Friday, September 11, 2009

Steven Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought"

Steven's Pinker work "The Stuff of Thought" is about language. That's one side of the coin. The other is that it is not just about the language. It's a deep philosophical tractate about the very nature of mind, its interaction with the world, and the world itself...

"Language is a window into human nature, exposing deep and universal features of our thoughts and feelings. The thoughts and feelings cannot be equated with the words themselves"

The central theme of the book is an attempt to uncover the abstract layer, "the stuff" that our mind uses to think, to perceive, to be conscious. Going from the concepts of innate words and ideas, through polysemy, metaphors, names, dirty words, double speech, framing of expressions and language games we play - Steven slowly uncovers and makes evident the existence of deeper, more abstract, but also more precise layer of the human mind. There are numerous examples that illustrate the specific reflection of this abstract "stuff" in our language (my favorite was the analysis of various popular metaphors). Equally amazing is to find reflections of concepts of space, time and causality in the forms of our language.

When we read toward the end of the book, the other mysterious features of the language are revealed:

"Language is not just a window into human nature, but a fistula, an open wound through which our inerts are exposed to an infectious world"

I'm glad to notice that Pinker goes far beyond the biological interpretation of our mind. When you read "The stuff of thought" you have the impression that this author finally writes about the software our brain runs. To me - this software is the "stuff", although Pinker does not formulate such thesis. Here is a small weakness of the book though - while Pinker convinces the reader to his main argument - and the reader expects to learn more about "the stuff of thought" - he suddenly comes short on this subject. The book ends with fantastic chapter "Escaping the Cave" where the cave is Platon's metaphorical cave. The language is our cave, but it also can help us to escape this cave. Here lies its strength, beauty and power...

"Though language exposes the walls of our cave, it also shows us how we venture out of it, at least part way"


  1. What are we? Our music, our art, and our language are ways that we reveal ourselves, but language plays a very special role. It is so much more -- useful - to us for some reason.
    This sounds like a great and deep exploration of the 'stuff' that moves us to communicate and develop language. Now I want to know more - so, this is now on my list!! Thanks!

  2. I guess we need to discover Pinker for us.
    I bought one another of his books:
    "The language instinct" - written after "The Stuff of Thought".

    A seller in Paris (Shakespeare & Co.) told me that he is number one linguist - after Chomsky....

    I already found that I must read it, also because of some connections to Semantic Web ...

    There was a lot of ideas in "The Stuff ..." that were important in the context of SW theory.