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

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

by Steven Pinker


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This New York Times bestseller is an exciting and fearless investigation of language from the author of Better Angels of Our Nature and The Sense of Style and Enlightenment Now.

"Curious, inventive, fearless, naughty."
—The New York Times Book Review

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 popular science writers. In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker presents a fascinating look at how our words explain our nature. Considering scientific questions with examples from everyday life, The Stuff of Thought is a brilliantly crafted and highly readable work that will appeal to fans of everything from The Selfish Gene and Blink to Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143114246
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/26/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 246,329
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family professor of Psychology and Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers. His other books include The Better Angels of our Nature and The Blank Slate.


Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

September 18, 1954

Place of Birth:

Montreal, Canada


B.A., McGill University, 1976; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1979

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Excerpted from "The Stuff of Thought"
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Copyright © 2008 Steven Pinker.
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Stuff of Thought 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 36 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would have loved a book that lived up to this book's promise. Sadly it fails. To give just three examples among hundreds: if you agree that a church cannot be hit by lightning on the steeple because a building is not sentient, you may enjoy this book. If you agree that it would not be killing a man to intentionally trap him with a mad dog resulting in the man's death, since all you would have done was 'cause him to become not alive,' this title may be a good read for you. If you don't mind the author listing the shortening of 'refrigerator' to 'fridge' as a transition to 'a single word,' you may be fine. But to me a church includes its steeple, a dog can be a weapon as truly as a dagger, and 'syllable' and 'word' (and 'morpheme') are not synonyms. Thus this book is gobbledegook to me, and I'd recommend reading something else.
skent on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An amazing look at our language, with much insight into what linguistics & semantics are all about. Pinker lets the novice become privy to what experts / academics are looking into. Witty, full of neat examples. Chapters on names, taboo words, metaphor etc.
Capfox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first linguistics book I ever read was the Language Instinct, and I've been a fan of Pinker's since then, so I was pretty excited to get another one of his books as it came out. He bills this one as a view through semantics and pragmatics to human nature, and definitely does his best to make a case for it. It's a pretty interesting walk, and not really heavy reading.Pinker looks at a variety of phenomena, such as the digital nature of time and space in human thought, the availability of certain microclasses to participate in alternations, the nature and situations of profanity in language, and the use of implicatures to save face, and says that these allow deep insights into what's going on in people's minds. I don't really dispute this, and the arguments are cogent and well presented, so it's enjoyable to go through. I have to say that a lot of it didn't come as a surprise, but the stuff that was more psychological was new, and it's synthesized well.I don't think that this is an earth-shaking book, but it's a good and interesting look at the topic, and it should be easy to understand for the layman, so if you want to get someone to have an idea of what's going on in semantics and pragmatics, this isn't a bad way to go. I'm already lending it out, so it's definitely at that level. I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A continuation of his ideas from Blank Slate and Language Instinct. Pinker argues that the way we think shapes the way we express ourselves through language. We are all born with a basic framework for time, substance (that includes number sense), space and causation which are innate in our brain and which, in turn, give us the basic framework of how we think. Then, how we think dictates how we put ideas into words, with basic notions common to all humans and specific cultures filling in the details with new concepts and words. Pinker makes interesting points about metaphors, obscenities and language games people play. Metaphors are quite ubiquitous in our communication as an expression of the spatial and causal way we think; we basically speak in them (e.g. Let's move the meeting to Friday.). Interestingly enough, we cannot completely control our reaction to swear words and profanities because we react to them (and use them alike) with the underlying, older, automatic and instinctive parts of the brain.As usual, I enjoyed Pinker's super logical way of thinking and organizing information.
Darcia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
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, exploring our use of metaphors in speech and in thought, how names arise, why we find some words more offensive than others, and why people rarely say what they really mean. If you're looking for a kind of pop culture, light read on language and thought, this probably isn't the one. If you love language and you're also interested in how the mind works, Steven Pinker will take you on a fascinating exploration.
readermom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was really interesting. The author is a professor of psychology at Harvard. He has written a number of other books about language and how it works. This one was about how language reflects how our brains work.I felt like I really learned a lot about the ordering of language. The way he groups categories of nouns, verbs, etc. according to how they are used and how they can be formed into sentences makes much more sense than the traditional ways of organizing language that you find in a prescriptive grammar, or that we all learned in school. In fact, one of my lowest grades was in my required English grammar class at BYU.I don't think I'm going to go into how cause and effect seems to be mirrored in language, and not just English, but many others. Mostly because I would have to read the book again in order to properly summarize it. So if you are interested, look this one up in your own library.There was one point I really liked. He has a chapter discussing swearing; why, how, common themes among all languages. One point he made that I had wondered about was why swearing is so forceful and unpleasant. He said that when a person swears, he forces anyone in hearing range to think about something disgusting or extremely unpleasant. It is a means of social aggression, which is why young men, in the "swagger" phase, are notorious for using it. He also said something which I have thought for a long time, but he said it so nicely: Language has often been called a weapon, and people should be mindful about where to aim it and when to fire. The common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it's worth considering how often one really wants one's audience to be reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the listener's attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener, and a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to. It's all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English lexicon.
KromesTomes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book earns quite the dubious distinction. It becomes the first one that I haven't at least skimmed through to the finish since I gave up on Ulysses about 20 years ago.The problem is simple: Pinker is a terribly "loose" writer, which is poison in a book about language, and especially one that deals with semantics. The best (worst?) example of what I mean was this sentence, which is the one that caused me to finally give up on the book: "The most successful new corporation in this century so far is Google, which made its fortune by actually selling noun phrases."In the text, Pinker italicizes "selling noun phrases," but I can't figure out how to do that here. And regardless, what I would emphasize is the word "actually." In my copy of Webster's, the word is defined as "as a matter of actual fact; really."So, what Pinker has done here is akin to when people use the word "literally" to mean "figuratively" or "metaphorically." Because what Google is "actually" doing in Pinker's example is selling the right for companies to be listed at the top of a Google search page when people search for given combinations of words.Google doesn't literally own any noun phrases to sell, and the companies that pay Google don't receive any kind of ownership in anything.Turning a page or two, Pinker then starts a discussion about what he calls "count nouns" and "mass nouns." According to him we can "pluralize count nouns (two pebbles) but not mass nouns (*two gravels)."(In the original, the material in the parentheses is in itals, and the asterisk indicates a "wrong" usage.)Yet when one googles the word gravels, it's obvious that the plural IS widely in use, from book titles such as "Gems, Granites, and Gravels: Knowing and Using Rocks and Minerals" to the landscaping firm that notes "Sierra Nevada White Granite landscaping gravels create a distinct and natural contrast with your plants and other stone."Now, I've read a few of Pinker's other books, so I know he's got some interesting insights into how the brain works with language, etc., etc. But, speaking as a professional writer myself, I consider this particular book an example of what happens when you get an author who doesn't understand that good, clear writing requires just as much expertise as neuroscience.You can get away with that in some books, but not in one the very subject of which involves how people use language in the real world.
mbmackay on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Steven Pinker is such a frustrating writer. His books are crammed with original and important ideas that impress, but which are presented in such a sea of words that the content gets lost. I find myself, at the end of an absorbing chapter, not able to bring to mind the key concepts just presented. Now, if Pinker wrote more like Jared Diamond, what a joy it would be. This book is more professional and better organised than Blank Slate, but is still a near miss. What a shame. Read July 2010.
Benthamite on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Innate ideas about space, time and causality are woven into our language, so a close look at our speech can give us insight into who we are.
cabanyalblue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Steven Pinker really is an amazing writer: amazing for his ability to attract crank reviews for his books. Let¿s take KromesTomes¿s review as our example: one star, with the main (or rather the only) criticism being that Pinker is a `terribly ¿loose¿ writer¿.Now, for me, this is strange. It is easy to disagree with some of Pinker¿s ideas, as he takes a contentious stand in some of the most fundamental debates in philosophy, psychology and linguistics. His writing style is not normally so controversial ¿ for a writer who likes to tackle the big issues, his prose is unusually lucid. Most people have a stereotype of academic writing in their heads: they think it is dense and dull. Like many stereotypes, it has some truth to it ¿ many academic papers are impenetrable even to specialists in the same field. Academic writing on language, strangely enough, suffers just as much as any other field. Steven Pinker¿s writing definitely does not fall into this category ¿ he tries to engage with the reader, to stir up and maintain interest. This is definitely a good idea, as linguistics can be a little dry ¿ try Steven Ullmann¿s Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning as bedtime reading.So, Pinker uses ¿actually¿ in a way which is not recorded in Webster¿s. Well, I have news (I¿m whispering): sometimes people use words in ways which are different to those described in the dictionary. Sometimes they even use words which aren¿t even in the dictionary! Imagine that! Actually (can I say that?), this use is in my dictionary (the Oxford): ¿used to emphasize that something someone has said or done is surprising¿. Yet, this is beside the point, which is that it is not at all difficult to know exactly what Pinker meant when he wrote that sentence, just as I know what is meant by a ¿loose¿ writer. I¿m sure no native speaker of English requires a dictionary to understand it. Google doesn¿t sell noun phrases? Well, it sells to companies wishing to advertise on their search engine the right to have their ads display when certain words, usually noun phrases, are entered into the search box by a user. As I have worked on Microsoft¿s attempt to compete with Google in this arena, I know that it is common within the industry to speak of ¿buying and selling keywords¿, rather than use a two or three dozen word sentence as I¿ve just done. Not only does it save a lot of time in meetings, but this linguistic phenomenon also has a name: synecdoche. I¿m sure that one¿s in Webster¿s. One could pick holes in the English used in the review: some people would object to the comma placed inside the inverted commas in ¿selling noun phrases,¿ as this implies that it is part of the quote, or to the use of ¿but¿ at the start of a sentence. You might say this is pedantry ¿ I would agree and I apologise ¿ but picking holes in perfectly clear and understandable language (or ¿how people use language in the real world¿) is not restricted to this or the below review. Indeed, Pinker devoted a whole chapter of The Language Instinct to linguistic prescriptivism (Chapter 12 ¿ The Language Mavens). Don¿t get me started on the count nouns and mass nouns thing, as I wouldn¿t want to keep you here for another ten minutes, although it¿s, erm, actually really interesting.Have a read ¿ you¿ll enjoy it, even if you don¿t agree with it. No dictionary needed.
petterw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a truly fascinating book, really putting in perspective for me how language is a window into human nature. It is packed with facts, stories, examples and pure knowledge. There is just a bit too much of it, and some of it is too scholarly for my taste. Pinker uses too much space to explain theories he dosn't support, and the reader is left wondering why. The language itself, ironically, is at times too complicated. However, some of the chapters are true gems, lifechanging I would say...
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Angela2932ND More than 1 year ago
This book is a blend of cognitive psychology, linguistic theory, social psychology and philosophy. Pinker raises questions that address the debate of extreme nativism (words shape our thoughts) vs linguistic determinism (word concepts are innate, fundamental building blocks, set by the physical constraints of our evolved brains) and settles upon a compromise: cognitive semantics. Pinker thinks that our words are shaped by some innate concepts, like a sense of time, or space, of big vs. little, etc, and that our experiences then come into play. Although interesting, this book is very slow-moving and laborious to read. There's one section which explores our love/hate relationship with obscene expletives. Clearly, they are part of our lives, but we tend to have sets of judgment and visceral reactions to these words, which really doesn't seem quite logical. Pinker makes the logic explicit, and clarifies the "rules" we've developed regarding our swear and epithet-hurling words. This part of the book was definitely entertaining, but for the most part, this is a book most likely to appeal to a specific, limited, audience.
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RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
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.