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

3.88  ·  Rating Details ·  6,465 Ratings  ·  487 Reviews
New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker possesses that rare combination of scientific aptitude and verbal eloquence that enables him to provide lucid explanations of deep and powerful ideas. His previous books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Blank Slate, have catapulted him into the limelight as one of today's most important and popular science writers. ...more
Hardcover, 499 pages
Published 2007 by Viking Penguin
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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It is remarkable how much of modern thought can track its genetic heritage back to Kant. When I studied Kant at uni I was told that there was an entire school of philosophy that was formed on the basis of a poor (mis)translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into English. I always liked the idea of that.

It is also nice to hear someone talking about Kant and not talking about ‘the unknowability of the thing in itself’ – often the only bit of Kant anyone knows. One of the things Kant sought t
Jun 17, 2009 Jen rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jen by: it recommended itself, the cheek of it!
"Knowledge, then, can be dangerous because a rational mind may be compelled to use it in rational ways, allowing malevolent or careless speakers to commandeer our faculties against us. This makes the expressive power of language a mixed blessing: it lets us learn what we want to know, but it also lets us learn what we don't want to know. Language is not just a window into human nature but a fistula: an open wound through which our innards are exposed to an infectious world."

It has taken me thr
Aug 03, 2008 Jafar rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It’s hard to review this book. The book starts off to look too heavy with a long chapter on verbs. If you think verbs are simple things that are classified into transitive and intransitive, you’re in for a big surprise. The chapter is named Down the Rabbit Hole after how Alice ended up in Wonderland. And the world of verbs is quite a Wonderland. This chapter can seem a bit too technical and tedious unless you really love language. There’s a chapter about the relationship between language and int ...more
Apr 23, 2008 Alex rated it really liked it
The Stuff of Thought succeeds where his last book, The Blank Slate, failed. Here, Pinker largely abandons the heredity vs. environment debate for a discussion of the mind itself, and what role language plays in human thinking.

Drawing from Immanuel Kant, who first proposed the concept of a priori cognitive frameworks of time and space (so-called "pure intuitions") in his Critique of Pure Reason, Pinker argues that the human brain comes equipped with an innate understanding of certain fundamental
Jun 09, 2008 Justin rated it really liked it
Great expose of how the mind can be exposed through the semantics and structure of language.

I was bogged down my the technical aspects of verbs and grammar towards the beginning of the book but the second half really hit its stride as Pinker explains metaphors, the need for taboos, expletives and indirect language.

A worthwile read for those wishing to learn more about humanity and the illogical quirks that make us interesting.

Most importantly, the purpose of education is revealed. Not to conv
Jan 21, 2008 Gwen rated it did not like it
A friend gave me this book. I didn't like Pinker's other one and I don't like this one. This isn't a knee-jerk reaction from a sociologist; socio-biological explanations are generally examples of people reading their own interpretations of the social world, and how it "ought" to be, back into "history" and saying that it's natural. The arguments themselves are contradictory--men evolved to be promiscuous and sleep with any woman, except they also evolved to not sleep with ugly women. So they'll ...more
Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
Listened to this on audiobook last night/this morning after having just returned from seeing Pinker speak at UW-Madison last evening, which was excellent and a real treat for this cognitive science and evolutionary psychology nerd and huge fan of Steven Pinker. Books like this are too rich and complex to give a half-assed review of, or one where I just write clever anecdotes about my life and vaguely tie them to some idea in the book, like a blog entry beneath a book, awaiting your votes. Not th ...more
May 17, 2014 Miles rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I am a big fan of Steven Pinker. I think he's a very smart man, and a great advocate for science and reason in the public sphere. In interviews, he's witty, informed, and able to make concise points about a vast swath of intellectual topics. His book The Blank Slate had a very significant impact on me when I read it in late 2011. I had just finished a teaching credential program and was unsure about my next step in life; one of the only things I knew I wanted to do for sure was to read and self- ...more
SP seems to be a fan of reality, of the everything-is-explicable,not-a-problem type.
He is so good at what he does (explaining how come and how) that it becomes beside the point to disagree. In pointing the reader to the trap door of language theory and even holding it open, he is the perfect tour guide.Following along his inexorable logic,the reader can easily forget this, forget even his or her own position and the fact that,although the guide is especially friendly and attentive,that's all par
Feb 25, 2008 liz rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I love Steven Pinker. LOVE Steven Pinker. But I also think Linguistics is the Best Thing Ever. So I loved SP's book "The Language Instinct" (even though a lot of it was old news to me, since I was fresh off of my linguistics course), and I was super-stoked for this one. Well, the first couple of chapters were not that great. But things totally picked up after that! Once his focus widened from strictly the brain to the influence of language on culture, the type of things that were detailed became ...more
Jun 19, 2014 dini rated it really liked it
everyone else has written smart reviews so I will just say three things:

1) I found 8 typos and this made me more gleeful than I have any right to be

2) I enjoyed the entire book, but the chapters towards the end on names and profanity are much more accessible to someone who only has a passing interest in linguistics than the rest of the book. that being said, it's very possible that Pinker will make your interest grow (I could say something about nature vs. nurture here to be funny but I won't)

Feb 25, 2008 Megan rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 14, 2009 Kevan rated it really liked it
I've read a number of Pinker's books.

I very much enjoyed The Language Instinct and quite enjoyed How the Mind Works.

I read Words and Rules when living in Thailand and learning Thai. I had real problems mapping what he had to say from English to Thai. What he had to say about English and its implication for how the Mind/Language engine work simply did not seem to be true.

The Stuff of Thought seems much more solid though and I am finding it quite fascinating.

Pinker keeps saying "for English speake
Ioannis Savvas
Feb 14, 2013 Ioannis Savvas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: Γλώσσα
Ο Steven Pinker είναι γνωστός εξελικτικός γλωσσολόγος (evolutionary linguist). To The Stuff of Thought είναι το δεύτερο βιβλίο του που διαβάζω, ύστερα από το Γλωσσικό ένστικτο. Το βιβλίο είναι αυτό που λέει ο υπότιτλος: Language as a Window into Human Nature. O Pinker εξηγεί σε ένα περιεκτικό και πυκνογραμμένο κείμενο, με όρους κοινωνιολογικούς, ανθρωπολογικούς, ψυχολογικούς και κυρίως νευροφυσιολογικούς, πώς η γλώσσα αντικατοπτρίζει τον τρόπο σκέψης του ανθρώπου. Ή αντίθετα, πώς η σκέψη του ανθ ...more
Lars Guthrie
Oct 08, 2010 Lars Guthrie rated it it was ok
Science, like art, opens our eyes to what is in front of us. But unlike art, which honors transcendence and promises infinity, science measures what is observable and defines what is finite. Neuroscientists tell us that the possibilities are not limitless. The equipment we are given performs specific functions. We can adapt our brains to tasks unrelated to these functions, like reading, but this kind of ‘neuronal recycling,’ as Stanislas Dehaene calls it, still makes use of the same old brains.

Oct 01, 2011 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
If you like cognitive psychology and linguistics, you will really enjoy this book. I particularly enjoyed Pinker's discussion of metaphors and analogies and how our thoughts and our science are both limited and expanded by the metaphors we have in our language. When I finished this book, I felt a rush as though I stepped outside of my thought processes and limited ways of knowing the world momentarily and could see much broader implications for diplomacy, cross-cultural understanding, science, a ...more
Jan 14, 2015 Annelie rated it it was amazing
Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” perfectly combines science and literature to create an eye opening novel relating words to the world. Unlike his previous works, he abandons many unnecessary themes and delves deep into the beautiful science in which the mind is encapsulated, showing us what makes us cry, curse, smile, and laugh. He shows us the beauty of our beings, especially young children who learn so many things in such a short period of time. As he exposes the mind through semantics, he exp ...more
Mar 07, 2010 David rated it really liked it
I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter "Down the Rabbit Hole". I had never thought much about why certain grammatical constructions "sound OK", while others do not. Now I understand, and it is fascinating.

However, the chapter in which Pinker refutes the "nativity" hypothesis was entirely overdone. Why waste so much effort refuting an idea that is so obviously wrong?
A bit tough, but still interesting look at the relation between language and the mind as well as language's role in society. Covers a wide field of topics, with some success in pragmatics, and becomes a bit tough over analysis of verb types.
Jessica Bicking
I really always liked Pinker, though I know him mostly from interviews, talks and all sorts of commentary. What I admire him for is not as much content as it is delivery. He has such a rare aptitude for clarity when speaking. There's an exactitude in his choice of words that never leave a gap between what was meant and was said. The philosophy-reader in me appreciates that. I would hope it rubs off on his readership - that includes me now, too.

I've read How the mind works a few years back, not c
Joseph Sverker
2016: I still find his main idea in this book quite interesting and convincing, namely that the way we think is not controlled by language, but rather that language is an expression of, or a window in to, how our thinking work. It would be a little strange if it wasn't the case that our mind is constructed in a particular way in our thinking. It is perhaps more amazing that the mind works in a way that it is able to analyze itself in this intricate way. I know that Pinker argues that it is easy ...more
Jan 23, 2009 Dan rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Aspiring Linguists?
I am always hesitant to completely pan a book that is clearly written by someone vastly more intelligent than I, but in this case I would have to say that this book definitely did not work for me.

The root of my problem with this book is that the claims and synopsis printed on the cover seem to bear little relation to the actual material contained within. We are led to believe that this is a book solidly within the "popular science" category and that it will deal primarily with the concept of how
Jul 23, 2010 Frankie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stunned. I've never read a book so packed with new revelations and well-researched, referenced ideas. The text moves at breakneck speed, elucidating every corner of my pitifully thin familiarity with linguistics and logic. There are myriad illustrations, statistics and studies that support and ease readability. From describing the way children learn sentence structure, showing by their cute mistakes how infant speech can help us trace the language of time, space and causality; to the surfacing o ...more
Sarah Clement
Jun 25, 2013 Sarah Clement rated it liked it
If I were rating this book based on the first 4 chapters, it would get two stars. The rest of the book deserves 4 stars, so I'm meeting in the middle.

The first four chapters were, from my perspective, painful, drawn out descriptions of linguistics material more appropriate for a Linguistics 101 textbook than a popular book. Although sometimes these culminated in quite interesting points, Pinker often took dozens of pages to say what he could in just a few. The early chapters, in fact, contained
Jun 22, 2009 John rated it really liked it
This is a fast read book. Though I don't like Pinker's allegiance to Chomsky, I think he's great for summing up the bunches of different theories and even better at describing the problems in linguistics that people are trying to understand--excellent examples! And he has an entertaining narrative voice. My only beef was that after he spent time talking about fallacious arguments and the people who use them, he tended to attack "radical" or "extreme" versions of theories, thereby leading the rea ...more
Jimmy Ele
Sep 11, 2016 Jimmy Ele rated it really liked it
As I closed the book the walls of my mind resounded with a triumphant echo. A feeling of accomplishment overwhelmed me entirely. It was accompanied by a feeling of drained fatigue and relief at having taken on this modern linguistic tome. Steven Pinker has managed to extract from our language some of the framework of how we think. Especially enlightening were the chapters on our innate understanding of physics which do not allow certain grammatical structures to occur. Down the Rabbit Hole, Clea ...more
Darcia Helle
Nov 13, 2011 Darcia Helle rated it it was amazing
This is a difficult book to stick a rating on. Its content will no doubt appeal to a niche audience. The first half is a bit like reading the text for a college lecture. Pinker explores verbs and the way we use them, from tenses to the reasons for our various word choices in conversation. I found the information interesting but, at times, weighty and definitely not 'pleasure reading'.

The second half of this book is a much quicker, easier read. Pinker builds off the information in the first half
Jul 07, 2009 Joseph rated it it was amazing
Pinker is a true joy to read, and this book may be his best yet. He examines aspects of human language--including politeness, profanity, metaphor, and the details of word meanings--and shows how they reveal deep structure and knowledge about how our minds conceptualize the world and deal with problem solving and social interactions. As always, Pinker's writing is both smart and witty--the book is packed with scientific findings and often quite technical (though never hard to follow), and I learn ...more
Apr 24, 2016 James rated it liked it
Wasn't sure I was going to like this book as the first couple of hours in focused on a history of words, meanings, etc. Yes, things you could brag you know about that normal folks don't care hearing about. After getting through that section, I did find some value and interesting history from how language development in civilized societies.

I found the swear words chapter amusing and how decrees by the king can create words that in the future are deemed bad. Ex. 'fornication under consent of the
Anna Clifton
Feb 17, 2014 Anna Clifton rated it liked it
Pinker is fascinating (as always) and the book chalk full of thrilling anecdotes about human language. HOWEVER, and it's a big however, there's no actual thesis or argument in the whole book. Pinker basically says "Oh, look! Here are a whole bunch of really cool things about language! You're welcome." And you know what? That's pretty awesome.

But the book only gets 3 stars in my book (har har) because I want my non-fiction to be an argument supported by evidence, not evidence running willy-nilly
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Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of seven b ...more
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“Dear White Fella When I am born I’m black When I grow up I’m black When I am sick I’m black When I go out ina sun I’m black When I git cold I’m black When I git scared I’m black And when I die I’m still black. But you white fella When you’re born you’re pink When you grow up you’re white When you git sick you’re green When you go out ina sun you go red When you git cold you go blue When you git scared you’re yellow And when you die you’re grey And you got the cheek to call me coloured?” 18 likes
“One can choose to obsess over prescriptive rules, but they have no more to do with human language than the criteria for judging cats at a cat show have to do with mammalian biology.
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