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.