Andrew's Reviews > The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
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's review
Oct 09, 10

bookshelves: scientific-nonfiction
Read in September, 2010

Steven Pinker and I should be natural enemies. He's a representative of what I consider to be the smarmy, science-precludes-all-else school of hung-up modernist reductionists, while I fly the flag of what he considers to be the wishy-washy, Nietzsche-damaged academic Left. And yet it's difficult for me not to have some respect for his project.

When he's not making potshots at relativism(s), he is generally quite lucid and charming, and throughout writes with a clear, approachable logic. By cogitating on the structure of Creole languages and the speech patterns of aphasics, he makes a very, very strong case for a universal grammar. While there are suggestions that certain features of universal aren't present in some languages, it seems to be a reasonable hypothesis. I will say, as an arch-empiricist and an arch-skeptic, that there's a very strong chance that grammatical structures quite likely have a social rather than a strictly evolutionary basis, but the idea is certainly thought-provoking. And, importantly for us moody relativists, he has convinced me (in a way that Peter Singer totally didn't) of the democratic potential of the notion of innate human nature.

I do feel that he utilizes a certain circular logic. In Pinker's view, morphemes fit into the framework of syntax, and therefore language is innate. What is a morpheme? Something that fits into the framework of syntax. Also, he largely relies on generalizations rather than universals.

Oh, and he claims signifiers are arbitrary, even in the case of onomatopoeia. And yet he tries to claim that certain signifiers are non-arbitrary because we evolved in certain ways. This is just a glaring example that implies, to me, that Pinker used his data to fit his conclusion. Bad science booohissss.

But while these problems call into question his work and method, it's still a work I have the utmost respect for, and that everyone interested in language, whether liquored-up French deconstructionist or icy positivist, needs to read.
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