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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 105 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0670063277
ISBN-10: 0670063274
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bestselling Harvard psychology professor Pinker (The Blank Slate) investigates what the words we use tell us about the way we think. Language, he concludes, reflects our brain structure, which itself is innate. Similarly, the way we talk about things is rooted in, but not identical to, physical reality: human beings take the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them and package their experience into objects and events. Examining how we do this, the author summarizes and rejects such linguistic theories as extreme nativism and radical pragmatism as he tosses around terms like content-locative and semantic reconstrual that may seem daunting to general readers. But Pinker, a masterful popularizer, illuminates this specialized material with homely illustrations. The difference between drinking from a glass of beer and drinking a glass of beer, for example, shows that the mind has the power to frame a single situation in very different ways. Separate chapters explore concepts of causality, naming, swearing and politeness as the tools with which we organize the flow of raw information. Metaphor in particular, he asserts, helps us entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs. His vivid prose and down-to-earth attitude will once again attract an enthusiastic audience outside academia. (Sept.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

By examining our words, we can learn a lot about who we are. So argues Harvard academic and popular science writer Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought, a logical extension of his previous books. Pinker once again caters to a popular (though scientifically literate) audience, using accessible examples from jokes, Shakespeare, pop songs, and films to understand the science. One fascinating chapter explores the value of metaphors; another covers swearing (did you know that "gee whiz" is derived from "Jesus"?). A few critics tired of the myriad examples and pointed out a lack of unifying threads; others wanted more concrete answers; a couple challenged Pinker’s entire thesis that language is an accurate guide to our mind. According to them, it is as if Pinker was determined to combine his broad-based, popular science acumen with his in-depth linguistics expertiseâ€""the perfect storm" of his work. But if this book is not food for thought, then no other book of its kind is.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1 edition (September 11, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670063274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670063277
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.6 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #456,333 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert L. Moore on September 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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