, no one sets out a feast like Steven Pinker. For my money, The Language Instinct is still the best, most comprehensive, and most entertaining introduction to linguistics ever composed, and I have been waiting for more than 10 years for this book (Words and Rules was also a great book, but a little technical for my taste; I am more drawn to semantics than grammar).

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. Pinker argues convincingly that Lakoff's later work pushes the metaphorical envelope too far, but he agrees that metaphor provides key insights into thoughts and understanding. He explores the theme of how language reveals and subtly shapes the ways the human mind makes sense of the world in a comprehensive, thoughtful, and compelling manner, carrying Lakoff's initial premise to a compelling, comprehensive theory of the function of metaphor in language and thought.

The linguist S.I. Hiyakawa observed that the last thing fish would think to study would be water; as we increasingly live in a world where words impinge on our every moment of consciousness, unpacking language helps us all understand the way it reveals and shapes our mental worlds. It also helps us understand what is not up for debate, and one of Pinker's most compelling themes is the universal community of human minds revealed by language commonalities. Pinker's philosophy of language somehow makes me feel both that language reveals individual creative genius (often in unexpected speakers) and a central set of commonalities among all human minds.

As a final note, the beauty of Pinker's writing in itself is sufficient reason to read this book. As a language lover, I find it a discouraging irony that so many linguists are so poor at articulating their arguments and insights, and that so much written about language is difficult and boring to read. Pinker, while taking on complex, abstruce topics, writes with clarity, enthusiasm, and humor. Aside from Richard Lederer, he is the only linguist I know who makes me laugh regularly.

Basically,I feel about Steven Pinker approximately the way Wayne and Garth felt about Aerosmith, and I am certainly dancing happily to The Stuff of Thought. Rock on, Steve!
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45 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Language - a window to the way our minds work. Good and clear insights from Pinker., November 18, 2007
Once Steven Pinker gets over his difficult first chapter (he's hunting around trying to find first gear) this book really takes off. Pinker uses the way we structure our language, with all of its grammatical rules and foibles, as evidence of how our minds work. Thus if we accept that children don't learn grammar by rote memory, but more through induction and the creation of general rules, then we can see that the way these rules are framed are a reflection of the way we think.

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.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Stuff of Pinker, November 25, 2007
By 
Eclect (Denver, CO) - See all my reviews
Steven Pinker is a quite energetic fellow and an apparent sponge for quite a breadth of subjects and people's views. This seems not to leave a great deal of room for modesty, and he has thus created some controversy in academic circles around his thoroughness on the one hand and his penchant for publicity on the other, somewhat as Carl Sagan used to be regarded in the academic astronomical world. Aware of the controversy surrounding him, I had not looked as his earlier books. I then had the opportunity to hear him speak in public about the current work, and this experience persuaded me to have a look.

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. The interesting behavioral meat comes in chapters 7 and 8, so skip ahead to them if necessary as an alternative to abandoning the book in midcourse.

When I don't know a great deal about the central subject or premise, I tend to calibrate the author's credibility by what he tosses off that I do know something about. Thus, at the start of chapter 2 (page 25), he compares what he is setting out to do in analyzing English verb constructions with the film and book "Powers of Ten" by Charles and Ray Eames. He compares his adventure "Down the Rabbit Hole" with theirs, and implies that he is going to take us down sixteen orders of magnitude of complexity. Well, the Eames book covers 41 orders of magnitude (the sponge had a slight leak), and I think it would be generous to grant that he goes as much as two orders of detail into his analysis. (Even as much as one might be arguable.) This certainly calibrates Pinker's view of himself, but it also leads me to wonder how many of the 690 endnotes and/or what they claim to cite have been hastily slapped into place. This will matter greatly to academics, and for the rest of us should only be taken as a variant of "caveat emptor".

One curious piece of understatement comes on page 85, where he writes of an example "very much in the news" about understanding gender differences. When former Harvard president Larry Summers made his ill-fated remarks in January 2005, it was Pinker's earlier work (or at least the endnotes therein) that he felt he was citing, and Pinker came early and often to Summers' defense. That he addresses this here (and somewhat out of context) with a whimper rather than a bang is a bit curious.

Overall, then, this is an accessible book by someone who is likely to be discussed quite a ways into the future, much as his mentor and colleague Noam Chomsky has been. It is certainly worth taking a look if you have an interest in this general area.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and well worth a reading but..., December 13, 2007
It should be noted that this book is primarily the follow-up of 'The Language Instinct'.
Readers who were expecting something along the lines of "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate" might encounter a slight disappointment since some chapters of the book are somehow less fun and engaging for the lay person who is not very much into linguistics.
Having said so, it is definitely well worth a reading; Pinker punch lines are alive and kicking and at the end it is a highly informative and extremely well written book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why should anyone care about Language???, September 29, 2013
By 
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This review is from: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Paperback)
PURPOSE
In this review I intend to gush about how much I loved this book. I will first give my overall opinion of the book, then a synopsis of my two favorite chapters of the book, accompanied with some explanation of the overall style and structure of the book. I will do my best to include some useful or interesting quotes from the book, along the way.

INTRO/MY OPPINION ON WHY THIS BOOK IS IMPORTANT:
Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature is a beautiful book--easy to read yet elucidating on the most important subject of language and thought. The book is accessible, which is why I find it so appealing, but the secrets within it are not really trivial or things I could have gleaned easily from other sources. This is why I feel as though I have made an excellent purchase. Dr. Pinker did an amazing job of breaking down psycholinguistic concepts and problems. To go back to my titular question: Why should anyone care about language? I feel as though language is what ties together human beings...it is what separates us in some colossal way from other creatures, lesser creatures. Maybe it's in the type of way which would spur countries to call this or that animal intelligent--too intelligent to hunt and kill. (Dolphins, for example, are now non-human citizens of India, because they have such an advanced control of language.) Language is the vessel with which we can pack up experience and information and make it exchangeable, available, to other people. This communication, I believe, creates culture. I won't pretend to believe that I could concisely explain why I feel that is important. But: Language is important; it's what enables me to write this review, and you to read this review, to understand this review, and to hopefully make an informed decision on whether or not you should buy this book. (You should!)

STYLE AND STRUCTURE OF THIS BOOK
I purchased this book to satisfy an Intro Neuroscience course requirement, which was to read and write about a brain-related book. So, I chose this one half apathetically, wondering how anyone could describe such a book as "curious, inventive, fearless, naughty." After all, nearly any book which is readily visible in mainstream culture is a New York Times Bestseller. But I was still hopeful that the promising title and interesting cover art, showing some array of objects would prove to be an interesting read. When I first looked at the cover, I could see, its point: there are words there, the author, the title--important information-- but the shapes were shapes, and my grasp of language allowed me to call them by their names (loudspeaker, bra, bowling pin, etc.) which had associated meanings. This was a great cover, quite fitting of this most magnificent of books. I opened the book and started reading the preface. Dr. Pinker writes, "There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness..." Already, I was more and more interested in this book because there is promise of a kind of knowledge which can be mine, straight from the pen of an expert, but it isn't gated up in pretentious language. The entire book is like this. It is very inviting and any technical jargon pertaining to brain-stuff or grammar-stuff is always introduced. I wouldn't say that the author is holding the reader's hand per se, but the book is--to stress--very inviting. A lot--almost all--of the writing is very conversational and teacher-ly. For example, sentences which read like, "My plan is as follows. First I will take you on a plunge from the intergalactic perspective to the quark's -eye view...Then we will bump against..." All the time, it felt like Dr. Pinker really wanted the reader (me) to understand what he wanted to tell me. There was no rush or technical-ness to it. It would always be like the example from the book which was quoted above: First we will look at A, next we will look at B, now we will step back and reflect on what we learned, etc., etc.
The chapters of the book are, chronologically: "Words and Worlds", "Down the Rabbit Hole", "Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts (and Other Radical Theories of Language and Thought)", "Cleaving the Air", "The Metaphor Metaphor", "What's in a Name?", "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television", " Games People Play", and, "Escaping the Cave".
FIRST CHAPTER: WORDS WITHOUT WORLDS
The first sentence and page of this book discusses the events of September 11, 2001 from the perspective of a semanticist. Did two events happen on that day or did one event happen on that day (or several)? Dr. Pinker, notes that some would question his choice of discussing the semantics of such an event and quickly explains, "though `importance' is often hard to quantify, in this case I can put an exact value on it: three and a half billion dollars. That was the sum in dispute in a set of trials determining the insurance payout to Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center site. Silverstein held insurance policies that stipulated a maximum reimbursement for each destructive "event." If 9/11 comprised a single event, he stood to receive three and a half billion dollars. If it comprised two events, he stood to receive seven billion...There is nothing `mere' about semantics!"
In this way the author was able to make me completely absorbed in his book and begin explaining that semantics is bout the relation of words to thoughts, but is also about the relation of words to other human concerns. (What is an event?) The rest of this chapter delves deeper into this debate while also introducing the later chapters and the overall point of the book. Obviously, Dr. Pinker is far more capable of explaining what the point of language is. I leave you with this lengthy quote, "As we shall see, it provides the materials for scientific and literary creativity, for humor and wordplay, and for drams of social life. And it sets the stage in countless arenas of human disputation. Does stem-cell research destroy a ball of cells or an incipient human? Is the American military incursion into Iraq a case of invading a country or of liberating a country? Does abortion consist of ending a pregnancy or of killing a child?"
On the next page Pinker talks about words and reality and uses the example of President Bush starting the Iraq War and whether the way he formed his sentence was a lie or not. According to Donald Rumsfeld, it technically wasn't a lie. I found the analysis of this situation in linguistic terms, using concepts like factive verbs both informative and extremely exciting.

CHAPTER SIX: WHAT'S IN A NAME?
As a person, named Saswat, but living in the U.S., I fell in love with this book at around chapter six, "What's in a name?" Dr. Stephen Pinker begins with a captivating story on the commonness of his name and then goes into the concept of naming and the banal connotations which accompany a name. Dr. Pinker writes, "This chapter is about naming--naming babies, and naming things in general. Naming a baby is the only opportunity most people get to choose what something will be called..." This is the basic format of most of the sections of this book. Pinker starts with an interesting--cold open type--anecdote on this or that to pique the reader's interest, before going on to explain what the respective chapter will be about and delving into specific examples to better explain concepts. In this chapter the examples are numerous but he discusses Paul McCartney quite a bit and he elaborates on the first chapter where this chapter was first teased by using the concept of William Shakespeare. He talks about how while Shakespeare might not have actually existed, and that some other author might have written some or all of his plays...that work would still be Shakespearean because "falsehoods" such as this have so permeated our culture. Another example given was that if a layperson were to call a whale a "whale" and "a big fish," everyone would understand that they are still probably referring to a whale, the real thing, the large mammal. The most amazing insight of this chapter is that people have a conviction that words are shackled to real things, and a faith that other speakers in our community, past and present, share this conviction. This is what gives words, and names any kind of meaning. It is what gives us a kind of identity and without this shared appreciation for names of things, identity would crumble.
Dr. Pinker concludes this chapter, "A name seems like such a simple thing--a link between a sound and a meaning, shared in a community...And the choice of a sound connects us to society in a way that encapsulates the great contradiction in human social life: between the desire to fit in and the desire to be unique."

BRIEF SUMMARY
I paraphrased the final line of the last section, because it seems kind of counterintuitive to give away the best stuff for free. But, nearly every page of this book is just as insightful.
The following chapter, about curse words is just as--if not more--interesting than this one, but I will refrain from discussing it. The point of view taken, though, is hilarious and incredibly agreeable to my ideologies though. This book is great and I would recommend it to anyone for the reasons stated above. I imagine I might come off as very fanboy-ish but given that the subject matter of this book is language, words, and so on, I hope that this will encourage you to seek out this book. Full disclosure: I haven't read many books on language. But, I imagine nearly anyone can have some credibility when determining entertainment... I found this book extremely insightful but also masterfully written. I mean, this book was actually more entertaining (and meaningful) of a time-sink than watching any television show. On the back cover of the book someone has written in their blurb, "packed with information". This is true, but let me clarify: this information will probably also prove useful to nearly anyone. For example, the phone book is all facts, chock-full of information. But memorizing random phone numbers--that is hardly as important as better understanding language, communication, everyday speech...
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22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why doesn't a hammer 'ham'?, September 14, 2007
If waiters wait and bankers bank, why don't hammers ham? Stephen Pinker asks this question along with numerous other questions in his interesting and enlightening book "The Stuff of Thought", which focuses on the bizarre quirks of language and its interaction with human conception. He also wonders why we abbreviate things but end up making them longer (it's longer to say 'www' than 'world wide web'); why the f-bomb is considered obscene, but the word 'rape', with its vile definition, is not; and how the tautological phrase 'enough is enough' actually says anything worthwhile. The reader will be quite familiar with the bizarre quirks in the English language that Pinker brings up and they will certainly come to the same conclusion that there may be rhyme, but no reason.

Among dozens of entertaining anecdotes and studies, Pinker reveals that what we take in in language is not what we actually conceive or remember and this mismatch is the root of much of the antagonism in today's society. One study described in the book showed that we don't remember exact sentences, but we remember the gist of the idea. This leads to insight on how the human brain actually works. Pinker explains how Schankian reminding (placing a new concept in the same mental basket as previous events) is why we humans are so smart but also why language is so abstract and imperfect. The brain may be able to respond to 10,000 words, but it puts all of them in just seven basic constructions of thought, which most languages work with: basic concepts, relationships, taxonomy, spatial concepts, time line, causal relationships, and goals.

Pinker is witty, but doesn't waste time getting technical though the entire book is fairly approachable by a non-scientific mind. The book is reminiscent (Schankian?) of Stumbling on Happiness and delves deeper than another interesting book on language, Words That Work. However, there is no unifying idea and the book really just serves to sum up the oddities in our language. Despite this, the book deserves many rereads and is recommended to anyone who is interested in society, culture, psychology, or why hammers don't 'ham'.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 21st century version of Kant's "a priory" categories, December 19, 2009
By 
A. Panda (Guadalajara, Mexico) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Paperback)
Each of the chapters of the book is interesting in its own right, but the book does not really form a coherent whole. It seems as if the author had chosen randomly several linguistic and other topics that interested him and in a final chapter had tried to unite all the information contained in the various chapters to form a conclusion as to how all the topics reveal the way the human mind works.

Very interesting is the chapter relating to the meanings of verbs and the subtleties in semantics that distinguish various seemingly synonymous verbs, like pour and fill. These differences have to do with how we perceive an object as being a subject or an object (thereby determining its relative position), with intentionality or purpose, with causality and temporality, with agency (responsibility), etc. These differences in our perception modes also permeate our laws, since a clear distinction is made between intentional and accidental deeds, which is documented with several interesting examples. Most languages exhibit these semantic differences, so this probably reveals the existence of preset categories in our minds (like the "a priori" categories of Kant).

The book explains Mr. Pinker's point of view regarding opposing theories related to innate knowledge of words or concepts (nature) and absolute subjectivism (nurture). The first theory proposes that each individual is born with a concept for everything (he just needs to "discover" that he already knows the concept when required), while the second theory proposes that concepts and meaning are assigned freely by each individual to the things he encounters. In this second theory, no word could mean the same to two different people. Mr. Pinker chooses to accept a priori categories or "modes of knowing" into which and from which all our knowledge is shaped.

The chapter on "politeness", specially in the way we ask for things we want is also extremely interesting. Here some of the basic rules of efficient communication, namely truthfulness and clarity, are relegated to second term in order not to appear commanding and rude.

This is all in all a very good book, at times difficult because of its emphasis on grammar. I am looking forward to reading Mr. Pinker's other books which are seemingly more focused on their specific topics.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile, but could have been shorter, January 7, 2009
By 
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This review is from: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Paperback)
There were things I liked about "The Stuff of Thought" and things I didn't. I would have preferred the book to be shorter. I certainly could take away many profound observations. However, I don't think Pinker had to go into so many examples, although I am sure many readers will like that. Anyway, here are some important things which I will remember from the book.

1. We can learn a lot about people from the way they put together words. Pinker shows many examples.

2. What is an event? 9-11 was an event, however there were also many events which went into effecting it.

3. Words take on new meanings to reflect on how the world works.

4. Learning a language is really a remarkable process. Pinker discredits linguistic determination, that is the brain learning language to generate thinking. He asserts that thoughts effect language. Meanings are stored, not the exact combination of words which reflect them. Personally, I think both can work in parallel, when learning a language, but Pinker makes a good argument.

5. Metaphors are very important. They are an essential part of thought. "To think is to grasp a metaphor". He shows the use of metaphor in Leviticus, which makes one think even more that biblical scripture, at least the Torah, should not necessarily be taken literally, more like a living document which encourages deeper thinking especially as times change.

6. The chapter on profanity is certainly interesting. The amygdala, in the brain, is important in storing memories with emotion. Bilingual people react more to taboo words in their first language, rather than their second. Aphasia, loss of articulate language, victims retain the ability to swear. This shows more memories of thought formulas rather than rule combinations. Such swearing in Tourettes's Syndrome is called copolalia.

7. The basal ganglia in the brain, when weakened, taboo thoughts are more easily released. There is a "Rage Circuit" which runs from the amygdala to the hypothalmus - limbic circuitry.

8. Implicative language, like with sarcasm and politeness, versus direct. Hierarchical and "culture of honor" societies use politeness more.

9. Pinker brings up UN Resolution 242, about the Israeli - Palestinian situation, showing how the wording was intentionally made ambiguous, so each side could more likely agree to it. Best to get some agreement, so at least there is somewhere from which to proceed in negotiations. There again, words reflect thoughts, to often encourage further thinking.

So, the book is certainly worthwhile, despite its perhaps unnecessary length.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Still a Good Read in Spite of its Flaws, October 14, 2008
By 
Lisa Brandt (Sacramento, CA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Paperback)
I confess to being an unabashed fan of Steven Pinker's books on language (I am a multilingual life-long student of linguistics with time to read and study in retirement), which is why I bought this book.

I agree it has some serious flaws that have been mentioned in negative reviews, such as political and social beliefs intruding where they do not really belong. (Well, he's a psychologist, not a linguist, so I don't expect anything different.)

Still, the book is quite fascinating and contains some very compelling analysis. In particular, I find his dissection of political (or perhaps better, politically correct) speech of various groups to be well worth reading.

But what is most fascinating to me is the analysis of what I think of as "subconscious grammar." My personal favorite example of what Pinker is explaining here is when my Russian-born cleaning lady scares my cat with the vacuum and says "He is scary." (I answer, "No, the vacuum is scary, Tashi is scared.") What is there in our brains that figures out that "scary" is what emanates from elsewhere, but "scared" is what we feel?

Why is it that in German I would say "She came back to her home town" (even though I am not in her home town and never have been, but for her it is "homecoming"), but in English I am supposed to say "She went back to her home town" because she moved somewhere other than towards me?

For anyone fascinated by this sort of linguistic analysis, this book is valuable and interesting.

I also enjoyed the analysis of "slow evolution" -- the fact that we humans change our environment much faster than our brains can evolve to cope with current circumstances. He says nothing new and startling here, I think, but as always with Steven Pinker, his detailed examples and apt analogies make the subject matter come alive.

If, like me, you don't need the political stuff or the overly explicit analysis of cursing, just skim over that.
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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker (Paperback - August 26, 2008)
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