September 11, 2007
In this feast of a book, Stephen Pinker explains how the mind works in a completely new style – by re-examining the way we use words. Every time we swear, we reveal something about human emotions. When we use innuendo to convey a bribe, a threat, or a sexual come-on (rather than just blurting it out), we disclose something about human relationships. Our use of prepositions and tenses taps into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and our nouns and verbs tap into mental models of matter and causation. Even babies’ names, as they change from decade to decade have important things to say about our relations to our children and to society. By looking closely at our everyday speech – our conversations, our jokes, our legal disputes – Pinker paints a vivid picture of the thoughts and emotions that populate our mental lives.
He argues that human thoughts – from political positions and religious beliefs to advertising gimmicks and comic strips – are built around certain core ideas like space, force, dominance, kinship, and contamination. Look around, and you’ll realize that the metaphors we use every day reach back to these primal concepts. Pinker asks how we develop these categories as children, how we apply them to the world around us, and what happens when we apply them in inappropriate ways.
Pinker takes on scientific questions – such as how language affects thought, and which of our concepts are innate – as well as questions from the headlines and everyday life. Why does the government care so much about dirty words? How do lobbyists bribe politicians? How do romantic comedies get such mileage out of the ambiguities of dating? Why do so many courtroom dramas hinge on disagreements about who really caused a person’s death? Why have the last two American presidents gotten into trouble through the semantic niceties of their words? And why is bulk e- mail called spam?
The Stuff of Thought marries the two topics of Pinker’s earlier bestsellers: language (The Language Instinct, Words and Rules) and human nature (How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate). It presents entirely new material, written in the style that made those books famous: using lucid explanations of deep and powerful ideas, presented with irreverent wit, elegant style, and a deft use of examples from popular culture and everyday life.
Stephen Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In 2004, Time named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. The winner of many prizes for his research and teaching on language and cognition, he writes for such publications as The New York Times, Time, and The New Republic and is the author of six previous books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate. He lives in Boston and Truro, Massachusetts.