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

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  9,286 ratings  ·  585 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.

Now, in Th
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 to do i
Dec 15, 2008 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
Aug 03, 2008 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 28, 2014 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-educa ...more
Jan 21, 2008 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
Apr 23, 2008 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
Nov 18, 2007 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
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
This could've been shorter, but I liked a lot of the arguments presented.
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 a
Oct 16, 2007 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 way mor ...more
Feb 17, 2008 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 24, 2018 rated it liked it
Too wordy, too many examples, too much narrative, too much that is a retelling of what is known. I just couldn't find a focus, a significance, to all the interesting stuff. Readable, but not memorable. The intro. & epilogue would have been enough for me... except for all the references in the epilogue that weren't explained, but only allusions to stuff mentioned in earlier chapters. I dunno, maybe if I were less distracted I would have done better. But I really do think it's the book, not me ...more
Oct 20, 2019 rated it liked it
I've seen Steven Pinker cited in all kinds of places, and understood he’s somewhat of an authority on psychology, cognition, and other brain-related areas. So when I started "The Stuff of Thought," I anticipated getting real philosophical real quick. Instead, the entire book is not so much about thought, but about language, and what it reveals about the thoughts that produce it. So here, Pinker is much more of a lexicographer than a psychologist, although the entire subtext is about trying to un ...more
Lars Guthrie
Oct 08, 2010 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.< ...more
Feb 15, 2010 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
Jan 10, 2013 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
Todd Martin
Jul 19, 2008 rated it liked it
In The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker, noted public intellectual and linguist at MIT, "analyzes how our words relate to thoughts and to the world around us and reveals what this tells us about ourselves". So, sure … language can provide a “window into human nature”, just as the output of a computer can tell us something about the software it is running.

The question is, whether this ‘window’ is interesting.

Let’s look at an example. You can “load hay onto the wagon” and you can “load the wagon w
Ioannis Savvas
Feb 14, 2013 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
Feb 05, 2009 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. ...more
Aug 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I am disappointed that I didn't find and read this book while I was in grad school, there are some quotes that would have worked quite well for the paper I wrote on comparative naming cultures.

There, now that I have completely sounded like an arrogant elitist intellectual, I can talk about my other impressions about this book.


That's really the only thing I can say. Pinker thinks about verbs more deeply than I've ever thought about anything. I like abstract
Jun 22, 2009 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
Nov 07, 2013 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
Aug 17, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Докато четях "Предстоят ли най-добрите дни за човечеството?" се запознах по-отблизо със Стивън Пинкър и когато я приключих, реших, че задължително трябва да прочета нещо друго от него. Попаднах на "Материалът на мисълта" и реших да се насоча към нея поради това, че е на лингвистична тематика. Изключително впечатлена съм от труда на Пинкър и същевременно съм изненадана и дори леко възмутена, че неговото име не достига до студентите по филология или приложна лингвистика в нашите университети. Ако ...more
Daniel Solomon
Aug 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
Excellent book overall. Got me interested in linguistics and the intricacies of tense and aspect of verbs, also learned why the past/future perfects are so perfect (perfect comes from the Latin for completed).
Also explained some of Kant's basic ideas from the Critique of Pure Reason without a single mention of transcendental idealism.

Intellectually, the book is a good complement to Pinker's earlier 'How the Mind Works', continuing in the framework of the computational theory of
A fascinating look at language, grammar, and the way our brains process concepts.

A word to the wary: the seventh chapter holds more obscenities within its fifty pages than Hemingway's entire corpus contains. One might find the words shocking even by Tumblr standards. The profanity isn't gratuitous, of course: the chapter's focus is expletives and dysphemisms, the psychology behind them, how our brains process them, why they are used, and why their grammar differs from that of u
Jul 16, 2008 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 co
Constantino Casasbuenas
Apr 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Stuff of Thought
Steven Pinker
Penguin Books, 2008

I bought this book several years ago. In reality I don’t remember when was that. I do remember I bought it because of my follow up to Heiddeger’s “Qué Significa Pensar” (“What is called Thinking“), which I have read several times. I forgot that I had Pinker’s book in my library, until recently, when we gave as a present to my brother Javier: “The better angels of our nature”, written by Pinkert as well. Both, my brother
Esim Baykara
Lisanın insan düşüncesini nasıl etkilediğini anlatan bir kitap. Ancak İngilizce kelimeler dil bilgisi kuralları üzerinden araştırma yürüttüğü için, Türkçede benzerlikleri yakalansa da bağlantıyı kurabilmek zor oldu. Tam karşılıkları olmayan cümleler ve yorumlar kitabın keyifle okunmasını benim için engelledi.
Sep 15, 2011 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 10, 2015 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 03, 2010 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?
Kathleen Brugger
Sep 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
When I finished this book I was disappointed. I had heard so much about Steven Pinker (this is the first book of his I’ve read). I felt like I had learned very little about human nature. But as I reflected on it over the next few days, my opinion radically changed. I kept bumping into things that were illuminated by the insights in this book.

For example, I read an article about how robots are being programmed to follow some of the basic modes of human thought so they interface with humans bette
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
Aug 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: black
Steven Pinker is as close to a famous linguist as we have today (Noam Chomsky doesn't count, because he's famous for his politics, not his linguistics). He is also a clever writer, willing to think originally about deep topics, and to say unconventional things about them. Here, he more or less says that when you understand how language works, you have figured out how human thinking works. He seems to think it has a lot to do with verbs. He also spends an entire chapter (50 pages long) telling us ...more
Jimmy Ele
Feb 03, 2015 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
Jul 07, 2009 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
Funda Guzer
Kitaba 5* verme dusuncesi ile basladim Konu cok ilgincti. Gelisme Bolumu uzun tutulmus. Burda notum 4 e dustu. Ortalarini gecmekte zorlandim. Sonucu, 3 Vermeme Sebep oldu. Kendi dusuncemden farkli mantikli bir sonuc bulamadim. Bunlarin Harici kitap okunasi. Bir cok dilden ornek var. hatta turkce ve yerli dilden .sövme üzerinede bölümler var. İlginç örnekler. Okuyun .
Feb 16, 2013 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 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
Apr 25, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, non-fiction
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 int
Michael Austin
May 15, 2008 rated it liked it
I think that Steven Pinker is one of the best writers, best scientists, and best science writers currently living in America. I would recommend his books THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, HOW THE MIND WORKS, and THE BLANK SLATE to anyone. But THE STUFF OF THOUGHT has the feel of a book made up of pieces left on the cutting room floor. It doesn't really advance a coherent thesis or break new ground for the author. Rather, it contains a series of essays--some quite fascinating--that didn't really fit in any ...more
Erin Britton
May 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
In his series of books on the relationship between language and human nature Steven Pinker has revolutionised the way we think about language. In The Stuff of Thought he analyses the real meaning of words and how we use them and reveals what this use can tell us about humanity. Pinker argues that humans are "verbivores, a species that lives on words" and so, in order to understand why people do the things that they do, it is necessary to make a thorough examination of language. Explaining this t ...more
John Petrocelli
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Review: Chapters 1-2 a too much like the material in Pinker’s The Language Instinct. However, the book gets better as it continues on interesting exercises in wordplay. Pinker tries to better understand our thinking by taking a careful look at our language and how it is used and created. Interspersed with comics that make light of important points, Pinker also sprinkles chapters with the wisdom of comedians like Groucho Marx, Steven Wright and George Carlin. Chapter 5 on metaphors is particularl ...more
Nazrul Buang
Nov 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites
Just finished reading "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature" (2007) by Steven Pinker. This is a very comprehensive linguistics book that explores how the (English) language works as a medium of expression for ourselves.

Pinker not only covers the rules of the English language based on observation like a linguist, but as a cognitive scientist and evolutionary psychologist, he also explores how the language is governed by human nature, especially sociological and
Nov 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
Pinker knows how to write. How to write popular. Which means clearly and with a lot of humor. He includes comic strips, lots of jokes, most of them rather good and lots of examples from popular culture. If you talk about bribery, why not using Fargo as an example. And I love best that he expects his readers to know when he is alluding, as in nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
He starts off with 9/11 and the trial where judges have to establish whether there was one event or two. This,
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 "Jes

Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: language
A good book about language, with MANY ideas and stuff for thought.

How do children learn a language? Pinker starts the book with a long discussion on verbs in the English language. In fact, verbs and their usage is so difficult to explain in rules that it is almost impossible to have a list of those rules. Most of the correct usage of verbs is not taught in school. Even scientists have only recently started to chart the few rules they've discovered.

“A verb, then, is not ju
Fraser Kinnear
Oct 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
I've owned this book for probably 8 years, and was never able to get very far in it. I finally doubled down by listening to an abridged audiobook and then mapping the bookmarks that I took while listening to the physical pages of the copy I own. This has allowed me to instead read key passages of the book instead of slogging through every page.

I had trouble engaging with the portions of this book that focus on the minutiae of grammar, and what it tells us about ourselves. This happens to be the
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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 explorations of human nature and its relevance to language, history, morality, politics, and everyday life. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, ...more
“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?” 24 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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