How You Think

The Stuff of Thought is Steven Pinker’s fifth popular book in thirteen years, and by now we know what to expect. It is long, packed with information, clear, witty, attractively written, and generally persuasive. The topic, as earlier, is language and the mind—specifically, how language reflects human psychological nature. What can we learn about the mind by examining, with the help of linguistics and experimental psychology, the language we use to express ourselves?

Pinker ranges widely, from the verb system of English, to the idea of an innate language of thought, to metaphor, to naming, obscenity, and politeness. He is unfailingly engaging to read, with his aptly chosen cartoons, his amusing examples, and his bracing theoretical rigor. Yet there are signs of fatigue, not so much in the energy and enthusiasm he has put into the book as in the sometimes less than satisfying quality of the underlying ideas. I don’t blame the author for this: it is very hard to write anything deep, surprising, and true in psychology—especially when it comes to the most interesting aspects of our nature (such as our use of metaphor). A popular book on biology or physics will reliably deli-ver well-grounded information about things you don’t already know; in psychology the risk of banality dressed up as science is far greater. Sometimes in Pinker’s book the ratio of solid ideas to sparkling formulations is uncomfortably low (I found this particularly in the lively and amusing chapter on obscenity). He has decided to be ambitious, and there is no doubt of his ability to keep the show on the road, but it is possible to finish a long chapter of The Stuff of Thought and wonder what you have really learned—enjoyable as the experience of reading it may have been.

To my mind, by far the most interesting chapter of the book is the lengthy discussion of verbs—which may well appear the driest to some readers. Verbs are the linguistic keyhole to the mind’s secrets, it turns out. When children learn verbs they are confronted with a problem of induction: Can the syntactic rules that govern one verb be projected to another verb that has a similar meaning? Suppose you have already learned how to use the verb “load” in various syntactic combinations; you know that you can say both Hal loaded the wagon with hay and Hal loaded hay into the wagon. Linguists call the first kind of sentence a “container locative” and the second a “content locative,” because of the way they focus attention on certain aspects of the event reported—the wagon (container) or the hay (content), respectively (the word “locative” referring here to the way words express location). The two sentences seem very close in meaning, and the verb load slots naturally into the sentence frame surrounding it. So, can other verbs like fill and pour enter into the same combinations? The child learning English verbs might well suppose that they can …

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