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

3.85 of 5 stars 3.85  ·  rating details  ·  4,243 ratings  ·  426 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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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...more
Jun 17, 2009 Jen rated it 4 of 5 stars
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...more
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
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...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
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...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...more
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
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
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...more
Lars Guthrie
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.

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.
What can you even say about Steven Pinker? He's not afraid to publish big books, he is a graceful and humorous writer, he is right about basically everything (occasionally simplistic in his critiques of the humanities and criticisms of science), he recognizes and argues that, yes indeed, quantitative analysis and the use of empirical data can reveal a "human nature", and he even makes sure not to spend too long in the shower so he can save energy:

My only complaint is that he isn't a vegetarian -...more
Joseph Sverker
Now I feel compelled to write something very clever and thoughtful, but maybe that has to wait for my PhD. There are many, many interesting arguments in this book and Pinker is very successful in showing the validity of his main argument, that language is a window into human thinking and he argues well that language is not controlling human thinking in the way that Wittgenstein and the philosophical schools following him argued. However, I still don't quite understand "what" thinking is if it is...more
Jan 23, 2009 Danny rated it 2 of 5 stars 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...more
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
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...more
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
Darcia Helle
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...more
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
Steven Pinker has the gift of explaining even the most complex philosophical and linguistic puzzles in a manner most easy to understand . His writing style is lucid and elegant, rich with metaphors that make you read his sentences again and again out of sheer pleasure. Given the heavy nature of the subject, one might have allowed for a certain amount of tedium but such is the eloquence and wit of the author that he keeps even the lay reader thoroughly engaged. The initial chapter on verbs and th...more
Fascinating, funny and dazzlingly cunning contemporary science. Reveals how we mysteriously know how to organise verbs, the overwhelming prevalence of metaphor in our thinking, why neologisms fail, why names vary over time, why swearing is necessary, and crucially where our evolved view of the world falls short, leaving us vulnerable.

There's a lot here, and a couple of the end chapters feel more speculative than the confident earlier ones, but this is a mine of insight for anyone interested in t...more
Jonathan Funk
Several times when I was learning basic, Newtonian physics, I would get this feeling like "I already know this... I just didn't know how to articulate it". For instance: a ball thrown forward into the air will travel in a parabolic(ish) arc. When you lean on the wall (and it doesn't go anywhere), that's because it's pushing back on you. These are basic (if narrow) physical understandings of our world that we develop a subconscious knowledge of in our youth, that we can (later) use physics to pro...more
Jan 01, 2008 Mary rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: anyone who wants to learn what language says about how we think
I really enjoyed this book. I kept annoying my family and friends with new factoids. I learned useful things about how language illustrates limits in our thought processes, but also how it can overcome those limits. I hope I can put this to use in avoiding bad arguments, arguing against poorly thought out pseudo-science, and explaining difficult concepts to non-scientists. But even if I can't, it was still fascinating.
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?
I used to think language in some way created and limited our perception of reality, or least how we can share our thoughts. Now I think otherwise. A bit of a rough read early on, but it gets a whole lot better as you keep going. If you're interested in the connection between the brain, language, and how we live and act -- its worth a read.
Anna Clifton
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...more
Apr 01, 2009 Kate marked it as to-read
Have signed copy from Pinker's (very fun) lecture!
Fascinating if you interested in the language like me.
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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
More about Steven Pinker...
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language How the Mind Works The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Words And Rules: The Ingredients of Language (SCIENCE MASTERS)

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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?” 11 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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