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The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language: The New Science of Language and Mind (Penguin Science)
The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language: The New Science of Language and Mind (Penguin Science)
by Steven Pinker
Edition: Paperback

20 of 46 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Bookselling Instinct, 25 Oct. 2007
Begin with a title that asserts the conclusion.

Start the book by aligning the author with Chomsky in postulating an innate, universal grammar capacity. The language instinct is indeed already a done deal.

Be guided carefully through selected cases that either seem to confirm the existence of a language instinct or selected cases to discount arguments to the contary.

So do you think we have a language instinct? If so, you are ready for the next sell, the reasoning instinct. And the list of 40 or so other innate capabilities that we all may have.

And we might find the very genes that make this possible. These instincts and genes fortunately don't seem to enslave us (as being conditionable would). They make us free and creative beings. Sound like a great payoff, right?

See how how the mind creates language? By instinct. Not just any instinct, an instinct based on genes. It's all clear now, isn't it? Too deep? If not, you're ready for the actual conclusion: we all have the same mind. So, Pinker affirms, even if you can't understand a New Guinea tribesperson, you can feel comfortable as you listen to him/her that the universal grammar is at work.

We are free and we are all one. Now you don't have to go back to the ancient Greeks or earlier to get that warm message of unity.

Skinner and behaviorism get no creditin this book despite some promising steps by behaviorists with language, such as helping autistic children to speak. It seems hard to deny we have some great capacities and it seems hard to deny that we can be conditioned - being able to be conditioned seems one of our great capacities. Pinker says we are have the same mind, but in this book excludes behaviorist contribution, so I wonder what kind of sameness he has in "mind".

No one should accept this book as adequate. I expect from his credentials and his excellent writing that the author could do a lot better. A science needs to do a lot more than appeal to "instinct", "mind". "freedom" and "oneness". It certainly may seem good to acknowledge we are amazing beings: you may feel warm and cozy when you finish this book, but ask yourself how you can apply what was presented in this book. Move past feeling wonderful about the structure of language and consider how language functions - as B.F. Skinner did in "Verbal Behavior", a less accessible but more useful and scientific try at understanding what we are doing with language.

When we seem not to have many useful answers, it's dangerous to write as if it's all clear. Don't be lulled by Pinker. If you read this book, ask yourself honestly: "Do I understand now how the mind creates language? Can I even see whether the mind creates language?" But first be sure to thank your mother and father for helping you to say "Momma" and "Dada" meaningfully.

Understanding Behaviorism: Behavior, Culture, and Evolution
Understanding Behaviorism: Behavior, Culture, and Evolution
by William M. Baum
Edition: Paperback
Price: £28.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb account of why behaviorism matters, 25 Oct. 2007
Here's Behaviorism without rats: the focus is on people. And here's excellent writing on Behaviorism but not by Skinner: it's encouraging that others have emerged capable of writing engagingly about Behaviorism.

Behaviorism's basis in pragmatism is presented and grounds the entire study. That focus on what works helps makes sense of Behaviorism's emphasis on determinism. Recognition of cause and effect is necessary for any science, even one of human behavior, but that is a pragmatic necessity and hence Behaviorism need not take a position on whether determinism is ultimately true.

Another closely-related theme of Behaviorism is well-covered here, namely the dangers of mentalism. Relying on invented stories or inventing them yourself is a great way to waste years or even a lifetime. One of the big contributions of Behaviorisms is in recognizing mentalisms and providing sound alternative explanations.

Behaviorism's study of verbal behaviors including rule-governed behavior, thinking in general and problem-solving in particular are especially well introduced by Baum. Skinner's "Verbal Behavior" is about 450 pages long and may be tough going without help; Baum covers the basics of verbal behavior in about 30 pages, then uses that effectively in later discussions such as that of human relationships.

One part I found helpful was the discussion of grammar and syntax, which compares the Behaviorist understanding to that of linguists such as Chomsky, who introduce, as a Behaviorist would say, the mentalism of an innate grammar capability. The Behaviorist alternative seems plausible as does its criticism of Chomsky in this regards. This seems an excellent topic upon which to see the difference between Behaviorist and cognitive approaches. Baum notes that Behaviorism does not reject the supplementary role of some truly scientific areas that contribute to cognitive "science" such as brain science, but he sees a lasting place for Radical Behaviorism as a science of behavior.

About 40% of the book is devoted to the Behaviorist understanding of social issues such as exploitation and cultural design. This section builds faithfully on material introduced earlier in the book.

A list of books for "Further Reading" is given at the end of each chapter, each with a sentence explaining its significance. Not only Behaviorist books but also those by opposing authors are included.

This is a meaty overview, with good examples and good attention to the philosophical implications of the Behaviorist views. I expect it would be useful as a introductory text on Behaviorism or as a good way to pull together what one may have read from Skinner and other Behaviorists.

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently - And Why
The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently - And Why
by Richard E. Nisbett
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A helpful start, 25 Oct. 2007
The core of this book consists of descriptions of tests and experiments conducted to find differences between Easterners and Westerners.

Apart from a few diagrams, it's all prose. An appendix at least that summarized the tests and experiments and the differences between the behaviors of the Eastern and Western subjects would be helpful.

Nisbett's orientation is cognitive, which can be distracting from the experimental results. He seems to ignore Behaviorist input: he mentions Skinner but unfavorably, as being "a reductionist of the extreme atomic school" who "actually believed theories of any kind were inappropriate". Yet Skinner's interests such as rule-governed behavior, cultural design, and cultural survival would seem to offer some help in understanding how Easterners and Westerners came to differ.

My relationship with a Chinese friend is what drew me to this book (I'm American of English descent) and probably why I am favorably disposed to it. I've felt that my friend doesn't seem to have a self in the way I do, e.g. she says little suggesting self-analysis, but, on the other hand, often mentions what "we Chinese" do. That difference seems confirmed by Nisbett's findings, although I'm wary of such generalization.

There's little detail in the book as to how the tests/experiements were conducted (sufficient for reproducing them) or what controls were applied, so it seems one would have to trust Nisbett a good deal if one only had access to this book. There are notes and references at the end of the book, but there's no numbered footnotes, so to connect a note to its appearance on a page, you have to work backward from the notes section. This seems to be more of a "I know, let me tell you about it" kind of book than a "let me carefully demonstrate what I've found for you" kind of book.

My "self-less" friend aside, having had many Chinese and Indian coworkers, who on average seemed no more or less difficult to work with than Americans of European descent, the extent of the difference Nisbett reports do seem surprising.

It may well be, but I'm also suspicious how neatly we supposed descendents of Ancient Greek and of Ancient Chinese civilization fit into those categories. Without seeing more of the test/experiment conditions and the results, I wonder how much bias went into the construction of these tests based on assuming the Greek vs Chinese expected results.

Hopefully Nisbett has something available (or soon will have) that documents formally what has been reported in this book.

Language Learnability and Language Development
Language Learnability and Language Development
by Steven Pinker
Edition: Paperback

0 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rules of Convenience, 25 Oct. 2007
At first glance, this appeared to be a more formidable effort than "The Language Instinct", which seemed aimed at a very wide (and perhaps more credulous) audience.

However, the argument seems fairly simple:

1. A grammar can be abstracted from speech (in this case, English speech) based on observed regularities.

2. We can observe a change in a child's speech as he/she moves from simpler to more complex grammatical forms. So we can identify each such change in terms of the starting and ending forms.

3. For any such changes, we surmise the child has come up with one or more rules to enable him/her to acquire the more complex form.

The focus seems to be predominantly on the lexical and syntactical forms. Semantics seemed to be mentioned but not much of a concern here. Behaviorists, on the other hand, tend to emphasize the function of speech (although not discounting the importance of syntax).

So, as a probably very naive example, consider a child who can say "Give me the apple". Pinker may have noted that the syntax is correct but omits the use of an adjective. Skinner may be wondering whether the child's statement will be reinforced by being given an apple. Now suppose at some later time there are two apples in sight, a red one and a green one. The child now says "Give me the red apple." Pinker has never heard the child use an adjective before and notes that as a development in language acquisition. Skinner wonders if the child's statement will be reinforced by being given the red apple and may be pleased to see that child was able to request that red one.

The child's syntax, for whatever reason, was correct but it happened in service of the child's request for an apple. It's wonderful he/she was able to say it in that way, but it also seems wonderful that he/she got an apple.

In such a situation, one can really see the red apple. One can really hear the child ask for it and really see the child get it. One really heard the request. How real was the syntax? Well, it may not be explicit in the sense the child or listener are aware of it as syntax. But it may make a big difference if the syntax were wrong in that the child's request could fail. So perhaps we can say the syntax is real (and diagram it if we like). Now can we say that the rule is real that allowed the child to go from the request without the adjective to the request with the adjective. Maybe, but it seems less clear. It also seems less clear how the child made the step. Did he/she create the rule somehow using an innate langauge ability? Or did he/she imitate something he/she had heard? But what if the child had heard a request for a "green apple" and could tell what "red" was but had never heard of a "red apple". Or what if the child had heard of a "red apple".

Now I've gotten myself into trouble. Do I turn to Pinker or Skinner for the answer? Is it an either/or? Does it matter that the child wants something to eat or only that he/she is demonstrating an innate capacity for grammar?

So where did the syntax come from? Where did the rules come from? Who ate the apple?

Grammarians find grammar. Cognitive scientists find mind. One way or another, the child got the apple. Which of these does natural selection seem to favor?

Harper Perennial Modern Classics - Naked Lunch: The Restored Text
Harper Perennial Modern Classics - Naked Lunch: The Restored Text
by William Burroughs
Edition: Paperback

7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Knowing the score, 25 Oct. 2007
You don't need me to tell you this is a great book. Writing has never been this good.

But are you ready for it?

The images are out there. The style is out there. If you haven't been out there with Burroughs, you may want to start with a similar message in a more traditional form, namely his trilogy that begins with "Cities of the Red Night".

But the power is here in this book. The power of the truths about control, about desperate needs, about everything that is lurking beneath even well-structure, settled lives.

If you're studious, then after the thrill of Naked Lunch, if there is an "after Naked Lunch", you can grow your understanding of your social conditioning with Peter Handke's play "Kaspar" and with B.F.Skinner's study "Verbal Behavior" (read Skinner's "Science and Human Behavior" before "Verbal Behavior"). These are all you need to be able to stand on your own two feet. But start with Naked Lunch to get the jolt you'll need to start understanding how the control systems have you pinned down.

Heroin addiction and outlandish s*x are only small adornments in "Naked Lunch", the escapes could have been instead workaholism and fundamentalism, or reading books and writing Amazon reviews. But you probably wouldn't be drawn to a book about Amazon book reviewers. Still, Naked Lunch isn't describing anything far away. It's not "out there" after all but right in our guts. Enjoy.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 14, 2008 3:46 AM BST

Verbal Behavior
Verbal Behavior
by B. F. Skinner
Edition: Paperback

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life Changer, 25 Oct. 2007
This review is from: Verbal Behavior (Paperback)
A key finding of Radical Behavorism is the role and power of operant behavior. An importance of "Verbal Behavior" is that it suggests that operant behavior can explain much of human language and, with that, much of human thought. So with this book, Skinner could feel that his findings on operant behavior had the power to help us understand "mental" and "psychological" aspects of being human that hitherto had been no better defined that a Tarot deck could do.

My only one reading so far seems quite inadequate. I had to make an effort to get through the first half, in which a lot of fundamentals are introduced. Fortunately, all the preparation paid off for me in the second half, which I found quite exciting. Much of it, oddly, given that I was struggling at times to understand, felt familiar. I thought "Yes, that's how I revise my speech, yes, that's how I think, yes that's how I adjust what I am saying with my audience in mind."

Skinner's hypothesis that thinking is a behavior (verbal and nonverbal) of the same basic kind (albeit of its own nature and complexity) as other human behavior hit me with the greatest force. It implies that, although for each of us there are private events, dualism is overcome. It may not be that we're "beyond freedom and dignity" as that we've rendered such terms obsolete - because we now we have the knowledge to do what needs doing instead of spouting empty words about it.

"Verbal Behavior" lives: for example, extending Skinner's "Verbal Behavior" work, Barry Lowenkron from California State University has added to our understanding of an area not well covered by Skinner: how a listener comprehends what is said. Lowenkron goes to great pains to provide clear examples of his finding of what he calls "joint control", which is fully based on Skinner's own findings regarding tacts and self-echoics. It can take much longer to find the truth than make up a story, but the ignorance that supports cognitive fictions is being brushed aside to be replaced by behaviorist knowledge.

How to Live Well: Secrets of Using Neurosis
How to Live Well: Secrets of Using Neurosis
by Takehisa Kora
Edition: Paperback
Price: £22.82

2.0 out of 5 stars Meandering and Mentalistic,, 25 Oct. 2007
Unfortunately, I have never received Morita therapy. However, I was lucky enough to find David Reynold's book "Constructive Living", which combines the wisdom of Morita therapy with that of another Japanese therapy, Naikan Therapy. This teaching have been of great benefit to me, so I certainly would like to see Morita Therapy more widely known and practiced.

Morita's own book, "Morita Therapy and the True Nature of Anxiety-Based Disorders" is outstanding. Reading it I could well understand why Reynolds decided to make Morita Therapy better known.

Kora's book, "How to Live Well", seems not so much a bad book as a less necessary one, given that one can read Morita or Reynolds. However, Reynolds did think enough of this book to translate it into English: hopefully, if you read it, you will find as much value in it as Reynolds did. I thought it suffered from poor organization as well as mentalism: rather than focus on behavior, as one would expect from a Morita therapist, Kora speaks of "training his will" and seems unduly concerned about attitude and confidence.

Morita's and Reynolds' teachings showed me a very practical way to get on with life. I felt freed from the speculative, mentalistic approaches of most psychologists. Somehow, despite being about Morita Therapy, Kora's "How to Live Well" reminded me a great deal of those kind of psychological views that Morita and Reynolds freed me from. There is something presumptous in Kora's tone that bothered me. Morita's teaching does seem extremely helpful, but from Kora it sounds like a panacea.

I recommend highly the books of Morita and Reynolds. I appreciate Reynolds's judgment very much and I realize Tora had a major role in carrying on Morita's work but this book didn't resonate with me at all. Thanks to Reynolds and Morita, I can live well without this book. I'm glad it wasn't the first book about Morita Therapy I encountered: I might have dismissed Morita Therapy.

Other People's Habits: How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Bring Out the Best in People Around You
Other People's Habits: How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Bring Out the Best in People Around You
by Aubrey C. Daniels
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Positive Reinforcement, 25 Oct. 2007
This is an exceptionally well-organized and clear book. Superficially, it might seem like "only" a suggestion to compliment others more often. However, what distinguishes it from self-help books that emphasize willpower and attitude is the reliance on the teachings of B.F.Skinner's radical behaviorism.

This is one of the best and few books on applying behaviorism to everyday living that I've aware of. You can read Skinner (e.g. "Science and Human Behavior" or his 3-part autobiography) to understand the scientific foundation of his approach and to get a few ideas how you can manage yourself better, but I have found it difficult to work out just how to apply the lessons of behaviorism in daily life. Advancements have been made in applications to such areas as autism and to education, but these require highly trained behavior analysts.

What Daniels has done is work out and carefully explain a straight-forward way in which anyone can apply behaviorism. His advice seems entirely consistent with Skinner, including the avoidance of punishment. Key basics of behaviorism are made simple by Daniels, who has the clearest explanation of the key behaviorist term "contingency" that I've found.

If he didn't so carefully explain how he arrives at this advice, it might seem simplistic. Just compliment? But significantly more than that, for he identifies a number of rules that must hold to effectively positive reinforce others. And because it doesn't require too many rules, it seems quite manageable. I haven't tried it much yet, but I mean to start doing so soon. I hope to succeed because I'll have the scientific power of behaviorism, the laws of nature and the apparent wisdom of Daniels supporting me and keeping it simple.

by Stanislaw Lem
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep, 25 Oct. 2007
This review is from: Solaris (Paperback)
I'd seen Tarkovsky's movie version of Solaris five times before I read Lem's novel. I enjoyed the book including the speculations of the Solarists on the nature of the ocean and also the inquiry into the amazing experiences with the ocean of the pilot Berton. The feeble efforts of the Solarists match what my efforts have been to grasp this book and Tarkovsky's movie. Perhaps Solaris leaves me feeling as Kris with Solaris' Rheya, quite out of my element but glad to be have arrived at this book.

Despite all the visual power of Tarkovsky's movie, there is still an extraordinary power of the word that Lem uses to invite us into his head: accepting that invitation turns out to have been an experience similar to Rheya's effort to go thru the door without realizing how best to open it. Hopefully our recovery powers can match hers.

Solaris [DVD]
Solaris [DVD]
Dvd ~ Natalya Bondarchuk
Offered by chaostheorymedia
Price: £28.93

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Learning one's place, 25 Oct. 2007
This review is from: Solaris [DVD] (DVD)
We find a creature who seems far more advanced than we are. Who we might like to destroy but hardly know if we can. Who can seemingly turn our minds against us. For whom we don't seem to be a priority at all. Of whom our best minds manage only feeble speculations.

I saw this movie first and only recently read Lem's story. Tarkovsky got a great start from Lem. It's difficult to compare text and movie. Tarkovsky seemed to have been reasonably faithful to the contents of the book, but added a long introduction as well as his own ending. Both works are impressive. Tarkovsky seems to linger often so a good deal of patience is a prerequisite for enjoying this film.

Now that I've read Lem's "Solaris", I'm less satisfied with Tarkovsky's "Solaris". Lem's book moved along well. Tarkovskky's added introduction (including moving up the inquiry of Burton) accomplishes little and the ending may be more explicit than is needed: hasn't Solaris already done enough to impress? On the other hand, Tarkovsky's cast is excellent (I especially enjoyed Hari and Snow) and visually the movie is a treat.

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