In “The Stuff of Thought,” celebrated Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker sets out to explain how language reveals our inner nature. Terming us “verbivores, a species that lives on words,” Pinker argues that our verbivorous, highly biased perception of reality differs radically from the findings of science yet allows us to thrive in a complex universe. The meanings of words matter profoundly, for words determine our reality, or at least a large part of it. Semantics is no arcane intellectual quibble; it lies at the core of our existence.
Pinker shows, for example, how subtle features of English verbs reveal hidden operations of the human mind. Consider such contrasting sentences as “The farmer loaded hay into the wagon” and “The farmer loaded the wagon with hay.” In this pair, the verb “load” has two different kinds of objects: the stuff that gets moved and the place it goes. Also, in the first sentence, the destination is the object of one preposition; in the second, the stuff is the object of another. Pinker sees these “alternations” as constituting a “microclass” of verbs acting this way, such as “spray” (“spray water on the roses” versus “spray the roses with water”). Where does this observation lead him? To the idea that we sometimes frame events in terms of motion in physical space (moving hay; moving water) and sometimes in terms of motion in state-space (wagon becoming full; roses becoming wet).
Moreover, there are verbs that refuse such alternations: for instance, “pour.” We can say “I poured water into the glass” but not “I poured the glass with water.” What accounts for this curious difference between “load” and “pour”? Pinker claims that pouring merely lets a liquid move under gravity’s influence, whereas loading is motion determined by the human agent. “Pour” and “load” thus belong to different microclasses, and these microclasses reveal how we construe events. "[W]e have discovered a new layer of concepts that the mind uses to organize mundane experience: concepts about substance, space, time, and force,” Pinker writes. " . . . [S]ome philosophers consider [these concepts] to be the very scaffolding that organizes mental life. . . . But we’ve stumbled upon these great categories of cognition . . . by trying to make sense of a small phenomenon in language acquisition.”
Pinker exploits his wonderfully keen faculty for linguistic observation to pry open the human head and discover its secrets. Sometimes this technique works terrifically, other times not so well. Consider his claim that “the causative construction subscribes to a theory of free will.” That is, we cannot say “Bill laughed Debbie” as a substitute for “Bill made Debbie laugh,” whereas we can say “Bill bent the hanger” instead of “Bill made the hanger bend.” The idea is that because Debbie has free will, Bill’s antics can contribute to her laughing but can’t be its total cause, whereas the will-less hanger is totally coerced by Bill’s action.
Pinker offers similar examples, and his idea of microclasses seems applicable, but I managed to come up with a fair number of counterexamples, such as “Bill cheered Mary up” (so Mary cheered up), or even “Stengel pitched Ford in Game 6" (so Ford pitched in Game 6). There’s an echo of the notion of free will in the reluctance of verbs like “laugh” and “cry” to enter into causative constructions, but it’s hardly a universal feature of the intransitive verbs that apply to people.
Pinker would like language to be as precise a guide to the mind’s machinery as the behavior of particles in force fields is a guide to the laws of physics. He sees linguistic regularities abounding, and he tries using them to penetrate the hidden “language of thought,” whose most critical ingredients are “ethereal notions of space, time, causation, possession, and goals.” Although I’m less sanguine than Pinker about language’s regularity -- and, indeed, about the existence of a “language of thought” -- I find his thesis well worth contemplating.
In pursuit of it, Pinker spells out three competing theories about the relationship between words and thinking and then attempts to demolish them. One is the truly bizarre theory of philosopher Jerry Fodor that Pinker calls “Extreme Nativism.” According to this theory, every last one of our concepts is innate (including “doorknob,” “dishwasher,” “trombone” and “photosynthesis”). Wisely, Pinker devotes little effort to dismantling such profound silliness. He next takes on “Radical Pragmatics,” the idea that words have such fluid meanings that any theory of fixed word meanings is impossible. An example he cites is “The ham sandwich wants his check.” Here, of course, “ham sandwich” refers to the customer rather than the edible. The cognitive scientist Gilles Fauconnier has explored such usages and many other related mysteries of language and thought in great detail in a marvelous series of books, beginning in 1994 with “Mental Spaces” and most recently in “The Way We Think,” co-written with Mark Turner. I find it odd that the author of “How the Mind Works” never cites the authors of “The Way We Think.”
Then Pinker turns to “Linguistic Determinism,” a.k.a. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which one’s native language constrains one’s thoughts. Pinker spells out several versions of this idea and provides insightful arguments against them, though he admits that a weak version might have some validity. He concludes that these three rival theories of words’ relation to thought undermine one another circularly and that his own theory of a language of thought, which he dubs “conceptual semantics,” sits unscathed at the center of this unhappy circle.
The climax of a chapter about space, time and causality in language and thought is a set of eight diagrams showing how “agonists” (entities to which human minds unconsciously attribute a tendency either to move or to stay put) are affected by “antagonists” (agents that exert force on the agonists). If an antagonist’s force is great enough, it counters the agonist’s tendency to do its thing; otherwise, the agonist successfully resists the force. Also, an antagonist can start or stop acting, thereby altering the agonist’s state of motion or rest. The diagrams sum up a whole theory of how human minds conceive of motion and its causes.
This theory, devised by linguist Len Talmy and called “force dynamics,” is a key element of Pinker’s language of thought as well as a kind of intuitive physics resembling the Aristotelian view of motion, in which objects have intrinsic desires to be certain places; however, it conflicts seriously with the laws of physics as we know them now. Pinker sees this “irrational” aspect of human thought as central to how the mind works. He claims that our concepts of substance, space, time and causality are “digital where the world is analogue, austere and schematic where the world is rich and textured, vague even when we crave precision. . . “
Pinker broaches the knotty question of metaphor by quoting the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence and then, in a deft unpacking, reveals how riddled with spatial metaphors our abstract thought is: “Some people are hanging beneath some other people, connected by cords. As stuff flows by, something forces the lower people to cut the cords and stand beside the upper people, which is what the rules require. They see some onlookers, and clear away the onlookers’ view of what forced them to do the cutting.” He cites cognitive scientist George Lakoff as the “messiah” of the extreme theory that metaphor is all we have. While he praises some of Lakoff’s views, he faults him for refusing to accept the existence of true or false ideas and crediting only ideas with differing levels of usefulness and trendiness. He builds a convincing case, however, that even Lakoff firmly believes in truth and falsity and that Lakoff’s theory is thus self-undermining. Pinker, by contrast, champions the mind’s ability to make analogies and judge them for aptness or lack thereof. The centrality of metaphor in human thought does not inevitably lead to a flaccid relativism negating everything science and technology have brought us: “Our powers of analogy allow us to apply ancient neural structures to newfound subject matter, to discover hidden laws and systems in nature, and not least, to amplify the expressive power of language itself.”
That expressive power is illustrated in a chapter on the relationship between objects and their names and, in particular, on where new words come from. Pinker shows pictures of a spiky shape and a cloudy shape and asks, “Which of these is the malooma, and which is the takata?”
This delightful question, first posed by psychologists Paolo Bozzi and Giovanni Flores d’Arcais in 1967, is almost universally answered by pairing the sound “takata” with the spiky sharpness and “malooma” with the fluffy roundness -- a lovely lesson showing that the connection between sound and meaning is not totally arbitrary.
Pinker’s conclusion is an optimistic view of how words and language-based mechanisms of thinking, although prone to error, grant us at least a glimpse of the true nature of the real world, rather than just the shadowy, subjective perception afforded the prisoners in Plato’s famous cave.
“The Stuff of Thought” is a complex meditation on language and thought by a scientist whose ideas come not only from extensive psychological experimentation and careful reading of the literature but also from a lifetime of detailed observations of language in the real world -- newspaper articles, TV programs, books, websites and so on.
Although I can’t completely accept its arguments, they are invariably engaging and provocative, and the examples Pinker offers are filled with humor and fun. It’s good to have a mind as lively and limpid as his bringing the ideas of cognitive science to the public while clarifying them for his scientific colleagues.