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

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

Steven Pinker / Jun 16, 2019

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

  • Title: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
  • Author: Steven Pinker
  • ISBN: 9780670063277
  • Page: 431
  • Format: Hardcover
  • 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.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 Now, in The Stuff of Thought, Pinker marries two of the subjects he knows best language and human nature The result is a fascinating look at how our words explain our nature What does swearing reveal about our emotions Why does innuendo disclose something about relationships Pinker reveals how our use of prepositions and tenses taps into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and how our nouns and verbs speak to our notions of matter Even the names we give our babies have important things to say about our relations to our children and to society With his signature wit and style, Pinker takes on scientific questions like whether language affects thought, as well as forays into everyday life why is bulk e mail called spam and how do romantic comedies get such mileage out of the ambiguities of dating The Stuff of Thought is a brilliantly crafted and highly readable work that will appeal to fans of readers of everything from The Selfish Gene and Blink to Eats, Shoots Leaves.

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    About "Steven Pinker"

      • Steven Pinker

        Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science Pinker is known for his wide ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of seven books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, and most recently, The Stuff of Thought Language as a Window into Human Nature.He was born in Canada and graduated from Montreal s Dawson College in 1973 He received a bachelor s degree in experimental psychology from McGill University in 1976, and then went on to earn his doctorate in the same discipline at Harvard in 1979 He did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT for a year, then became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford University From 1982 until 2003, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Except for a one year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1995 6 As of 2008, he is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard.Pinker was named one of Time Magazine s 100 most influential people in the world in 2004 and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy s 100 top public intellectuals in 2005 He has also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Newcastle, Surrey, Tel Aviv, McGill, and the University of Troms , Norway He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, in 1998 and in 2003 In January 2005, Pinker defended Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, whose comments about the gender gap in mathematics and science angered much of the faculty On May 13th 2006, Pinker received the American Humanist Association s Humanist of the Year award for his contributions to public understanding of human evolution.In 2007, he was invited on The Colbert Report and asked under pressure to sum up how the brain works in five words Pinker answered Brain cells fire in patterns Pinker was born into the English speaking Jewish community of Montreal He has said, I was never religious in the theological sense I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew As a teenager, he says he considered himself an anarchist until he witnessed civil unrest following a police strike in 1969 His father, a trained lawyer, first worked as a traveling salesman, while his mother was first a home maker then a guidance counselor and high school vice principal He has two younger siblings His brother is a policy analyst for the Canadian government His sister, Susan Pinker, is a school psychologist and writer, author of The Sexual Paradox.Pinker married Nancy Etcoff in 1980 and they divorced 1992 he married Ilavenil Subbiah in 1995 and they too divorced His current wife is the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein He has no children.He is currently working on an upcoming book about the evolution of human morality, specifically focusing on the historical decline of violence and its psychological roots as stated by the author himself on the Harvard website.


    457 Comments

    1. 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 [...]


    2. "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 thre [...]


    3. 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 a [...]


    4. 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 [...]


    5. 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 [...]


    6. 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- [...]


    7. 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 [...]


    8. 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 [...]



    9. 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 [...]


    10. 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 [...]


    11. 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 [...]


    12. This book presented some interesting ideas on how language is shaped by the way we think, and how it enables us to think in new ways, but ultimately i found it to be too academic, like attending a long lecture by a Harvard professor, which the author is. But others may have more patience with it, especially if they don't read it while recovering from a head cold. My favorite sections talked about how new words and metaphors arise and how names come into and out of fashion, as well as how we sele [...]


    13. A bit tough, but still interesting look at the relation between language and the mind as well as language's role in society. Covers a wide field of topics, with some success in pragmatics, and becomes a bit tough over analysis of verb types.


    14. 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 brai [...]


    15. Ο Steven Pinker είναι γνωστός εξελικτικός γλωσσολόγος (evolutionary linguist). To The Stuff of Thought είναι το δεύτερο βιβλίο του που διαβάζω, ύστερα από το Γλωσσικό ένστικτο. Το βιβλίο είναι αυτό που λέει ο υπότιτλος: Language as a Window into Human Nature. O Pinker εξηγεί σε ένα περιεκτικό και πυκνογραμμένο κείμενο, με [...]


    16. 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 [...]


    17. 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 [...]


    18. 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 be2) 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) 3 [...]


    19. A fascinating look at language, grammar, and the way our brains process concepts.A word to the wary: the seventh chapter holds more obscenities within its fifty pages than Hemingway's entire corpus contains. One might find the words shocking even by Tumblr standards. The profanity isn't gratuitous, of course: the chapter's focus is expletives and dysphemisms, the psychology behind them, how our brains process them, why they are used, and why their grammar differs from that of usual language (esp [...]


    20. 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 [...]


    21. 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 [...]


    22. 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 [...]


    23. 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 “loa [...]


    24. 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 bet [...]


    25. Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” perfectly combines science and literature to create an eye opening novel relating words to the world. Unlike his previous works, he abandons many unnecessary themes and delves deep into the beautiful science in which the mind is encapsulated, showing us what makes us cry, curse, smile, and laugh. He shows us the beauty of our beings, especially young children who learn so many things in such a short period of time. As he exposes the mind through semantics, h [...]


    26. This is a difficult book to stick a rating on. Its content will no doubt appeal to a niche audience. The first half is a bit like reading the text for a college lecture. Pinker explores verbs and the way we use them, from tenses to the reasons for our various word choices in conversation. I found the information interesting but, at times, weighty and definitely not 'pleasure reading'. The second half of this book is a much quicker, easier read. Pinker builds off the information in the first half [...]


    27. Pinker is a true joy to read, and this book may be his best yet. He examines aspects of human language--including politeness, profanity, metaphor, and the details of word meanings--and shows how they reveal deep structure and knowledge about how our minds conceptualize the world and deal with problem solving and social interactions. As always, Pinker's writing is both smart and witty--the book is packed with scientific findings and often quite technical (though never hard to follow), and I learn [...]


    28. As I closed the book the walls of my mind resounded with a triumphant echo. A feeling of accomplishment overwhelmed me entirely. It was accompanied by a feeling of drained fatigue and relief at having taken on this modern linguistic tome. Steven Pinker has managed to extract from our language some of the framework of how we think. Especially enlightening were the chapters on our innate understanding of physics which do not allow certain grammatical structures to occur. Down the Rabbit Hole, Clea [...]



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