The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
Brought to you by Penguin.
In The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Steven Pinker looks at how the relationship between words and thoughts can help us understand who we are.
Why do so many swear words involve topics like sex, bodily functions, or the divine? Why do some children's names thrive while others fall out of favour? Why do we threaten and bribe and seduce in such elaborate, often comical ways? How can a choice of metaphor damn a politician or start a war? And why do we rarely say what we actually mean?
Language, as Steven Pinker shows, is at the heart of our lives, and through the way we use it - whether to inform, persuade, entertain or manipulate - we can glimpse the very essence of what makes us human.
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|Listening Length||21 hours and 26 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com.au Release Date||31 October 2019|
|Best Sellers Rank|| 32,582 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
31 in Linguistics (Audible Books & Originals)
114 in Social Psychology
160 in Linguistics Reference
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Top reviews from Australia
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To convince us that small distinctions in language can make a real-world difference, Pinker opens with an insurance claim from the September 11, 2001 destruction of the two World Trade Center towers. The insurer had an upper limit on what they would pay for any single "event" that damaged the buildings. Was the damage caused by the single event of a terrorist attack, as claimed by the insurer? Or was it caused by the separate events of two airplane crashes, as counter-claimed by the buildings' owners? There was no clear answer in the careful legal language of the insurance contract.
There are two ways to read Pinker's book. The first is to read the whole thing, from introduction to closing paragraph. He describes the mental models we build while understanding and reasoning with language. Metaphor helps us use our concrete experience, such as the up/down distinction created by gravity, to inform more abstract dimensions such as better/worse. Pinker also explores the social dimensions that allow us to negotiate relationships while seeming to simply convey information. Having outlined the basics, Pinker turns to more entertaining aspects of language to sharpen our understanding. There is a far-ranging discussion of profanity which describes the "correct" way to swear and explains why some words are taboo. The discussion of the social dimension of naming ranges from generational fads to why some newly coined terms catch on and become part of the language. The long path through the book is satisfying and enjoyable.
The second approach is for the time-constrained or selective reader. In the final chapter, the author provides "...a word's-eye view of human nature, one that emerges from the phenomena of the [preceding] chapters..." This overview outlines the aspects of sensation, cognition, and social relations that shape and are shaped by language. One can read this section of the chapter in a few minutes and note which aspects are unexpected or intriguing. This subset is a guide to the most beneficial sections of the book. Not the full treatment, but still a good read.
This book is recommended for those readers looking for a better understanding of the relationship between language and thought.
Top reviews from other countries
This is the sort of book you buy if you want to pontificate pretentiously around your not-particularly-intelligent friends and reminisce about your time together at Oxbridge spending your parents money.
You may be tempted to ask such questions as "What does Intelligence mean!" and "But don't you find it so interesting that language is like that."
Rest assured there are no meaningful answers within.
Successive chapters look at a range of topics very familiar to philosophers who have theorised about these things without the benefit of the studies psychologists and others have carried out in recent years - do we have innate ideas and is that the source of our ability to use language? does our use of language shape our view of the world? what is our concept of causation? how does metaphor work? how do names (of individuals and natural kinds) refer to things in the world? how does swearing and obscenity work? and what about 'conversational implicature', ie how we use language in ways that make it clear what we mean without saying precisely and literally what we mean.
The treatments of these subjects are generally persuasive, though the discussion is (for all the liveliness of Pinker's style) quite complex and hard going. So: we do have thought prior to speech, we have views about causation and the nature of agency that are probably quite askew from any kind of physics (Newtonian as much as Einstein and beyond - we think instead in terms of 'agonists' and 'antagonists'), metaphors are sometimes indeed dead, sometimes alive and sometimes literary, and there are wider reasons (to do with e.g. authority relationships or membership of a community) why we might not always say precisely and squarely what we mean. And swear words don't seem to work like other locutions grammatically and are more like ejaculations - but ones that place us in a social context as much as ones that express e.g. anger and so on in parts of the brain that otherwise don't much go in for language.
These are interesting conclusions, even if you have read the musings of philosophers on all this (Pinker cites Hume and Lewis on causation; Grice on conversational implicature, Kant on the nature of knowledge, Kripke and Putnam on rigid designators, and he might cite Davidson on metaphor and self-deception). It's probably more interesting if those ideas are new to the reader, however. And I suspect it would be more interesting again if Pinker were to link up this theory to some wider questions - notably how much of a hold does our 'conscious reason' have on our behaviour (see for example the books of Jonathan Haidt) and how far is our language linked to 'slow' as opposed to 'fast' thinking?
Overall not nearly as gripping - and not nearly as revelatory about human life - as his more recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Steven Pinker in his Preface to this examination of language function warns the reader that `the early chapters occasionally dip into technical topics.' That puts it mildly, for this is such a thorough and detailed analysis of the thing that makes us human that one is tempted to use the term `exhaustive' - except that, as Pinker shows us, nothing in this world, including space, time and substance is exhaustive. Even one schooled in linguistic analysis would be sorely tested, though surely fascinated, by the author's exploration of how we acquire and use the tool that enables man to function in a world that without him makes no sense.
With over 450 pages of closely argued and abundantly illustrated verbal and diagrammatical text the casual reader will inevitably struggle to keep afloat. The 60 pages of Notes, References and Index alone bear witness to the range of Steven Pinker's research. And if Pinker is not enough, the reader is invited to delve further into language theory - alphabetically from Abarbanell to Zwicky (yes, these are, I believe, real people) via Hume, Kant and Benjamin Lee Whorf.
Mercifully, for the layman the book is replete with homely examples of language in daily use. Thus the author shows us that someone we call William Shakespeare, whatever scholarly dissenters may maintain, did write Hamlet, many other plays and 154 sonnets, that names do mean something. He concludes that names are `ways to identify unbroken chains of person-to-person transmission through time, anchored to a specific event of dubbing in the past.'
I must confess to having recourse to the occasional re-reading of sentences like the above, but then I am not accustomed to thinking much about the relation between language and thought. Language is the essential tool we take for granted, but it has a history and a future, is volatile and an essential part of everyday existence, providing not only knowledge and information, but solace and humour. In which last this book abounds, despite the high seriousness of the topic; from known witticisms to strip cartoons this book is alive with fun and games: - Mother: `Would you like a piece of toast for breakfast?' Boy: `I'd rather have a whole one, thanks.' A middle-aged couple staring at a notice: `Please don't feed the duck.' He asks her if there isn't something strange about the notice. She asks why, so he begins to explain: `Well, "Duck" is singular. It seems if you don't want people feeding ducks, you'd make it plural: "Please do not feed the -" Final frame in the cartoon: QUACK! comes a voice from the pond. Focus on the notice. `Never mind,' says the man.
However, to anyone with a grounding in Vygotsky, Chomsky, post-Chomsky and early Pinker, it is a very interesting read but in "Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts", having dealt with many of them, he comments: " ... each of the radical theories about language and thought refutes one of the others in a game of rock-paper-scissors".
He also quotes Sassoon:
"Words are fools
Who follow blindly, once they get a lead.
But thoughts are kingfishers that haunt the pools
Of quiet, seldom seen".
Looking at language which would seem, by its very design, "to be a tool with well-defined and limited functionality" (P 178) he considers the limits of language, metaphor and the process of naming. In an amusing chapter, entitled "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" he looks at humanity's curse words and the taboos we build around them. (Here, I must admit to some speed reading to discover what they were!)
Finally, taking us back to Plato's cave, he discusses how language allowed us to describe the cave but also the ways in which language allowed us to venture out of it to be free from its limitations; firstly through metaphor, secondly through the combinational power of language. As a dual tool, these linguistic features by combining analogies and uniting words in new ways, allow the expression of thoughts outside our cave.
Pinker is an original thinker who uses language very clearly to elucidate itself.