Steven Pinker: The stuff of thought

August 8th, 2010

The title is too vague and not very good. The subtitle is much better: Language as a window into human nature.


Go read it!

Dry and minute at times, but very rich. Don't get discouraged by the wikipedia page, it doesn't begin to do justice to the content between the covers. Neither does Pinker's google talk where he's selling the book and gives a superficial impression of it.

A non-exhaustive feature list:

  • Why can you not interchange "give her a hand" with "give a hand to her"? Is there any logical explanation for these quirks? (Answer: yes. In fact, language is far more logical and far less arbitrary than we imagine most of the time.)
  • Linguistic determinism. Is it really true that our language/vocabulary is the language of our thoughts, and thus it can empower/limit what we are able to think? (Answer: no.)
  • Why do you say "the stars are out" when you can see them and "the lights are out" when you can't see them? (Answer: don't remember the explanation for this one, but it's a neat example, no?)

And so on. But Pinker doesn't just explain a whole bunch of riddles, he reaches deep into a whole range of topics, like how language routinely states time in terms of distance (and vice versa), how language expresses causation (and what this implies for our perception of causation) and many more such topics. In short, he does exactly what he's promised to do, he shows how language codifies our human nature.

If I never read a second book about linguistics, I still think this one will have been a pretty good choice.

:: random entries in this category ::

1 Responses to "Steven Pinker: The stuff of thought"

  1. aca says:

    I did not read this one.

    I've read

    The Blank state: the modern denial of human nature

    How the mind works

    great stuff :)