three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
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Language as a Window into Human Nature

A-The Stuff of ThoughtIn The Stuff of Thought, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker continues the inquiries he posed about verbal communication in The Language Instinct (1994) and about human nature in the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Blank Slate ( 3 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003). Here, he seeks to explain how language sheds light on our thoughts, emotions, desires, and relationships, and, in turn, influences our perceptions of reality, including space and time. Pinker draws from various fields-such as physics, evolutionary psychology, neurology, and anthropology-to show how words tell who we are. But if phrases like "content-locative" and "semantic reconstrual" reveal the mind of an esoteric author at work, Pinker illuminates complex concepts with examples from popular culture-which, hopefully, all our minds can all grasp.
Viking. 512 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 0670063274

Financial Times [UK] 4 of 5 Stars
"All this sounds very theoretical, but the beauty of the book is the way these general notions are used to illuminate everyday points of usage. ... This is Steven Pinker at his best-theoretical insight combined with clear illustration and elegant research summary, presented throughout with an endearing wit and linguistic creativity which has become his hallmark." David Crystal

Irish Times [Dublin] 4 of 5 Stars
"Having previously written about the way in which the brain remembers and stores language, and how we arrive into the world with a certain amount of pre-programming, his latest book is interested in the meaning. As ever, it is a cracking read." Shane Hegarty

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker minimizes the scientific jargon as he moves nimbly through the logic of politeness, the significance of the names we give our babies and the uses of curses and obscenity. As in earlier books, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, Pinker makes the origins of human language and consciousness less puzzling and more accessible to the general reader." Kevin P. Keating

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Pinker's conclusion is an optimistic view of how words and language-based mechanisms of thinking, although prone to error, grant us at least a glimpse of the true nature of the real world, rather than just the shadowy, subjective perception afforded the prisoners in Plato's famous cave. ... Although I can't completely accept its arguments, they are invariably engaging and provocative, and the examples Pinker offers are filled with humor and fun." Douglas Hofstadter

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The majesty of Pinker's theories is only one side of the story. The other side is the modesty of how he built them. It all makes sense, when you look at it the right way." William Saletan

Observer [UK] 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It's vague, inclusive and indeterminate, allowing anything and everything language-related to gain entry to the debate. ... You can't help but admire the breadth of Pinker's inquiry, but at the same time wonder at the point." Andrew Anthony

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In a way, Pinker's books are a more indirect, entertaining and wide-ranging counterpart to the linguistics of Noam Chomsky, the sociobiology of E. O. Wilson, the defenses of Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould, and the recent anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett." David Loftus

Critical Summary

By examining our words, we can learn a lot about who we are. So argues Harvard academic and popular science writer Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought, a logical extension of his previous books. Pinker once again caters to a popular (though scientifically literate) audience, using accessible examples from jokes, Shakespeare, pop songs, and films to understand the science. One fascinating chapter explores the value of metaphors; another covers swearing (did you know that "gee whiz" is derived from "Jesus"?). A few critics tired of the myriad examples and pointed out a lack of unifying threads; others wanted more concrete answers; a couple challenged Pinker's entire thesis that language is an accurate guide to our mind. According to them, it is as if Pinker was determined to combine his broad-based, popular science acumen with his in-depth linguistics expertise-"the perfect storm" of his work. But if this book is not food for thought, then no other book of its kind is.