The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

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Language as a Window into Human Nature

Steven Pinker

1. Language and languages—Philosophy. 2. Thought and thinking.


Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in 2007 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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Book Details
 515 p
 File Size 
 8,259 KB
 File Type
 PDF format
 Steven Pinker, 2007 

About the Author
In this feast of a book, Steven Pinker explains how the mind works
in a completely new style—by examining the way we use words.
Every time we swear, we reveal something about human emotions.
When we use innuendo to convey a bribe, a threat, or a sexual
come-on (rather than just blurting it out), we disclose something
about human relationships. Our use of prepositions and tenses
taps into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and our
nouns and verbs tap into mental models of matter and causation.
Even babies' names, as they change from decade to decade, have
important things to say about our relations to our children and to
society. By looking closely at our everyday speech—our conversations,
our jokes, our legal disputes—Pinker paints a vivid picture
of the thoughts and emotions that populate our mental lives.
He argues that human thoughts—from political positions and
religious beliefs to advertising gimmicks and comic strips—are
built around certain core ideas like space, force, dominance, kinship,
and contamination. Look around, and you'll realize that the
metaphors we use every day reach back to these primal concepts.
Pinker asks how we develop these categories as children, how we
apply them to the world around us. and what happens when we
apply them in inappropriate ways.
Pinker takes on scientific questions—such as how language
affects thought, and which of our concepts are innate—as well
as questions from the headlines and everyday life. Why does the
government care so much about dirty words? How do lobbyists
bribe politicians? How do romantic comedies get such mileage
out of the ambiguities of dating? Why do so many courtroom dramas
hinge on disagreements about who really caused a person's
death? Why have the last two American presidents gotten into
trouble through the semantic niceties of their words? And why is
bulk e-mail called spam?
The Stuff of Thought marries the two topics of Pinker's earlier
bestsellers: language (The Language Instinct, Words and Rules)
and human nature {How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate). It
presents entirely new material, written in the style that made
those books famous: using lucid explanations of deep and powerful
ideas, presented with irreverent wit, elegant style, and a deft
use of examples from popular culture and everyday life.

STEVEN PINKER is the Johnstone Family
Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In 2004, Time
named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the
world. The winner of many prizes for his research and teaching
on language and cognition, he writes for such publications as The
New York Times, Time, and The New Republic and is the author
of six previous books, including The Language Instinct, How the
Mind Works, Words and Rules, and The Blank Slate. He lives in
Boston and Truro, Massachusetts.


Table of Contents

Preface • vii

I Words and Worlds • 1
2 Down the Rabbit Hole • 25
3 Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts 
(and Other Radical Theories of Language and Thought) • 89
4 Cleaving the Air • 153
5 The Metaphor Metaphor • 235
6 What's in a Name? • 279
7 The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television • 323
8 Games People Play • 373
9 Escaping the Cave • 427

Notes • 441

References • 459

Index • 483

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"A stylish piece of work . . . Pinker is a star, and the world of science is lucky to have him."
—Richard Dawkins, The Times Literary Supplement
"Brilliant in several dimensions. It is enjoyable, informative, clear, humane and sensible."
—Simon Blackburn, New Scientist
"Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read . . . also highly persuasive."
—Michael Lemonick, Time

"A gem." —Mark Aronoff, The New York Times
"An intellectual joyride." —Jack Chambers, The Globe and Mail
"A treat." —Jan Freeman, The Boston Globe

"Witty, lucid, and ultimately enthralling." —Robert McCrum, The Observer
"Big, brash, and a lot of fun." —Madeleine Nash, Time
"Hugely entertaining . . . always sparkling and provoking." —Jim Holt, The Wall Street Journal

"A brilliant, witty, and altogether satisfying book." —Michael Coe, The New York Times
"Dr. Pinker writes with acid verve This is an exciting book, certain to produce argument."
— The Atlantic Monthly
"A cracking book . . . marvelous... wonderful to read." —Tim Radford, The Guardian