A Human Nature, the author discusses the theories that

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A
Book Review on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought:
Language as a Window Into Human Nature

Reviewed
by: 2016 – 90856

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University
of the Philippines Diliman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

            This
report summarizes and reviews the studies prepared by Steven Pinker on the role
of language and its effects on human cognition, as well as other radical
theories and arguments that he discusses in the text. It will contain Pinker’s
implications of language as a tool for knowledge, and proposes the idea that it
may be dangerous in the way that it exposes its speakers to human nature and
certain types of knowledge they may not be keen on tackling. Particularly, it
will also focus on the theories in opposition to Pinker’s in order to grasp a
broader understanding of how different psycholinguists and psychologists
approach cognition and development in terms of language. Spoken by Pinker
himself, “one can only really understand something when you know what it is not”
(Pinker, 2005). Creating comparisons and expounding further on the absurdity or
the extent of their claims, aids in creating a solid foundation for the
theories of human communication.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A
Book Review on Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought:
Language as a Window Into Human Nature

In Steven Pinker’s
book titled The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature,
the author discusses the theories that are embedded in the structure, the
production, and the manner of which language is developed. He is particularly
involved in how words affect one’s perceptions of others and their
surroundings. Several concepts were covered in the book — notably, the ways in
which words may be used to alter one’s relationship with a topic (semantics),
as well as other theories involving space and time, causality, communications
of intimacy, religious beliefs, assigning blame, and free will. Pinker is
especially adamant on what the implications of these theories and concepts may
entail, as well as expounding on the fact that certain components are
distinctly human in nature.

According to
Pinker, the existence of such ideas in language provides insight on human
psychology and is indicative of how the mind recognizes and generates language
(in other words, how the human brain operates, and what these processes infer
in humans). For example, the language used in order to communicate blame or
commend others is different from the models found in one’s spatial awareness of
their surroundings. One’s perception of reality (other objects found in time
and space) differs in how they perceive objects in relation to other objects,
or perhaps objects relative to their own placement in space itself. In Pinker’s
book, this linguistic frame of reference is in direct relation to how these
objects are perceived in reality (and essentially how time is perceived as
well). However, apart from the inferences of language, Pinker also studied how
language is used in social settings: he included examples such as the manners
of which people inform others, impart knowledge, swear, and even seduce. Pinker
claims that these everyday acts may actually be more than merely modes of
communication — they may also reflect the ways that humans grasp reality. 

Literature
Review

            First and foremost, before Pinker delves into the
technicalities of grammar and syntax (the rules that govern the order of words
and phrases), he first begins with semantics in his first chapter, “Words and
Worlds.” Language, like many aspects of human culture, is liable to
interpretation and subjectivity. The issue of semantics is reflected in the
relationship of words to the “world” (as described by Pinker), and how the
understanding of truth differs between different people based on how the
information is presented or understood. For example, the book offers the
example of the 9/11 incident instigated by Osama Bin Laden and the resulting
destruction caused by the plane’s crash into the twin towers.

The controversy
that came afterwards was between the leaseholder of the World Trade Center,
Larry Silverstein, who insisted he be reimbursed for two catastrophic events,
and the insurance company that contended that the attack was one event
entirely. Silverstein’s reasoning was built on the fact that the World Trade
Center was composed of two separate buildings rather than one, and thus
constituted the two events. This difference in the interpretation of the event
means that people tend to differ in how facts are construed, rather than the
facts themselves.

This difference
may also be applied in syntax regarding small technicalities of the language
and is considered to be one of the most frequent basis for argumentation. This,
according to Pinker, is a fundamental human construction — the ways that
concepts are stored to be used is distinct between individuals, and especially
distinct between different languages. This information is then used through a “cognitive
zoom” that allows one to access the discrete and continuous activities that
establish any given event.

            However,
Pinker claims that it matters not how the information is stored, but rather,
how they are brought to surface in everyday reality. Which may be problematic
in the sense that diverse individuals will, more likely than not, possess
different definitions of words based on elementary concepts and the image it
may refer to (reference). This particularly prevalent when put into the context
of a community as the definitions of words change over time as the community
begins to morph its meaning along with the progression of trends and movements.
Furthermore, newer and shortened versions of words a likely to surface
depending on the frequency of its usage. For example,  “spam” originated from the term “spiced ham.”
Similar examples made by David W. Carroll suggest the same when he introduces
the concept of Zipf’s Law (wherein the length and structure of a word is
subject to change over time). In his book he describes how the word “videocamera-videocasette
recorder” simply became “camcorder” (Carroll, 2008).

Further relation
of words to the “world” may also refer to their relationship with emotions and
social relations. Connotation and denotation play a powerful role in triggering
emotional associations with certain phrases (phrases that may be considered
attractive and even hurtful), which is especially seen in the act of cursing.
Pinker also notes that, it is not simply the words that are used which
constitutes something as a swear, but also the manner it was used: the
pronunciation and the articulation play a serve a purpose in communication this
intense emotion. Yet the fact that people are able to provide insight on their
own emotional experiences is what sets humans apart. This is especially
important in the social relations that individuals form with one another.
According to Pinker, human interaction is fueled by this ability to expose one’s
mental state through language. After all, emotional language is one of the many
ways to build socio-emotional competence (Armstrong, 2011).

Thus, in studying
the relationship of words to the real world, Pinker first engages in the way
that children learn verbs differently in his second chapter “Down the Rabbit
Hole”, where he further analyzes his claims further. I do think that in the
study of language, production is just as important a concept as acquisition.
Pinker asserts that human children are able to assess a finite number of
events, and develop to form generalizations for these events in order to refer
to an infinite amount of variations (induction). Which, in Pinker’s words, may
pose an issue in that children may be made victim to false generalization when
first being exposed to the world around them. This is was the thought behind
Noam Chomsky’s study on language acquisition, which highlighted language as a
system comprised of multiple components of syntax that ultimately determine the
meaning of each sentence.

One of his popular
theories was the idea of baby talk. Carroll defines baby talk as child-directed
speech that parents adopt when communicating with their children, intended to
better accustom them to their mother language through exaggerated intonations
and higher or more variable speech. This is thought to maintain the attention
of the child during social interactions and provides the impression that
communication is a social activity that is fundamental to all human interactions.
In Pinker’s second chapter, however, he discusses the paradox that comes with
baby talk: when identifying sound patterns, children extend these observation
to new verbs.

This problem lies
in the locative rule, wherein error arises in constructing content-locative
sentences — the issue, of course, lies in the verbs. Certain verbs do not
properly work in all constructions (such as the verb pour). During the early
stages of child development, young minds are not able to comprehend all the
complexities that come with language. Having only digested a few thousand words
and possessing only the faintest inkling of syntactic rules, children are
liable to error due to baby talk. For example, going back to the verb “to pour,”
if one were to apply the concept of the locative rule, then the sentence “Amy
poured water into the glass” would become, “Amy poured the glass with water”
(Pinker, 2008).  Furthermore, while
explanations that try to counter this paradox have been questionable at best,
further study provides the idea that early humans used not grunts to
communicate with one another, but baby talk. According to the researchers, this
will allow for further understanding in language development and acquisition in
children, as well as other developmental or acquired language disorders (for
example, dyslexia). Their general consensus was that Darwin was correct in his
assumptions of evolution in comparison to Chomsky.

It contrasts with
this theory of Noam Chomsky, the greatest linguist of the 20th century, who
believes we got special human genes to pattern speech. What we’re saying is,
when humans started using words, they just needed to borrow capabilities they
already had, rather than invent something entirely new. (Roser, 2000).

However, all of
Pinker’s speculations on “words and worlds” aside, one particularly interesting
portion of the book was his dissection of other radical theories of language
and their consequences on cognition. This is found in his third chapter, “Fifty
Thousand Innate Concepts (And Other Radical Theories of Language and Thought.”
These refer to theories that he deems to go against his own. In this chapter,
he systematically breaks down the evidence supporting each of the theories and
then offers the limitations of each in order to demonstrate, in some way, the
strength of his own arguments. These theories are known as Extreme Nativism,
Radical Pragmatics, and Linguistic Determinism. The first, Extreme Nativism, is
defined as a theory that places “extreme” emphasis on the innate mental
organization of humans.

Pinker introduces
Jerry Fodor in the discussion of this theory, as he was one of the leading
psychologist that helped build its foundations. He is referred to by Pinker as
a “radical innatist.” Essentially, Fodor’s theory works under the assumption
that humans are born with innate concepts that are impossible to break down —
he refers to these words as “atoms.” In other words, they cannot be split into
smaller meanings or simpler units. Fodor uses this to explain complex concepts
such as “science,” “electron,” and “good.” However, after discussing the basis
for Fodor’s theory, Pinker then introduces the problems related to the theory:
first and foremost, Pinker completely rejects the idea that a word can be
indivisible, and he even argues that the Fodor’s claim of humans being born
with innate concepts is far too “extraordinary.” He means to say that it is
entirely impossible for this to be the case, considering the fact that there
would never be the occurrence that required evolution to naturally select for
concepts such as “trombone” and “carburetor.” In response to this “extraordinary”
claim, Pinker demands “extraordinary” evidence — which Fodor has failed to
provide.

Fodor, however,
attempts to reason that perhaps innate concepts are similar to the body’s
immune system. He asserts that language may be pre-programmed into human
bodies, similar to how antibodies are pre-programmed into fend infection
despite never having to encounter the disease beforehand. Even still, Pinker
remains adamant that though antibodies are, in fact, innate in humans, Fodor
does not take into account the vast difference between the immune system and
language units in the brain. Concepts are meant to be utilized in speech —
they are not adaptations that contend with the evolution of microorganisms.
Thus, conclusion,

On the other hand,
Radical Pragmatics proposes that the mind does not possess “fixed”
representations of word meanings. When introducing the concept of Radical
Pragmatics, Pinker first defines the word “polysemy,” which is essentially a
term used to describe words that possess a number of different but somewhat
related meanings. For example, the word “chicken” may be the kind of animal or
the kind of meat. However, the argument of Radical Pragmatics is that this idea
of multiple meanings go further than this and actually refer to more complex
concepts. “What makes something a good car is different from what makes it a
good steak, a good husband, or a good kiss” (Pinker, 2008). This relates to the
view that there are no “fixed” mental representations in mind due to the fact
that words can be taken to have different meanings, despite possessing the same
sound.

            This
can also be seen in the examples of euphemisms, dysphemisms, figurative
language, subtexts, and wordplay. All of these may be interpreted in different
ways, and thus Radical Pragmatics claims that word meanings do not exist as “discrete
entries in a dictionary.” They are, instead, patterns of events that leaves
itself to the listener’s interpretation. Of course, Pinker is not keen on the
what this infers regarding the human mind by claiming there not to be exact
word representations — which is at odds with verb alternations that
demonstrate words being stored as discrete units to be accessed and used
syntactically in sentences.

Instead, Pinker
makes the claim against Radical Pragmatics by referring to two separate
sentences: “He clogged hair into the sink” and “She yelled him her order.”
Pinker’s argument is that, if the assertions made by the theory are correct
(words are left to interpretation), then why do these sentences appear
grammatically incorrect, despite making perfect contextual sense? In
conclusion, Pinker argues that this theory is at odds with the basics
fundamentals regarding language. After all, if language is meant to be a model
for communication, then being able to convey new ideas, facts, and sharing
thoughts requires a set structure of meaning (not simply from interpretation)
and grammatical rules. “If meanings could be freely reinterpreted in context,
language would be a wet noodle and not up to the job of forcing new ideas into
the minds of listeners” (Pinker, 2008). In other words, language would fail to
be the incredible phenomenon that it is without the ability to effectively and
reliably convey meaning.

The last radical
theory that was dissected by Pinker was Linguistic Determinism. This theory is
heavily driven by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis discussed in Carroll’s Psychology
of Language, is a theory that suggest native language not only influences,
but determines thought. Depending on the language one attains, the thought
patterns and the ways in which the brain processes information will be
different. This theory, while possessing many methods to gather evidence that
points to the idea that language does, in some ways, determine cognition
(rather than just influencing it), has face controversy when it was first
introduced, and even now in its new siege despite the fact that the leading
figurehead of the theory, Benjamin Lee Whorf, had long died in 1941. One of
many lexical terms that Whorf proposed before that appeared to support his
theory were the terms of spatial, color, grammatical, object, and number. In
particular, color terms were one of the leading arguments: when observing
certain groups of people, Whorf came across a language that had only one word
to describe both green and blue — and as such, the individuals that spoke this
language were described to show difficulties in discerning the two colors.

Furthermore, his
assertions of Language Determinism made the assumption that different languages
posed different manners of cognition. This goes by the logic that if language
determines thought, then thoughts should differ depending on the language an
individual speaks. Therefore, Whorf states that, the perception of color
differs from one language user to the next.This, however, did not come without
contentions. Modern studies seem to indicate that color perception appears to
differ, regardless of the difference in language — in fact, two different
language speakers may actually perceive colors the same way as well, which
destroys Whorf’s assumptions in his hypothesis: 

To say that not
only do speakers of different languages describe a rainbow differently because
one language’s basiccolor differentiations may be segmented in a different
manner but that they” actually experience the rainbow differently”
raises some critical questions in terms of the effect of language on thought
and perception. Technically, speakers of the same language experience rainbows
differently, and it seems likely that some people from different language
backgrounds might even experience them in the same way. (Arnold, 1996). 

Finally, in
contesting the absurdity and extreme perspectives of other theories, Pinker
discusses his ideas regarding language — particularly in the context of social
interactions. One particular chapter that secured his theories together was
chapter eight, “Games People Play.” In this chapter, Pinker essentially makes
speculations regarding the human tendency to mask their intentions through
forms of “vagueness” and in manner of innuendos — despite the fact that most
people claim that they prefer honesty above all. Though language and
communication is deemed to be a method of sharing expression and information,
the question stands, “Why should humans need to mask their intents?”

Pinker
hypothesizes that, as social animals, humans are particularly invested in the
impressions they impose on other people. This investment paves way for certain
codes of conduct: politeness. This is not referring to social etiquette however
— in linguistics, politeness refers to the adjustments made when speakers
attempt to be cordial. “The essence of politeness-as-sympathy is to simulate a
degree of closeness by pretending to want what the hearer wants for herself”
(Pinker, 2008). This is due to the speaker is making assumptions of what the
listener wants to hear, based on their own personal wants. Another method is
the rise of intonation during conversation. Pinker defines this as “uptalk,”
which is an intonation contour of being polite. This is further observed in the
context of asking questions or making requests. “Indirect requests have
fossilized a certain line of reasoning: the logic of plausible deniability, of
giving the hearer an out” (Pinker, 2008). Phrasing requests indirectly removes
the burden of unknowingly exposing on another person or providing them with
orders to follow. In this way, a recipient is given the opportunity to deny the
request without worry of being deemed as uncooperative — again, humans are far
too occupied with the impressions they give.

Among many of the
concepts discussed in Pinker’s book, this logic of politeness, particularly to
strangers, is said to be a “human universal” with twenty-five languages
participating in the phenomenon. Politeness not only establishes sociability
(which is important to social animals), but also assumes a distance and
distinguishes authority among the participants of the conversation. Yet, when
applied practically, politeness may actually hinder social interactions with
how unnecessarily indirect and non-confrontational the language is. Pinker
touches upon this issue when he makes examples such as: “Didn’t I tell you
yesterday to pick up your room? Shouldn’t you tell me who is coming to the
party?” (Pinker, 2008). Though this avoids direct confrontation and prevents
hurting another — this dilemma of forcibly being “polite” despite the fact
that the situation does not require it. There are instances wherein
confrontation is required. Thus, politeness as a theory of human interaction is
not quite the best when being used for all types of communication.

Conclusion

            In
conclusion, there are many ways in which knowledge can be disseminated — but
language, according to Pinker, is one of the most effective and efficient ways
to do so. However, as previously stated, considering it is one of the best
modes of communication, language can also be used with malicious intent —
emotional language is one prime example of this. Being able to deliver one’s
mental state through words is a powerful tool, and can be troubling when used
carelessly. Furthermore, there is also the worry of the false generalizations
that could be made by children — adults are also liable to these errors and
may infer a meaning that was unintended with the original delivery of their
message. Still, regardless of the worries raised by the book, The Stuff of
Thought provides insights on the power of language and its ability to
express thought through the relationship of words with the “world.”

 

 

References

Armstrong, L. M. (2011). Emotion
language in early childhood: Relations with children’s emotion
            regulation strategy
understanding and emotional self-regulation.

Arnold, K. W. (1986). The
Problems With Whorf’s Hypothesis (sapir-whorf, Linguistic

Relativity,determinism).

Carroll, D. W. (2008). Psychology
of Language. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Pinker, S. (2008). The Stuff of
Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature. London:
            Penguin.

Roser, M. A. (2000, Apr 21). Early
humans spoke in baby talk, not grunts, new UT study finds.
            Austin American Statesman