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

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature [Kindle Edition]

Steven Pinker
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From Publishers Weekly

Bestselling Harvard psychology professor Pinker (The Blank Slate) investigates what the words we use tell us about the way we think. Language, he concludes, reflects our brain structure, which itself is innate. Similarly, the way we talk about things is rooted in, but not identical to, physical reality: human beings take the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them and package their experience into objects and events. Examining how we do this, the author summarizes and rejects such linguistic theories as extreme nativism and radical pragmatism as he tosses around terms like content-locative and semantic reconstrual that may seem daunting to general readers. But Pinker, a masterful popularizer, illuminates this specialized material with homely illustrations. The difference between drinking from a glass of beer and drinking a glass of beer, for example, shows that the mind has the power to frame a single situation in very different ways. Separate chapters explore concepts of causality, naming, swearing and politeness as the tools with which we organize the flow of raw information. Metaphor in particular, he asserts, helps us entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs. His vivid prose and down-to-earth attitude will once again attract an enthusiastic audience outside academia. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Experimental psychologist and cognitive scientist Pinker is fascinated by the symbiosis between language and thought. In this stimulating volume, a continuation of the discussion found in The Language Instinct (1994), he argues for the "real-world importance" of "the relation of language to our inner and outer worlds." Anchoring his discussion of why semantics matter to 9/11 and other momentous public events, Pinker teases apart the gap between the literal meanings of words and their elaborate connotations, which leads to fresh explanations of humor, the importance of metaphors, and the significance of swearing. Some of the most mind-expanding chapters involve the subtlest, most taken-for-granted aspects of mind, namely our sense of time, space, and causality. Drawing on philosophy, evolutionary psychology, physics, neurology, anthropology, and jokes, Pinker presents a convincing theory of conceptual semantics, itemizing the "fundamental ideas" that form the "language of thought." From politics to poetry, children's wonderful malapropisms to slang, Pinker's fluency in the nuances of words and syntax serves as proof of his faith in language as "a window into human nature." Seaman, Donna

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3 von 4 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Scharfsinnige Analyse der menschlichen Sprache 27. Dezember 2011
Format:Taschenbuch
Diese Monographie erarbeitet die Voraussetzungen, Grundstrukturen, Implikate und Konsequenzen der menschlichen Alltagssprache. Der Autor vertritt die 'konzeptuelle Semantik' und kontrastiert diese mit konkurrierenden Sprachtheorien: extremen Nativismus, radikalen Pragmatismus, linguistischen Determinismus, die er vorstellt und kritisch reflektiert.

Pinker übernimmt von Kant den Gedanken, daß unser angeborener Geistesapparat einen abstrakten Begriffsrahmen zur Verfügung stellt, der unsere Erfahrungen organisiert - Raum, Zeit, Substanz, Verursachung, Zahl und Logik. Er erläutert die Bedeutung von Namen für die Bezeichnung von Kategorien oder Arten, den Unterschied zwischen Substanzen und Objekten, die Fähigkeit, Nichtkörperliches zu objektivieren und zu quantifizieren und dadurch zum abstrakten Denken zu gelangen, die Abhängigkeit des Bewußtseins von der Zeit und deren kognitive Verräumlichung, die Schwierigkeiten des Konzeptes der Verursachung ('Kausalität') und den evolutionsbiologische 'Unterbau' der Kategorien, der im menschlichen Werkzeuggebrauch und der Fähigkeit zur sozialen Kooperation zu verorten ist.

Metaphern sind Mechanismen, die der Geist verwendet, um ansonsten unerreichbare Vorstellungen zu verstehen. Sie erklären sich aus neuronalen Primatenschaltkreisen für den Umgang mit der physikalischen und sozialen Welt und sind eine Hauptursache für die Entwicklung menschlicher Intelligenz. Der Autor stellt ausführlich Wurzeln, Wirkung, Nutzanwendung und Grenzen der Metaphernbildung vor.
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3 von 6 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen in the best Steven Pinker tradition ... 23. September 2010
Format:Taschenbuch|Verifizierter Kauf
... best Steven Pinker: well-explained, well-illustrated, fun to read, always in for a good laugh, interesting reading, science well-presented.
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4 von 17 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
1.0 von 5 Sternen Naive Psychologie 31. Mai 2011
Format:Taschenbuch
Wie in seinen anderen Büchern greift Pinker mehr oder weniger gesicherte Erkenntnisse der Sprachwissenschaft auf und überhöht sie durch eine populäre psychologische Begrifflichkeit. Besonders die "Kasustheorie" hat es ihm angetan. Wieder wird die Geschichte mit "Hal loaded the wagon with hay" und "Hal loaded hay on the wagon" erzählt.

Die unterschiedlichen Konstruktionsmöglichkeiten von pour, fill usw. werden als seltsam dargestellt, weil Pinker schon falsch umschreibt: "For example, pour, fill, and load are all ways of moving something somewhere."

Aber das stimmt gar nicht. Auch sind devour (mit Objekt) und dine (ohne Objekt) keineswegs Ausdrücke des Konzepts "essen". Eine wirkliche Bedeutungsanalyse kommt zu anderen Ergebnissen.

Zu kritisieren ist aber vor allem die naive Psychologie:

"The mind has the power to frame a single situation in very different ways." Von solchen "Kräften des Geistes" ist immer wieder die Rede. Das soll der Stand der Psychologie als Wissenschaft sein?

"When I cut an apple, I first decide to do it, then send neural impulses to my arm and hand, which in turn causees the muscles to contract (usw.)"

Wer ist denn dieses "Ich", das Nervenimpulse sendet usw.?
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5.0 von 5 Sternen Good Stuff 11. September 2007
Von Robert L. Moore - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Steven Pinker

Is there a difference between the meanings of these two sentences?

(1) Hal loaded hay into the wagon, and,

(2) Hal loaded the wagon with hay.

Well, Steven Pinker claims there is a difference and it's a difference that reveals something about the way the mind conceptualizes experience. That is "the stuff of thought" with which Pinker's latest book is concerned, and this "stuff," as he convincingly demonstrates, can be made accessible through a careful analysis of "the stuff of language," i.e., word categories and their syntactic habitats.

In the case of the two sentences above, we can see the human capacity to frame events in alternate ways through the dual function of verbs like "load." This verb draws attention to the hay and its movement in the first sentence, but to the transformation (a kind of metaphorical "movement") of the wagon in the second.

That children can learn the dual use of "load" and the dual conceptualizations that it entails, and distinguish this verb from others (like, say, toss) that don't work in both sentences (E.g., we don't say "Hal tossed the wagon with hay" even though we can say "Hal tossed the hay into the wagon") is evidence that distinct ways of thinking underlie our ability to master language. There are, after all, many thousands of verbs that fall into scores of different categories based on their applicability to different contexts like those involving Hal's hay in the cases above. Pinker believes that our ability to learn the subtle distinctions that control these and other word usages is evidence of their role as reflectors and enablers of the basic elements of human thought, elements like causality, animation, possession, time-as-space, and so on.

Pinker faces quite a challenge in bringing to life profound truths about human nature through a systematic, fine-grained analysis of mundane words like "drip" and "pour," but he succeeds admirably. This is a book that will amply reward a careful reading.

Of course some words are inherently more interesting than others, and for my money the chapter on "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" is by itself worth the price of the book. A number of features that help condemn a word to the realm of taboo are revealed here. For example, there are clear syntactic distinctions between the usually unprintable words for sex (which Pinker, I'm happy to report, audaciously prints) and their more presentable cousins, such as have sex, make love, sleep together, copulate, etc. I had never before noticed that the taboo and vulgar forms, which tend to specify physical motion, differ from the non-taboo terms in that they usually occur in a subject-verb-direct object construction (e.g., Austin shagged Vanessa). The more respectable terms lack a direct object and do not specify "a particular manner of motion or effect." Furthermore, they are semantically symmetrical, so that if Austin had sex with Vanessa, Vanessa also had sex with Austin. More fundamentally Pinker ties the cathartic effect of some swearing with "the Rage circuit, which [is]... connected with negative emotion." The Rage circuit, as part of the limbic system, is found in other animals and is associated with "a reflex in which a suddenly wounded or confined animal would erupt in a furious struggle to startle, injure and escape from a predator, often accompanied by a bloodcurdling yowl."

This is rich stuff, the drawing of a neat connection between a specific category of words and an emotional pattern linked to specific parts of the brain. This chapter also helps make sense of Tourette's syndrome and otherwise identifies swearing as "a coherent neurobiological phenomenon." Other chapters are similarly rewarding. Pinker's analysis of metaphors both expands on, and, to an extent, revises the classic works in this field by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson and others.

I have some quibbles with parts of Pinker's overall model, but this is to be expected with a work so ambitious and wide-ranging. I am surprised, for example, that Pinker doesn't mention the extensive work on cognitive prototypes by such authors as Brent Berlin and Eleanor Rosch since their research seems to overlap with his.

Another point: His arguments against connectionist models of language and thought I found to be not quite convincing. Here Pinker is arguing for a genetically-based set of neural patterns to explain the complexities of language, where connectionism points to a more flexible, post-natal learning system. Pinker demonstrates that connectionism is probably not adequate to explain language learning if one assumes (as he apparently does) that learning after puberty is just as permanent as that which is learned in childhood. But such an assumption is unwarranted, and if childhood learning does have a special durability, his criticism of connectionism loses its punch.

Also, in discussing social change (part of his analysis of changing tastes in the naming of children), he cites data indicating that most disappearances such as the end of hat-wearing among men in the 1960s, were the natural outcome of a long and steadily declining trajectory for this fashion. However, there are so many distinctly abrupt social changes that can be identified in this era (including such linguistic ones as the disappearance of the basic slang term "swell" and its replacement by "cool") that this argument for gradual social change leaves me skeptical.

Naturally these are the kinds of disputable points that a book like this is bound to stir up, and that's, of course, all to the good. All in all, Pinker has succeeded, once again, in writing a book which, while effectively tackling a very knotty set of issues, manages to be both accessible and engaging. Five stars.
130 von 137 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen The best writer on the subject of language 15. September 2007
Von Huntington Lyman - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
For the verbivore, no one sets out a feast like Steven Pinker. For my money, The Language Instinct is still the best, most comprehensive, and most entertaining introduction to linguistics ever composed, and I have been waiting for more than 10 years for this book (Words and Rules was also a great book, but a little technical for my taste; I am more drawn to semantics than grammar).

The Stuff of Thought can be a little technical as well. After an introduction in the most appealing Pinker style, chapters 2 and 3, on the ways verbs imply metaphorical categories and the reasons competing language theories are wrong, are both persuasive and engaging, but only if you think about them really, really hard. I remember feeling the same way about the sentence trees and bushes early on in The Language Instinct. But the rewards for the persevering reader comes later. Should you find yourself bogging down, skip to the chapter The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, which treats the subject of George Carlin's famous monologue in a manner that is more comprehensive and penetrating (sorry), but at times equally hilarious. That should provide the fuel to travel the rest of his landscape.

The subject of this book is incredibly important and it represents the culmination of a number of themes. Pinker himself says that it completes two parallel trilogies of books he has been writing for the past ten years, and I also read this as the fulfillment of Lakoff and Johnson's brilliant 1980 book "Metaphors We Live By," which lists the fundamental ways our physical reality structures our mental constructs, as revealed by pervasive metaphors. Pinker argues convincingly that Lakoff's later work pushes the metaphorical envelope too far, but he agrees that metaphor provides key insights into thoughts and understanding. He explores the theme of how language reveals and subtly shapes the ways the human mind makes sense of the world in a comprehensive, thoughtful, and compelling manner, carrying Lakoff's initial premise to a compelling, comprehensive theory of the function of metaphor in language and thought.

The linguist S.I. Hiyakawa observed that the last thing fish would think to study would be water; as we increasingly live in a world where words impinge on our every moment of consciousness, unpacking language helps us all understand the way it reveals and shapes our mental worlds. It also helps us understand what is not up for debate, and one of Pinker's most compelling themes is the universal community of human minds revealed by language commonalities. Pinker's philosophy of language somehow makes me feel both that language reveals individual creative genius (often in unexpected speakers) and a central set of commonalities among all human minds.

As a final note, the beauty of Pinker's writing in itself is sufficient reason to read this book. As a language lover, I find it a discouraging irony that so many linguists are so poor at articulating their arguments and insights, and that so much written about language is difficult and boring to read. Pinker, while taking on complex, abstruce topics, writes with clarity, enthusiasm, and humor. Aside from Richard Lederer, he is the only linguist I know who makes me laugh regularly.

Basically,I feel about Steven Pinker approximately the way Wayne and Garth felt about Aerosmith, and I am certainly dancing happily to The Stuff of Thought. Rock on, Steve!
45 von 50 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen Language - a window to the way our minds work. Good and clear insights from Pinker. 18. November 2007
Von D. Stuart - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
Once Steven Pinker gets over his difficult first chapter (he's hunting around trying to find first gear) this book really takes off. Pinker uses the way we structure our language, with all of its grammatical rules and foibles, as evidence of how our minds work. Thus if we accept that children don't learn grammar by rote memory, but more through induction and the creation of general rules, then we can see that the way these rules are framed are a reflection of the way we think.

Pinker cites hundreds of references, dozens of fascinating experiments, and calls on - often with great wit and brio - many entertaining examples of our language and what it really says about us. A whole chapter on "the seven words you can't use on television" shows the almost magical qualities we attach to words.

For me the most fascinating work in this book focuses on the way we speak indirectly to each other, often alluding to what we mean to say. Why say: "It would be awesome if you would pass the ketchup," when we really mean "Pass the ketchup." The answer lies in our complex social brain: and our desire to get on with others by removing the power implications of a direct order. Pinker takes his examples much deeper than this.

This is wonderful reading for people who are either fascinated by the human mind, or fascinated by our living language - or both. Five stars.
10 von 10 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
4.0 von 5 Sternen The Stuff of Pinker 25. November 2007
Von Eclect - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
Steven Pinker is a quite energetic fellow and an apparent sponge for quite a breadth of subjects and people's views. This seems not to leave a great deal of room for modesty, and he has thus created some controversy in academic circles around his thoroughness on the one hand and his penchant for publicity on the other, somewhat as Carl Sagan used to be regarded in the academic astronomical world. Aware of the controversy surrounding him, I had not looked as his earlier books. I then had the opportunity to hear him speak in public about the current work, and this experience persuaded me to have a look.

The book's central premise is that universal patterns of human thought can be adduced from common patterns observed in many natural languages. The bulk of the book is about the patterns, and the connection back to conclusions about the innateness of various ways of looking at the world sometimes takes the back burner. But what is useful about the book is that he does it in a way that is not as complex and convoluted as the previous sentence. The book is quite heavy with endnotes and references, and at times he seems to be looking to score points in a debate among academics that is going on in the background. I do not know enough about the field to understand the subplots. The net effect to me was a perhaps avoidable distraction.

I would suggest reading the last chapter (number 9) first or else after chapter 1 - it is short and sweet and lays out what he claims to have established in the rest of the book. Chapter 2 will be heavy going for those without prior exposure to formal grammars or current views of linguistics, but much of the later argument is not lost by skimming if it gives the impression of endless hair-splitting. The interesting behavioral meat comes in chapters 7 and 8, so skip ahead to them if necessary as an alternative to abandoning the book in midcourse.

When I don't know a great deal about the central subject or premise, I tend to calibrate the author's credibility by what he tosses off that I do know something about. Thus, at the start of chapter 2 (page 25), he compares what he is setting out to do in analyzing English verb constructions with the film and book "Powers of Ten" by Charles and Ray Eames. He compares his adventure "Down the Rabbit Hole" with theirs, and implies that he is going to take us down sixteen orders of magnitude of complexity. Well, the Eames book covers 41 orders of magnitude (the sponge had a slight leak), and I think it would be generous to grant that he goes as much as two orders of detail into his analysis. (Even as much as one might be arguable.) This certainly calibrates Pinker's view of himself, but it also leads me to wonder how many of the 690 endnotes and/or what they claim to cite have been hastily slapped into place. This will matter greatly to academics, and for the rest of us should only be taken as a variant of "caveat emptor".

One curious piece of understatement comes on page 85, where he writes of an example "very much in the news" about understanding gender differences. When former Harvard president Larry Summers made his ill-fated remarks in January 2005, it was Pinker's earlier work (or at least the endnotes therein) that he felt he was citing, and Pinker came early and often to Summers' defense. That he addresses this here (and somewhat out of context) with a whimper rather than a bang is a bit curious.

Overall, then, this is an accessible book by someone who is likely to be discussed quite a ways into the future, much as his mentor and colleague Noam Chomsky has been. It is certainly worth taking a look if you have an interest in this general area.
21 von 25 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
3.0 von 5 Sternen Interesting and well worth a reading but... 14. Dezember 2007
Von Goffredo Puccetti - Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format:Gebundene Ausgabe
It should be noted that this book is primarily the follow-up of 'The Language Instinct'.
Readers who were expecting something along the lines of "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate" might encounter a slight disappointment since some chapters of the book are somehow less fun and engaging for the lay person who is not very much into linguistics.
Having said so, it is definitely well worth a reading; Pinker punch lines are alive and kicking and at the end it is a highly informative and extremely well written book.
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&quote;
Semantics is about the relation of words to thoughts, but it also about the relation of words to other human concerns. Semantics is about the relation of words to realitythe 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. &quote;
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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. &quote;
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the nature of reality does not dictate the way that reality is represented in peoples minds. &quote;
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