Pinker: The Stuff Of Thought

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Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought : Language as a Window into Human Nature. New York : Viking, 2007. 499 pages, with notes, references, and index.

As the subtitle says, this is a book devoted to examining what we can learn about human thought from the evidence of human language. Mostly Pinker draws his examples from English but he searches for generalities that can be drawn from language in general. I think most people who enjoy language would enjoy this book and learn something useful from it at the same time.

Language is filled with inscrutable details, and hooking those up with our brains and finding patters in language that might reflect on patterns in thought can take some fancy explaining just to keep from confusing the reader. Pinker does a good job, using exposition, some technical thoughts, humor, occasional comic strips, and whatever else he can use to reinforce and clarify the point at hand.

Here's a bit from the middle of a discussion about how some things we treat as blobs, some we recognize mentally and linguistically as composed of discrete bits:

It may seem as if count and mass nouns are simply labels for hunks and goo, but that underestimates both our language and our minds. Within a language, it's often unpredictable whether a kind of matter is referred to with a count or a mass noun. We have noodles (count) but macaroni (mass), beans (count) but rice (mass), and both hairs and hair, leading Richard Lederer to ask in Crazy English why a man with hair on his head has more hair than a man with hairs on his head. The choices differ somewhat from language to language—spaghetti is mass in English and count in Italian—and across historical periods of the same language. English speakers used to eat a substance called pease, as in the nursery rhyme Pease porridge hot, Pease porridge cold. But some grammatically zealous listener in the mists of history misanalyzed it as the plural for peas, from which it was a short step to pea, the count noun we use today. (The mathematical linguist John Lambek once speculated that a grain of rice will someday be called a rouse.) People who have learned English as adults have a terrible trouble with all this. My grandfather used to say that he combed his hairs, which is what one does in Yiddish, French, and many other languages. [pp. 168-169]

Some of the topics Pinker devotes chapters to are humankind's spatial and temporal reckoning as revealed through language, metaphors and how they operate, our presumptions of causality, what names signify, the purpose served by taboo speech and euphemism. I found plenty of ideas to slow down for, but just to absorb. I don't want to say that Pinker puts his thoughts into everyday language, but he realizes that not all of his readers will understand professional jargon; therefore some of it he introduces (when he thinks it will serve a purpose), some he avoids. Add to that his sense of humor, which never gets out of hand for my taste, and it makes the text very agreeable reading. His narrative is coherent and when he wanders, he wanders for a reason.

The reason for the gap between conventional wisdom and the facts is that most people have the wrong [mental] theory of cultural change. They think that the changes are the predictable effects of external causes: governments, advertisers, celebrities, the economy, wars, cars, technology, and so on. They also think that cultural changes are meaningful—that one can give a purposeful explanation of why a society does something in the same way that one can give a purposeful explanation of why a person does something.

The writer Edward Tenner has documented an example of this fallacy. Until the 1960s most men wore fedoras in public; today almost none do. What happened? There is no shortage of explanations. John F. Kennedy set the trend by going hatless after his inauguration. People moved to the suburbs and started spending a lot of time in cars, so their heads didn't get as cold, and also it's awkward to get in and out of a car wearing a hat. Men grew their hair longer as a form of self-expression and didn't want to hid it or, worse, suffer from an embarrassing case of hathead. There was a greater emphasis on the natural, and hats represented the incompleteness of nature. Hats were associated with the political establishment, and the younger generation rebelled against it. The culture began to idolize youth, and hats were associated with old men.

This kind of potted sociology can be found in any newspaper article on a social trend. But all the explanations are wrong. If you measure the popularity of dress hats for men over the decades, you find that it declined steadily since the 1920s (the 1960s just saw the coup de grace, when hat wearing fell below a critical threshold). And this decline exactly paralleled a falloff in women's hats and in women's gloves over the same period. Not a single one of the pop-social-science explanations, referring as they do to hats, men, the 1950s, or the 1960s, is compatible with this chronology. There is something afoot during this era—a decline in formality in all spheres of life, including dress, grooming, public comportment, and terms of address (as in the use of first names rather than Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So). It's hard to imagine any external or purposeful explanation of this trend (war, politics, the economy, technology) that could push it steadily in one direction from the 1920s through the first decade of the twenty-first century and beyond. The same conclusion emerges from quantitative studies of women's fashions. Contrary to popular beliefs, skirt lengths are not correlated with the stock market, fabric shortages, high-concept advertising campaigns, o0r anything else, though they do exhibit slow, smooth rises and falls over the decades. [pp. 315-316]

Pinker's stated goal, revealing how the way we use language can give us insight into how we think is worthwhile and, although he meanders widely into interesting digressions he does always manage to return to that thesis. While I found his discussion and analysis interesting and enlightening – not to mention entertaining – I didn't always find his theories convincing in explaining why humans use language the way they do, so I wasn't convinced by all of his conclusions, although some seemed more reliable. However, that doesn't matter so much, since I think that it's the discussion and debate and further clarifying research that's more important than just judging the conclusions, and the discussion and debate was really the focus of his writing.

Like my favorite Daniel Dennett, with whom he is often associated in a loose, literary way (probably not because they both teach at universities near Boston), Pinker displays a facility for fun but apt examples and metaphors that make his writing fresh, engaging, and spontaneous.

-- Notes by JNS

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