- 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 (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 109 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #181,830 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature 1st Edition
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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 Pinkerâs 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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Top customer reviews
His task here is complex, since language is so complex, but his writing is always lucid and to the point. He takes verbs, for example, and examines the ways in which they can and cannot be used, the functions that they can and cannot serve and the forms of human reasoning which they undergird. This can be heady stuff but it reads beautifully as we watch a mind that is both rigorous and playful catch us in the act of being, quintessentially, ourselves.
He is at his best when he is pulling together the insights of linguists, evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists--something he does with ease and clarity. After he proceeds step by step and chapter by chapter he sums it all up in a concluding chapter that is a model of transparent complexity.
Although the materials are different, this book is like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, its goal being the identification of those aspects of ratiocination that are uniquely human. The difference here is that Pinker draws specifically (and extensively) on the materials of language, draws more conclusions than Kant and does so in accessible and often amusing prose.
Pinker is one of a handful of centrally-important public intellectuals in America. Don't miss his latest (and if you've missed such important, former books as The Blank Slate--you know now what to request for Christmas).
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.