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

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 21 March 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 3, pp. 250-253.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The way we think, and think about the way we think, are central to our understanding of meaning, and by extension human identity and human nature. We usually assume that the ways in which thinking takes place, and meaning created and used, are embodied in language. By that token it seems easy to infer that language is the stuff of thought and a window into human nature.

How all this takes place is the business of this new book from MIT language and cognition researcher Steven Pinker (once of MIT and now Harvard University). Readers will know of his earlier books, and Pinker himself suggests that The Stuff of Thought not only provides a sequel to earlier books on language and mind (The Language Instinct, 1994, and Words and Rules, 1999) but also to earlier books on human nature (How the Mind Works, 1997, and The Blank Slate, 2002). Anyone, then, keen to read the next book from Pinker – and these range from academic specialists to the general reader – will be excited at this newcomer. Anticipating bestseller sales, Allen Lane have published this hardback at a competitive price, and there is also a trade paperback too (ISBN 978‐1‐846‐14050‐1, for more go to It has simultaneously been published in the USA by Viking Penguin of New York.

Pinker's arguments are well‐founded in extensive reading in the specialist literature of linguistics and cognition, psychology and decision‐making, risk and uncertainty, consciousness and philosophy. He draws widely on books and articles for his evidence and, by that token, The Stuff of Thought will provide a distinctive window in a lot of current (and not so current) thinking about thinking, language, and human nature. In the best sense, it is a book that distills and digests and, like the others, popularises ideas usually hidden away in monographs and learned journals. He ties these up with popular debate and journalism, and lays out a stall likely to tease, amuse, fascinate, and infuriate by turns readers who come to it. Reading Pinker is never boring and always an education, although his idiosyncratic approach – demotic and sesquipedalian by turns, straight filtering of expert stuff with rough‐and‐ready chutzpah – makes for a very uneven book, and one which at times is simply far too long.

It is a long book and so I hope that snapshots of how Pinker goes about his task will give readers of this review an idea of what I mean. The argument starts with 9/11 and Shakespeare and how we use words to make meaning. Words help us deal with reality, with emotions, with social relationships. How we learn language as children is still remarkable. Words mean so many things, often at once, change in context, derive from and shape conceptual structures, represent causal and intentional connections between events, can take innumerable erroneous forms, can be evasively passive, and reify concepts of space and time. Perhaps language, and perhaps concepts (some distinction is always useful), are innate: a point that leads Pinker to rehearse some of the most influential theories of language and thought – Fodor's nativism (concepts are innate), the polysemy of pragmatics (language arises in context – a sad movie, a fast date, a white fella, from wordplay) and linguistic determinism (how they speak shapes how they think and live, giving Pinker the chance to discuss the Whorfian hypothesis). These ideas and approaches are highly relevant to any formal study of language and meaning, convince some or even most of the time, and are well worth grappling with as a newcomer to the field. They have not gone away for more specialist readers, either, and Pinker is right to put them on the slab. He supports his evidence with references to current and recent research, all of which can be checked and pursued by way of an extensive bibliography (and which needs a good academic library).

Later chapters follow this up – by considering what Kant said about consciousness and how we think about space and time, why thinking involves categories (boys will be boys, que sera sera), how mental models use quantifiers (like more sauce and more pebbles, distinctions between continuous and discrete processes), and how understanding time entails a knowledge not just of temporality but also teleology. At times it gets quite clever – Pinker on counterfactuals, for example, plausibly post‐Humean in analysing human reasoning, controversially populist in wondering how reliably intuitive dilutions of rationalistic explanations can take us. I rather like his point that we try to make sense of events using intuitive forms of physics and find them cloudy in the moral sphere. The work of specialists like Jackendorff and Schank, Chomsky and Fodor, Spellman and Kripke lurk in the references, drawing on cognition, decision‐making, representation and semantic structures. I was pleased to see Grice's conversational structures in chapter 8 (on language games, where a case for a bit of Wittgenstein might also be made).

Two sets of ideas seem to emerge about language and meaning – that we use language in combinations or structures (syntax? logical implicatures?), not a new idea by any means but one Pinker gets across in a lively way with plenty of examples, as we have seen so far; and that we use metaphor a great deal. Again this is not a new idea, as the work of Lakoff and Gentner and others has shown. Using metaphors or analogies for, and in our ways of thinking is, Pinker argues, distinctively human: metaphors appear in everyday and in scientific language, as we ask whether the world is a stage, when we come out of the fast lane, regard love as a journey, or speak about consuming electricity. Combine combinations and metaphors and we can build up the scripts and narratives (following Schank) that enable us to function as effective cognitive beings and social animals.

Two further chapters discuss names (are names really meaning, said the philosopher) and swearing and the obscene (why we use them, why we shock and are shocked), and then on to games people play (a readable chapter on the ways in which language can be used in sarcastic and oblique ways: I was wondering if you could pass the salt, when a lady says no she means maybe, how authority and face come into play, mutual knowledge and tact). The review so far has identified several reasons why you simply should buy this book – Pinker is popular and readable, he distills lots of interesting insights into how and why we use language, he provides lots of examples, he writes wittily, and what he says about metaphors and social forms of language will make you feel more informed and even more socially adept. But surely there is a downside.

The rhetorician Quintilian in Roman times was said to have had a word for every and any aspect of language – zeugma, hysteron proteron, litotes, epanorthosis, parataxis. Impressive stuff and great for the specialist who wants a meta‐lexicon to define phenomena. There is more than a streak of Quintilian in Pinker as he struggles to explain content‐locatives and double‐object datives in a section on verb constructions, earnestly taxonomises causative and anti‐causative alternations when examining microclasses of concepts like hit and cut and break and touch, explains how basic players in causal scenarios are agonists (antagonists exert forces on them, apparently), and explores how dysphemistic (the opposite of euphemistic) some swear‐words are. The language used to examine language is a specialist one and perhaps this explains and excuses his tone. Even so it is a wordy and at times pompous book, for all its subtlety, even at times when the ideas are relatively simple. It goes on far too long and could have said everything it has to say – which, distilled down, is really interesting – in about 200 pages, not just for readers who already know the underlying ideas and theories, but especially for newcomers to the field who may drop the book into their laps from fatigue.

All that said – and this is the chocolate bar rather than the scorpion sting in the tail – The Stuff of Thought has the ability to impress and startle, offers an eclectic blend of quotable quotes from impressive and relevant experts, and is a book to dip into, like a chrestomathy: a kind of treasury, like Gringott's Bank in the Harry Potter series, where unusual objects and ideas might be found, to play with, develop, impress your friends with, and – if you are a student with a genuine interest in language, meaning and thought, or if you teach in the field, a lot of unavoidably useful ideas abound. One day all six books should be distilled down in this way and then we shall be able to take stock of Pinker's real contribution to the debate. He is right to warn us that, “left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways” (page 439): no danger of that for any reader who takes Pinker's work seriously.

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