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

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  9,931 ratings  ·  622 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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How To Tell If You’re a Horse

I remember seeing, perhaps 30 years ago, a chart of a design for an artificial intelligence computer programme by academic engineers at a university somewhere in Texas. The chart showed an enormous logically ramifying hierarchy of various sorts of events, experiences, and actions which their computer was intended to understand. Everything that the engineers could imagine happening was included somewhere in a sort of organisational chart of existence. At the very top
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
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 taken me thr
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
Sep 07, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
DNF: Have you heard of top-down learning vs. bottom-up learning? If not, top-down learners prefer to see the big picture before the supporting details can become meaningful, whereas bottom-up learners like to build the big picture by first understanding the details. I am a top-down learner, and this book is written for the bottom-ups.

This book’s subtitle is “Language as a Window into Human Nature,” and that’s what I kept waiting for. Pinker spent a lot of time on details such as how “in a palm”
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- ...more
Laura Noggle
May 27, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2020, nonfiction
A loquacious look at language.

“Semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts, but it also about the relation of words to other human concerns. Semantics is about the relation of words to reality—the way that speakers commit themselves to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way their thoughts are anchored to things and situations in the world.”

“If adults commit adultery, do infants commit infantry? If olive oil is made from olives, what do they make baby oil from? I a vegetarian e
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
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
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
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
This could've been shorter, but I liked a lot of the arguments presented.
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 concept of how
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
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 ...more
Feb 17, 2008 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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.

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, contained
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.

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
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.

Pinker keeps saying "for English speake
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 thought, don't get me wrong, I like
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
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
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 be funny but I won't)

Larry Van Valkenburgh
Jul 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
Listened to audiobook and ordered the hardcover for in-depth read.
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
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
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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 Repu ...more

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