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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007)

by Steven Pinker

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2,901353,509 (3.79)36
Psychologist Pinker explains how the mind works in a completely new way--by examining how we use words. Every time we swear, we reveal something about human emotions. When we use an innuendo to convey a bribe, threat, or sexual come-on (rather than just blurting it out), we disclose something about human relationships. Our use of prepositions and tenses tap into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and our nouns and verbs tap into mental models of matter and causation. Even the names we give our babies, as they change from decade to decade, have important things to day about our relations to our children and to society. Pinker takes on both scientific questions--such as whether language affects thought, and which of our concepts are innate--and questions from the headlines and everyday life.--From publisher description.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
This is my second encounter with Pinker's works, the first being [b:The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language|869681|The Language Instinct How the Mind Creates Language|Steven Pinker|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1410763257l/869681._SY75_.jpg|2422982], which I read in 2015 (see my review here). As language is one of my interests, and [b:The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature|2813972|The Stuff of Thought Language as a Window into Human Nature|Steven Pinker|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1348133891l/2813972._SY75_.jpg|2839893] being a sort of follow-up of / sequel to 'The Language Instinct', I simply had to read it, even if it took me a long time.

Like before, the material is heavy, not all that accessible (depending on the chapter, too), but Pinker expresses himself as clearly as possible and with the occasional wink/touch of humour. The book shows us how we humans play with language. We use words in various ways, give them literal and figurative meanings to express ourselves, our emotions, use them for plays on words, etc. in a way that fits the circumstances.

Semantics, pragmatics, different contexts (historical, political, personal, ...), taboo words, the technicalities of language, the politics, ... It's all there. Not only language is discussed here, but the sociological glasses were also used for this look into human nature with regards to language.

All in all, another recommended work by Steven Pinker. ( )
  TechThing | Jan 22, 2021 |
Very good. ( )
  Gary46 | Oct 27, 2020 |
I read this alongside watching Jordan Petersen's lectures on the Personality (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list...) and found the combination to be helpful.

The first 2-3 chapters are pretty dry for someone who is not an academic linguist. I assumed that this was essential foundation work for the chapters to come, but I'm still 100% convinced that wading through was wholly necessary.

Having said that, if you start this book, do not stall at this early point. I went from wishing it would get moving to wishing it would continue after I'd got to the end. It lays out clearly how we use language, the nuances of language, it's role as, not simply a method of communication, but in it's social context. One of the last chapters "Games People Play', covered how we use indirect speech, 'plausible deniability' and why in everything from bribing maitres d to sexual seduction.

Pinker's style is large able readable with a little effort. He stands up and then knocks down theory after theory, you might say with confidence in his own opinions. But overall I'd recommend this for anyone with an interest in where psychology and language meet. ( )
1 vote peterjt | Feb 20, 2020 |
Love it so far. So much here to cover, so rich and multi-faceted and so many "aha!" moments. He really is brilliant, but with that brilliance comes a tad bit of (probably rightly-earned) arrogance. Will update when finished. ( )
  charlyk | Nov 15, 2019 |
Steven Pinker talks about how language reflects our thoughts in some ways, and comes up short in others. He mostly focuses on English, but does note some phrases in other languages. It is quite fascinating. I enjoyed it well enough, but I got a bit confused since he takes so long to get to the point he is trying to make. Also, his chapter titles don't really explain what they are about. So it is difficult to remember what each one covers.

Some of them are easy, but almost all of them are references or metaphors. Take the title of chapter 6 which is called "What's In a Name?" Obviously this is a reference to the scene in Romeo & Juliet where Juliet muses on the name of Montague and compares it to a rose still smelling the same regardless of what we call it. So it is apparent that this chapter is about names and how they come about.

Then there is the title of chapter 2, which is called "Down the Rabbit Hole." Now this one is also obvious in the reference to Alice in Wonderland, which is one of my favorite books, but I don't remember if it is talking about words in fiction in general, or in how we use words to transmit ideas. It has an entire chapter devoted to swear words and curse words, which to be honest, has always interested me, and it is called "The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" after the George Carlin bit.

So, all in all, it is a fantastic book. Not breath-taking or anything, but it is what I would call good. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 34 (next | show all)
Linguistic determinism is just one of the foes Pinker takes on. He engages with a number of rival theories of language. Sometimes he cuts a few argumentative corners in the interests of mounting a persuasive case. Still, it is not hard to forgive him. He may be partisan, but he is never boring. And he does know a lot about words.
 
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There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words.
On September 11, 2001, at 8:46 A.M., a hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
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Psychologist Pinker explains how the mind works in a completely new way--by examining how we use words. Every time we swear, we reveal something about human emotions. When we use an innuendo to convey a bribe, threat, or sexual come-on (rather than just blurting it out), we disclose something about human relationships. Our use of prepositions and tenses tap into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and our nouns and verbs tap into mental models of matter and causation. Even the names we give our babies, as they change from decade to decade, have important things to day about our relations to our children and to society. Pinker takes on both scientific questions--such as whether language affects thought, and which of our concepts are innate--and questions from the headlines and everyday life.--From publisher description.

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