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4.0 out of 5 stars
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4.0 out of 5 stars
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
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on 8 April 2017
This was not my favourite book. Pinker makes a point once about every 40 pages, and then meanders from topic to topic in between. There are definitely interesting points throughout, but it is buried under a lot of stuff that might not feel as relevant. Read Guy Claxton's Intelligence in the flesh instead.
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on 27 August 2011
Stephen Pinker continues his career-long mission to teach the reading public about language. His focus is neither the mechanics of grammar nor the neurological structures that make language possible. Instead he describes mental processes that immediately support language such as metaphor, features that distinguish related sets of words, and the sketchily incomplete mental models we build as we interpret each other's words.

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. The discussion of the social dimension of naming ranges from generational fads to why some newly coined terms catch on and become part of the language. The long path through the book is satisfying and enjoyable.

The second approach is for the time-constrained or selective reader. In the final chapter, the author provides "...a word's-eye view of human nature, one that emerges from the phenomena of the [preceding] chapters..." This overview outlines the aspects of sensation, cognition, and social relations that shape and are shaped by language. One can read this section of the chapter in a few minutes and note which aspects are unexpected or intriguing. This subset is a guide to the most beneficial sections of the book. Not the full treatment, but still a good read.

This book is recommended for those readers looking for a better understanding of the relationship between language and thought.
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on 18 June 2009
This is a truly remarkable book. Pinker has a way of making a reader think simply about complex concepts, using a writing style that is entertaining and stimulating in itself, as well as perfectly precise. This is one of those books which can definitely change a reader's life, making it necessary to perceive life, language and social interaction in a wholly different way. At times, following the thread takes some concentration, particularly when the technical terminology of linguistic concepts must be held in memory, but this effort is always rewarding. Pinker leads us through a mind-expanding, multi-dimensional space, exploring the many relationships of language to thought and exercising those parts of the mind that we normally allow to perform routine assessments. It's possible that, after you read this book, your routine will be subtly changed and enriched, and this notion adds to the pleasure of its reading. A wonderful book!
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on 27 December 2013
Stephen Pinker's books is intended to give us a view of human nature that emerges from the study of language.

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.

These are interesting conclusions, even if you have read the musings of philosophers on all this (Pinker cites Hume and Lewis on causation; Grice on conversational implicature, Kant on the nature of knowledge, Kripke and Putnam on rigid designators, and he might cite Davidson on metaphor and self-deception). It's probably more interesting if those ideas are new to the reader, however. And I suspect it would be more interesting again if Pinker were to link up this theory to some wider questions - notably how much of a hold does our 'conscious reason' have on our behaviour (see for example the books of Jonathan Haidt) and how far is our language linked to 'slow' as opposed to 'fast' thinking?

Overall not nearly as gripping - and not nearly as revelatory about human life - as his more recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
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VINE VOICEon 23 July 2008
In all honesty, this is the first of Steven Pinker's books that I've read, coming to him roundabout through Noam Chomsky and a couple of other sources. It is a great book though, it has to be admitted, not what you would call a holiday pulp read.

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.
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on 29 August 2012
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 technical topics.' That puts it mildly, for this is such a thorough and detailed analysis of the thing that makes us human that one is tempted to use the term `exhaustive' - except that, as Pinker shows us, nothing in this world, including space, time and substance is exhaustive. Even one schooled in linguistic analysis would be sorely tested, though surely fascinated, by the author's exploration of how we acquire and use the tool that enables man to function in a world that without him makes no sense.

With over 450 pages of closely argued and abundantly illustrated verbal and diagrammatical text the casual reader will inevitably struggle to keep afloat. The 60 pages of Notes, References and Index alone bear witness to the range of Steven Pinker's research. And if Pinker is not enough, the reader is invited to delve further into language theory - alphabetically from Abarbanell to Zwicky (yes, these are, I believe, real people) via Hume, Kant and Benjamin Lee Whorf.
Mercifully, for the layman the book is replete with homely examples of language in daily use. Thus the author shows us that someone we call William Shakespeare, whatever scholarly dissenters may maintain, did write Hamlet, many other plays and 154 sonnets, that names do mean something. He concludes that names are `ways to identify unbroken chains of person-to-person transmission through time, anchored to a specific event of dubbing in the past.'

I must confess to having recourse to the occasional re-reading of sentences like the above, but then I am not accustomed to thinking much about the relation between language and thought. Language is the essential tool we take for granted, but it has a history and a future, is volatile and an essential part of everyday existence, providing not only knowledge and information, but solace and humour. In which last this book abounds, despite the high seriousness of the topic; from known witticisms to strip cartoons this book is alive with fun and games: - Mother: `Would you like a piece of toast for breakfast?' Boy: `I'd rather have a whole one, thanks.' A middle-aged couple staring at a notice: `Please don't feed the duck.' He asks her if there isn't something strange about the notice. She asks why, so he begins to explain: `Well, "Duck" is singular. It seems if you don't want people feeding ducks, you'd make it plural: "Please do not feed the -" Final frame in the cartoon: QUACK! comes a voice from the pond. Focus on the notice. `Never mind,' says the man.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 August 2011
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. This leans very much towards the latter and is not an easy read.

However, to anyone with a grounding in Vygotsky, Chomsky, post-Chomsky and early Pinker, it is a very interesting read but in "Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts", having dealt with many of them, he comments: " ... each of the radical theories about language and thought refutes one of the others in a game of rock-paper-scissors".

He also quotes Sassoon:
"Words are fools
Who follow blindly, once they get a lead.
But thoughts are kingfishers that haunt the pools
Of quiet, seldom seen".

Looking at language which would seem, by its very design, "to be a tool with well-defined and limited functionality" (P 178) he considers the limits of language, metaphor and the process of naming. In an amusing chapter, entitled "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" he looks at humanity's curse words and the taboos we build around them. (Here, I must admit to some speed reading to discover what they were!)

Finally, taking us back to Plato's cave, he discusses how language allowed us to describe the cave but also the ways in which language allowed us to venture out of it to be free from its limitations; firstly through metaphor, secondly through the combinational power of language. As a dual tool, these linguistic features by combining analogies and uniting words in new ways, allow the expression of thoughts outside our cave.

Pinker is an original thinker who uses language very clearly to elucidate itself.
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on 19 January 2008
Pinker has done it again; another book of mesmerising intelligence and very smart ideas. But be warned: this book is not easy to digest, notwithstanding the lucidity of the writing. But then it deserves to be read very closely indeed: there is so much punch and weight on almost every page.

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.
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on 25 August 2009
Steven Pinker's enthusiasm about language comes through everywhere in this book - which is a good thing, because the subject matter itself is dense and complex. This combination results in a curious reading experience: Pinker's lively style, many anecdotes and extreme lucidity pull you forward in the text, but the difficulty of the questions he raises could stump you for some time. He explores many linguistic theories in such depth that readers without a particular interest in the field may, frankly, get lost or find the book too abstract, despite Pinker's numerous attempts to ground his discussions in reality. Therefore, while this is a fine book, getAbstract recommends it primarily to patient readers who have a strong interest in language and philosophy. Bring along an open mind and a sense of humor, since Pinker explores language practices - such as obscenities and insults - that may provoke emotional responses.
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on 1 September 2009
Steven Pinker's enthusiasm about language comes through everywhere in this book - which is a good thing, because the subject matter itself is dense and complex. This combination results in a curious reading experience: Pinker's lively style, many anecdotes and extreme lucidity pull you forward in the text, but the difficulty of the questions he raises could stump you for some time. He explores many linguistic theories in such depth that readers without a particular interest in the field may, frankly, get lost or find the book too abstract, despite Pinker's numerous attempts to ground his discussions in reality. Therefore, while this is a fine book, getAbstract recommends it primarily to patient readers who have a strong interest in language and philosophy. Bring along an open mind and a sense of humor, since Pinker explores language practices - such as obscenities and insults - that may provoke emotional responses.
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