The Stuff of Thought | Steven Pinker

Summary of: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
By: Steven Pinker


Dive into the fascinating world of language and its impact on human nature with Steven Pinker’s ‘The Stuff of Thought.’ In this captivating summary, discover the significance of how we use words, the complexities of grammar, and the profound power of framing issues and manipulating perceptions through word choice. Grasp the intricate nuances of language and how it reflects and shapes our thoughts, beliefs, and understanding of the world. Prepare to explore a range of intriguing topics, from the art of politeness and the evolution of taboo words to the very essence of names and their meaning.

The Power of Words

The aftermath of 9/11 sparked debate on whether the attacks were one event or two separate ones, highlighting the importance of the meaning of words. The practical implications of language, particularly in law, can have significant real-world consequences. This article delves into the intricacies of language using less tragic examples.

Why Babies Cry: Understanding Language Acquisition

Babies learn the rules of language by understanding the underlying grammar and syntax rather than merely imitating what they hear. While adults use a combination of language rules and intuition to create complex sentences, babies must learn these rules from scratch. This process involves understanding verb tenses, subject-verb agreement, and rules for changing the state of an object. These hidden complexities are present in all languages, but can babies learn them without an innate, pre-programmed ability? The answer to this question is explored in the next part.

The Complex Structures of Words

Words are not elemental concepts; they are complex structures, built up by combining more simple concepts.

Are you a dictionary enthusiast? Do you find pleasure in flipping through definitions and discovering new words? If so, the twentieth-century linguistic theory of extreme nativism may be unsettling to you. This theory, proposed by philosopher and cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor, posits that all words are elemental concepts and cannot be accurately described by definitions alone.

Fodor’s argument centers around the example of “to kill.” While it may be defined as causing someone to become not alive, Fodor argues that such a definition is debatable. In his view, you can make someone “not alive” on one day by poisoning them, but you cannot “kill” someone the next day by doing the same action, as there is no active action on that day. Thus, definitions often fall short, leading Fodor to conclude that all words are elementary concepts that are pre-programmed into humans at birth.

However, Fodor’s theory does not hold up entirely. The complexity of most words seems to originate in more simple concepts. Verbs like “to hit,” “to cut,” “to break,” and “to touch” are similar but distinct from one another. They work because they are built up from more central concepts like motion, contact, and effect. “To hit” always implies motion, which is why it cannot describe someone leaning against another person, even if it leaves a bruise. On the other hand, “to break” implies a particular outcome for an object, without any necessary motion.

Thus, while elemental concepts are essential in explaining and distinguishing words, they are not all that words are made up of. Words are complex structures built by combining more simple concepts. In this way, Fodor’s extreme nativism can be seen as flawed and disproven.

The Complexities of Present Tense

The present tense is a tricky language tool that can be used in multiple ways, leading to misunderstandings and even legal issues. It can indicate a current action or describe a person’s general habit, creating complications. Although language attempts to describe time precisely, the imperfections of grammar make this difficult. For instance, the simple present form often employed for the habits of people or general statements, such as ‘bees pollinate the flowers,’ rather than describing the actual present moment. This has significant implications, as evidenced by former President Bill Clinton’s controversial legal defense during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. His lawyer’s statement that there was “no sex of any kind” between Clinton and Lewinsky was technically true at the time of deposition, despite later revelations to the contrary. Such examples highlight the importance of understanding the complexities of language when describing current events.

The Power of Language

The language we use to describe events and choices can significantly impact our viewpoints. A study conducted by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated that doctors made different choices based on how the options were presented, despite the outcomes being the same. This is due to our tendency to avoid losses rather than seek gains. Therefore, language can be used to manipulate people easily.

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