The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature Paperback – 5 Jun 2008
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Astonishingly readable (Daily Telegraph)
Perceptive, amusing and intelligent (Times)
No one writes about language as clearly as Steven Pinker, and this is his best book yet (Financial Times)
Immensely readable and stimulating. Pinker is a master at making complex ideas palatable (Independent)
Awesome ... Pinker writes lucidly and elegantly, and leavens the text with scores of perfectly judged anecdotes, jokes, cartoons and illustrations (Daily Mail)
About the Author
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the 'New York Times', 'Time' and 'Slate', and is the author of six books, including 'The Language Instinct', 'How the Mind Works' and 'The Blank Slate'.
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Top Customer Reviews
If you don't have a background in linguistics (I don't but have a keen interest) then some of the early chapters about speech parsing, which form the foundation for much to come are (by necessity) fairly technical, and might be slightly heavy going. That said, even these parts are written lucidly and attempt to make the material more accessible to a wider audience, largely with some success.
Inevitably, the most accessible parts of the book come when talking about naming (with a slight crossover with Leavitt and Dubner's excellent Freakonomics) and swearing. There's a nice little sidestep in this chapter when Pinker starts by appearing to be squeamish about introducing the words under discussion before finally laying them out in all their "glory". Another section I found interesting was his critique of some of the alternative theories of language acquisition currently in circulation, where he managed to present many of the competing ideas in as fair a way as I think he could, though it was made clear where his own standpoint was.
If you have an interest in linguistics or some of the psychology surrounding it, then I think this book is one you should have no reservations about purchasing.
Pinker has already destroyed the simplistic notion that human nature is a social phenomenon, demonstrating how much of our behaviour and psychology is a product of our genetic evolution, and therefore instinctive.
In this book, he shows how language has evolved to reflect the mental concepts we have developed to make sense of the world: that is to say, although the real world may exist 'out there', it is mediated through our senses and the brain's interpretation of the data that they send to it. The concepts relate to time and space, matter and causality - and these concepts have been woven into our language. Pinker shows how, and does so in his characteristically enthusiastic, witty fashion.
A fabulous read and an intellectual treat.
Successive chapters look at a range of topics very familiar to philosophers who have theorised about these things without the benefit of the studies psychologists and others have carried out in recent years - do we have innate ideas and is that the source of our ability to use language? does our use of language shape our view of the world? what is our concept of causation? how does metaphor work? how do names (of individuals and natural kinds) refer to things in the world? how does swearing and obscenity work? and what about 'conversational implicature', ie how we use language in ways that make it clear what we mean without saying precisely and literally what we mean.
The treatments of these subjects are generally persuasive, though the discussion is (for all the liveliness of Pinker's style) quite complex and hard going. So: we do have thought prior to speech, we have views about causation and the nature of agency that are probably quite askew from any kind of physics (Newtonian as much as Einstein and beyond - we think instead in terms of 'agonists' and 'antagonists'), metaphors are sometimes indeed dead, sometimes alive and sometimes literary, and there are wider reasons (to do with e.g. authority relationships or membership of a community) why we might not always say precisely and squarely what we mean. And swear words don't seem to work like other locutions grammatically and are more like ejaculations - but ones that place us in a social context as much as ones that express e.g. anger and so on in parts of the brain that otherwise don't much go in for language.Read more ›
To convince us that small distinctions in language can make a real-world difference, Pinker opens with an insurance claim from the September 11, 2001 destruction of the two World Trade Center towers. The insurer had an upper limit on what they would pay for any single "event" that damaged the buildings. Was the damage caused by the single event of a terrorist attack, as claimed by the insurer? Or was it caused by the separate events of two airplane crashes, as counter-claimed by the buildings' owners? There was no clear answer in the careful legal language of the insurance contract.
There are two ways to read Pinker's book. The first is to read the whole thing, from introduction to closing paragraph. He describes the mental models we build while understanding and reasoning with language. Metaphor helps us use our concrete experience, such as the up/down distinction created by gravity, to inform more abstract dimensions such as better/worse. Pinker also explores the social dimensions that allow us to negotiate relationships while seeming to simply convey information. Having outlined the basics, Pinker turns to more entertaining aspects of language to sharpen our understanding. There is a far-ranging discussion of profanity which describes the "correct" way to swear and explains why some words are taboo.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Nearly new condition, better and preferred cover art than the picture shown.Published 1 month ago by A H Abbott
Not the simplest of journeys but very, very definitely worth taking...Published 12 months ago by Mike Pelton
Bought it as I was some way through reading my sons paperback version when he moved away from home and took it with him. Interesting thinker, is Mr Steven PinkerPublished 21 months ago by Mr. T. J. Staffell
I'm finding it tough going but learning a lot in the process. If, like me, you are fascinated with the language we speak then you'll get through it. Read morePublished on 13 Sept. 2013 by R. J. Brooker
Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought
Steven Pinker in his Preface to this examination of language function warns the reader that `the early chapters occasionally dip into... Read more
Pinker is a very clear speaker and writer and his books on language and linguistics range from ideal for the non-linguistic student/reader to definitely for the specialist. Read morePublished on 26 Aug. 2011 by RR Waller