The Frontal Cortex

The Stuff of Thought

I’ve got a review of Pinker’s latest in The Washington Post:

Language comes so naturally to us that it’s easy to believe there’s some sort of intrinsic logic connecting the thing and its name, the signifier and the signified. In one of Plato’s dialogues, a character named Cratylus argues that “a power more than human gave things their first names.”

But Cratylus was wrong. Human language is an emanation of the human mind. A thing doesn’t care what we call it. Words and their rules don’t tell us about the world; they tell us about ourselves.

That’s the simple premise behind Steven Pinker’s latest work of popular science . According to the Harvard psychologist, people are “verbivores, a species that lives on words.” If you want to understand how the brain works, how it thinks about space and causation and time, how it processes emotions and engages in social interactions, then you need to plunge “down the rabbit hole” of language. The quirks of our sentences are merely a portal to the mind.


  1. #1 John B
    December 23, 2007

    Good review.

    I like Pinker, only in so far as he attempts to stick to some middle ground, restricting some of the theoretical extremes that arise from loss of perspective. Unfortunately that does mean his work sometimes amounts to a reiteration of the status quo… it can be unsatisfying to the ‘revolutionary perspective’ we look for on some topics.

    I don’t know that I’d have the courage to write anything about language. It feels like there are prety high odds of a medium vs.message washout.

  2. #2 Derek James
    December 23, 2007

    Nice review!

    I agree with you that Pinker often doesn’t provide much payoff or insight. I think he’s best read for breadth than depth, but that has value too.

    Incidentally, I blogged quite a bit on the book while I was reading it, and even whipped up a little on-line survey to (unscientifically) look at some of his contentions about how transitivity might be affecting the perceived politeness of taboo verbs. Here’s a link if you’re interested.

  3. #3 L Zoel
    December 23, 2007

    “Cratylus was wrong”

    …but how do we know?

  4. #4 Matthew
    December 23, 2007

    Good stuff. I liked this book, but I thought Pinker needed a little more editing (or perhaps I’m just too slow for the real nitty-gritty details of grammar!). BTW, i’m really enjoying your book. much easier to read and very thought-provoking.

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