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

3.89 avg rating
( 7,333 ratings by Goodreads )
 
9780143114246: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

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

"Curious, inventive, fearless, naughty."
-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.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Praise for The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His research on language and cognition has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the American Psychological Association, and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. He has also received several teaching awards, eight honorary doctorates, and many prizes for his nine books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. His most recent book, The Sense of Style, was a New York Times bestseller. He has been named Humanist of the Year and has been listed among Foreign Policy magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He is currently Chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary and writes frequently for The New York Times, Time, The New Republic, and other publications.

Table of Contents

Praise for THE STUFF OF THOUGHT by Steven Pinker

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Title Page

Dedication

Copyright Page

PREFACE

 

Chapter 1 - WORDS AND WORLDS

Chapter 2 - DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

Chapter 3 - FIFTY THOUSAND INNATE CONCEPTS (AND OTHER RADICAL THEORIES OF ...

Chapter 4 - CLEAVING THE AIR

Chapter 5 - THE METAPHOR METAPHOR

Chapter 6 - WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Chapter 7 - THE SEVEN WORDS YOU CAN’T SAY ON TELEVISION

Chapter 8 - GAMES PEOPLE PLAY

Chapter 9 - ESCAPING THE CAVE

 

NOTES

REFERENCES

INDEX

For Rebecca

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street

New York, New York 10014

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2007

Published in Penguin Books 2008

Copyright © 2007 by Steven Pinker

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint excerpts from the following copyrighted works:

“This Be the Verse” from Collected Poems by Philip Larkin. Copyright © 1988, 2003 by the Estate of Philip Larkin. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC and Faber and Faber Ltd.

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris (Free Press). Copyright © 1998 by Judith Rich Harris. Reprinted with permission.

THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS HAS CATALOGED THE HARDCOVER EDITION AS FOLLOWS:

Pinker, Steven, 1954–

The stuff of thought : language as a window into human nature / Steven Pinker.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-101-20260-9

1. Language and languages—Philosophy. 2. Thought and thinking. I. Title.

P107.P548 2007

401—dc22 2007026601

While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors or for changes that occur after publication. Further, publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

PREFACE

There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will. These conceptions vary in their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic. Though these ideas are woven into language, their roots are deeper than language itself. They lay out the ground rules for how we understand our surroundings, how we assign credit and blame to our fellows, and how we negotiate our relationships with them. A close look at our speech—our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies—can therefore give us insight into who we are.

That is the premise of the book you are holding, the third in a trilogy written for a wide audience of readers who are interested in language and mind. The first, The Language Instinct, was an overview of the language faculty: everything you always wanted to know about language but were afraid to ask. A language is a way of connecting sound and meaning, and the other two books turn toward each of those spheres. Words and Rules was about the units of language, how they are stored in memory, and how they are assembled into the vast number of combinations that give language its expressive power. The Stuff of Thought is about the other side of the linkage, meaning. Its vistas include the meanings of words and constructions and the way that language is used in social settings, the topics that linguists call semantics and pragmatics.

At the same time, this volume rounds out another trilogy: three books on human nature. How the Mind Works tried to reverse-engineer the psyche in the light of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. The Blank Slate explored the concept of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. This one broaches the topic in still another way: what we can learn about our makeup from the way people put their thoughts and feelings in words.

As in my other books on language, the early chapters occasionally dip into technical topics. But I have worked hard to make them transparent, and I am confident that my subject will engage anyone with an interest in what makes us tick. Language is entwined with human life. We use it to inform and persuade, but also to threaten, to seduce, and of course to swear. It reflects the way we grasp reality, and also the image of ourselves we try to project to others, and the bonds that tie us to them. It is, I hope to convince you, a window into human nature.

 

 

In writing this book I have enjoyed the advice and support of many people, beginning with my editors, Wendy Wolf, Stefan McGrath, and Will Goodlad, and my agent, John Brockman. I have benefited tremendously from the wisdom of generous readers who reviewed the entire manuscript—Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, David Haig, David Kemmerer, Roslyn Pinker, and Barbara Spellman—and from the mavens who commented on chapters in their areas of expertise: Linda Abarbanell, Ned Block, Paul Bloom, Kate Burridge, Herbert Clark, Alan Dershowitz, Bruce Fraser, Marc Hauser, Ray Jackendoff, James Lee, Beth Levin, Peggy Li, Charles Parsons, James Pustejovsky, Lisa Randall, Harvey Silverglate, Alison Simmons, Donald Symons, J. D. Trout, Michael Ullman, Edda Weigand, and Phillip Wolff. Thanks, too, to those who answered my queries or offered suggestions: Max Bazerman, Iris Berent, Joan Bresnan, Daniel Casasanto, Susan Carey, Gennaro Chierchia, Helena Cronin, Matt Denio, Daniel Donoghue, Nicholas Epley, Michael Faber, David Feinberg, Daniel Fessler, Alan Fiske, Daniel Gilbert, Lila Gleitman, Douglas Jones, Marcy Kahan, Robert Kurzban, Gary Marcus, George Miller, Martin Nowak, Anna Papafragou, Geoffrey Pullum, S. Abbas Raza, Laurie Santos, Anne Senghas, G. Richard Tucker, Daniel Wegner, Caroline Whiting, and Angela Yu. This is the sixth book of mine that Katya Rice has agreed to copyedit, and like the others it has benefited from her style, precision, and curiosity.

I thank Ilavenil Subbiah for the many examples of subtle semantic phenomena she recorded from everyday speech, for designing the chapter ornament, and for much else besides. Thanks also to my parents, Harry and Roslyn, and to my family: Susan, Martin, Eva, Carl, Eric, Rob, Kris, Jack, David, Yael, Gabe, and Danielle. Most of all, I thank Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, my bashert, to whom this book is dedicated.

 

 

The research for this book was supported by NIH Grant HD-18381 and by the Johnstone Family Chair at Harvard University.

1

WORDS AND WORLDS

On September 11, 2001, at 8:46 A.M., a hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York. At 9:03 A.M. a second plane crashed into the south tower. The resulting infernos caused the buildings to collapse, the south tower after burning for an hour and two minutes, the north tower twenty-three minutes after that. The attacks were masterminded by Osama bin Laden, leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, who hoped to intimidate the United States into ending its military presence in Saudi Arabia and its support for Israel and to unite Muslims in preparation for a restoration of the caliphate.

9/11, as the happenings of that day are now called, stands as the most significant political and intellectual event of the twenty-first century so far. It has set off debates on a vast array of topics: how best to memorialize the dead and revitalize lower Manhattan; whether the attacks are rooted in ancient Islamic fundamentalism or modern revolutionary agitation; the role of the United States on the world stage before the attacks and in response to them; how best to balance protection against terrorism with respect for civil liberties.

But I would like to explore a lesser-known debate triggered by 9/11. Exactly how many events took place in New York on that morning in September?

It could be argued that the answer is one. The attacks on the buildings were part of a single plan conceived in the mind of one man in service of a single agenda. They unfolded within a few minutes and yards of each other, targeting the parts of a complex with a single name, design, and owner. And they launched a single chain of military and political events in their aftermath.

Or it could be argued that the answer is two. The north tower and the south tower were distinct collections of glass and steel separated by an expanse of space, and they were hit at different times and went out of existence at different times. The amateur video that showed the second plane closing in on the south tower as the north tower billowed with smoke makes the twoness unmistakable: in those horrifying moments, one event was frozen in the past, the other loomed in the future. And another occurrence on that day—a passenger mutiny that brought down a third hijacked plane before it reached its target in Washington—presents to the imagination the possibility that one tower or the other might have been spared. In each of those possible worlds a distinct event took place, so in our actual world, one might argue, there must be a pair of events as surely as one plus one equals two.

The gravity of 9/11 would seem to make this entire discussion frivolous to the point of impudence. It’s a matter of mere “semantics,” as we say, with its implication of picking nits, splitting hairs, and debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. But this book is about semantics, and I would not make a claim on your attention if I did not think that the relation of language to our inner and outer worlds was a matter of intellectual fascination and real-world importance.

Though “importance” is often hard to quantify, in this case I can put an exact value on it: three and a half billion dollars. That was the sum in dispute in a set of trials determining the insurance payout to Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center site. Silverstein held insurance policies that stipulated a maximum reimbursement for each destructive “event.” If 9/11 comprised a single event, he stood to receive three and a half billion dollars. If it comprised two events, he stood to receive seven billion. In the trials, the attorneys disputed the applicable meaning of the term event. The lawyers for the leaseholder defined it in physical terms (two collapses); those for the insurance companies defined it in mental terms (one plot). There is nothing “mere” about semantics!

Nor is the topic intellectually trifling. The 9/11 cardinality debate is not about the facts, that is, the physical events and human actions that took place that day. Admittedly, those have been contested as well: according to various conspiracy theories, the buildings were targeted by American missiles, or demolished by a controlled implosion, in a plot conceived by American neoconservatives, Israeli spies, or a cabal of psychiatrists. But aside from the kooks, most people agree on the facts. Where they differ is in the construal of those facts: how the intricate swirl of matter in space ought to be conceptualized by human minds. As we shall see, the categories in this dispute permeate the meanings of words in our language because they permeate the way we represent reality in our heads.

Semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts, but it is also about the relation of words to other human concerns. Semantics is about the relation of words to reality—the way that speakers commit themselves to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way their thoughts are anchored to things and situations in the world. It is about the relation of words to a community—how a new word, which arises in an act of creation by a single speaker, comes to evoke the same idea in the rest of a population, so people can understand one another when they use it. It is about the relation of words to emotions: the way in which words don’t just point to things but are saturated with feelings, which can endow the words with a sense of magic, taboo, and sin. And it is about words and social relations—how people use language not just to transfer ideas from head to head but to negotiate the kind of relationship they wish to have with their conversational partner.

A feature of the mind that we will repeatedly encounter in these pages is that even our most abstract concepts are understood in terms of concrete scenarios. That applies in full force to the subject matter of the book itself. In this introductory chapter I will preview some of the book’s topics with vignettes from newspapers and the Internet that can be understood only through the lens of semantics. They come from each of the worlds that connect to our words—the worlds of thought, reality, community, emotions, and social relations.

WORDS AND THOUGHTS

Let’s look at the bone of contention in the world’s most expensive debate in semantics, the three-and-a-half-billion-dollar argument over the meaning of “event.” What, exactly, is an event? An event is a stretch of time, and time, according to physicists, is a continuous variable—an inexorable cosmic flow, in Newton’s world, or a fourth dimension in a seamless hyperspace, in Einstein’s. But the human mind carv...

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

Top Search Results from the AbeBooks Marketplace

1.

Steven Pinker
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Quantity Available: > 20
Seller
BWB
(Valley Stream, NY, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Book Condition: New. Depending on your location, this item may ship from the US or UK. Bookseller Inventory # 97801431142460000000

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
9.34
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

2.

Pinker, Steven
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Quantity Available: > 20
Seller
Paperbackshop-US
(Wood Dale, IL, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description 2008. PAP. Book Condition: New. New Book. Shipped from US within 10 to 14 business days. Established seller since 2000. Bookseller Inventory # VP-9780143114246

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
8.18
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 3.08
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

3.

Pinker, Steven (Author)
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Quantity Available: > 20
Seller
INDOO
(Avenel, NJ, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Random House. Book Condition: New. Brand New. Bookseller Inventory # 0143114247

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
8.78
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 2.70
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

4.

Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker
Published by Penguin Putnam Inc, United States (2008)
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller
The Book Depository
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2008. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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 Curious, inventive, fearless, naughty. -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. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143114246

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
12.06
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

5.

Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker
Published by Penguin Putnam Inc, United States (2008)
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller
The Book Depository US
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2008. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. 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 Curious, inventive, fearless, naughty. -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. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143114246

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
12.52
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

6.

Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker
Published by Penguin Putnam Inc, United States (2008)
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Paperback Quantity Available: 10
Seller
Book Depository hard to find
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2008. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. 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 Curious, inventive, fearless, naughty. -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. Bookseller Inventory # BTE9780143114246

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
12.65
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

7.

Pinker, Steven
Published by Penguin Books (2007)
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Soft cover Quantity Available: 1
Seller
Renaissance Books
(Riverside, CA, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Books, 2007. Soft cover. Book Condition: New. ".explores how the mind works in a completely new style - by examing the way we use words." Looks at emotional impact of words, semantics, and how words mask - and unmask our comceptions of time, truth and responsibility. ix+499 pages, illustrations, notes, references, index. Published @ $16.00. Bookseller Inventory # 14231

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
11.08
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 2.31
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

8.

Pinker, Steven
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New PAPERBACK Quantity Available: > 20
Seller
Mediaoutlet12345
(Springfield, VA, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Books. PAPERBACK. Book Condition: New. 0143114247 *BRAND NEW* Ships Same Day or Next!. Bookseller Inventory # SWATI2132209009

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
10.79
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 3.08
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

9.

Steven Pinker
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller
Grand Eagle Retail
(Wilmington, DE, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. This "New York Times" bestseller is an exciting and fearless investigation of languageBestselling author Steven Pinker possesses that rare combination of scientific aptitude and .Shipping may be from multiple locations in the US or from the UK, depending on stock availability. 499 pages. 0.426. Bookseller Inventory # 9780143114246

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
15.40
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

10.

Steven Pinker
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 10: 0143114247 ISBN 13: 9780143114246
New Paperback Quantity Available: 18
Seller
BuySomeBooks
(Las Vegas, NV, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Books. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. 512 pages. Dimensions: 8.3in. x 5.4in. x 1.2in.This New York Times bestseller is an exciting and fearless investigation of language 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 booksincluding the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Blank Slatehave catapulted him into the limelight as one of todays 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 and Leaves. This item ships from multiple locations. Your book may arrive from Roseburg,OR, La Vergne,TN. Paperback. Bookseller Inventory # 9780143114246

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
12.52
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 3.05
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

There are more copies of this book

View all search results for this book