»  The American Conservative

October 8, 2007

  Speaking Your Mind

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
by Steven Pinker


Back in 1854, English mathematician George Boole published a book titled An Investigation into the Laws of Thought. The objects of his inquiry, Boole tells us, were "the fundamental laws of those operations of the mind by which reasoning is performed." He sought to mathematize those laws and hoped, incidentally, to gather "some probable intimations concerning the nature and constitution of the human mind." Looking back on Boole's work a half-century later, Bertrand Russell sniffed, "If his book had really contained the laws of thought, it was curious that no-one should ever have thought in such a way before."

What Boole in fact succeeded in doing was creating symbolic logic, a branch of applied mathematics — the algebraization of deductive reasoning. There is much more to thought than just deductive reasoning, so Russell had a point. Still, the idea that our thoughts obey their own laws, and that those laws can be worked out and expressed mathematically, like the laws of physics, is very appealing. It is more appealing now than ever before, as experimental neuroscience, fortified by new techniques for brain imaging, and new understandings of the human genome (which has a construction template for the brain, as for every other organ), allow us to treat thought as a physiological process, like digestion, and observe it taking place, and speculate about its evolutionary history.

Since we use language to express our thoughts, one obvious way to investigate the "laws of thought" is by studying language. This is Steven Pinker's approach in his new book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Pinker reminds us, though, that this commonsensical point of view is controversial. Twentieth-century behavioral psychologists came close to asserting that thought does not exist, and that only language, with other forms of observable behavior, is worthy of study. Their spirit was carried forward by linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, whose famous 1956 hypothesis argued that the "laws of thought" are different for speakers of different languages. So pervasive were these ideas, Pinker tells us, that while writing this book, he had to stop telling people it was about "language and thought" because they all assumed it would be about how language shapes thought — "the only relation between the two that occurred to them."

Modern psycholinguistic theories can in fact be laid out on a spectrum. At the left end of the spectrum (using "left" here with Orwell's Newspeak in mind) is Linguistic Determinism, the idea that if thoughts exist at all, they are entirely at the mercy of language. I don't think anyone believes the precisely opposite thing, that language has no influence on thinking at all, but Pinker's "conceptual semantics" is well to the right of center on the spectrum.

In The Stuff of Thought he gives over a whole chapter to refuting three different current language-drives-thought theories: Extreme Nativism (nothing to do with immigration: "nativism" is a term of art in cognitive science, referring to innate mental structures), Radical Pragmatism, and Linguistic Determinism. None of these can be fairly summarized in a sentence or two, and Pinker is properly respectful of serious intellectual opponents, but he succeeds in showing that each of these three theories has loaded onto a single true idea more weight than the idea can bear. At the end of this chapter — the most difficult, but most rewarding, in the book — Pinker nails his own theses to the church door. The parentheses here are my own.

Word meanings can vary across languages [the true idea overloaded by Linguistic Determinism] because children assemble and fine-tune them from more elementary concepts. They can be precise [Extreme Nativism] because the concepts zero in on some aspects of reality and slough off the rest. And they can support our reasoning because they represent lawful aspects of reality — space, time, causality, objects, intentions, and logic — rather than the system of noises that developed in a community to allow them to communicate [Radical Pragmatics]. Conceptual semantics [Pinker's own outlook] fits, too, with our common-sense notion that words are not the same as thoughts, and indeed, that much of human wisdom consists of not mistaking one for the other.

What, then, does language tell us about the "laws of thought"? In Pinker's account — what he calls "a word's-eye view of human nature" — it tells us that, in the first place, we build our thinking from a modest inventory of fundamental concepts like events, states, things, changing, having, containing, and causing; and in the second place, that we apply and extend these fundamental concepts via metaphor, analogy, allusion, and allegory in wonderfully imaginative ways. Here, for instance, is the Pinkerian reduction of a very famous sentence:

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.

That is the opening sentence of the United States Declaration of Independence ("When in the course of human events..."), with its metaphors stripped down to their roots. Something has of course been lost in the reduction, but it is instructive to see the basic mental concepts lurking beneath the surface of those proud familiar words.

That our thinking depends on mental models of space, time, substance, and causality would not have been news to Kant or Aristotle. The pleasure of Pinker's book is in watching the careful skill with which he peels back the linguistic layers that clothe those models. The whole performance brought to my mind (very Pinkerishly, I now see) those elaborate colored diagrams in anatomy textbooks, in which you can leaf through successive transparencies to remove the skin, musculature, and organs to reveal at last the skeleton.

Kant and Aristotle both get several mentions in The Stuff of Thought, registering the fact that it is hard to discuss these topics without trespassing into metaphysics. The essential quality of thought is that it is about something. Some thoughts — the ones Boole was interested in, for example — are about other thoughts. The rest, though, are about things and persons in the external world, or as much as we can know of that world through our senses. "Reality," as a great novelist observed, is one of the few words that mean nothing without quotes. This idea of the world as illusion, or at any rate of our knowledge of it as irredeemably imperfect, informs all philosophy and religion. In the West, it found its canonical form in Plato's image of the cave, with our impressions of the world as flickering shadows on the cave wall.

Pinker puts Plato's cave at the center of his closing chapter, "Escaping the Cave," but as a starting point for a much more expansive view of human mental capability. We are not, he says, prisoners of some pre-set menu of thinkable thoughts. We can enlarge our understanding by the psycholinguistic tricks he has been describing — by dreaming up new metaphors and analogies. Our natural mental inclination regarding number, for example, is "one, two, many": yet we can educate children to manipulate numbers like 54,201. We can even, in higher mathematics, say nontrivial things about infinite numbers.

Likewise in our social thinking:

In the governance of institutions, openness and accountability can be reinforced by reminding people that the intuitions of truth they rely on in their private lives — their defense against being cheated or misinformed or deluded — also apply in the larger social arena. These reminders can militate against our natural inclinations towards taboo, polite consensus, and submission to authority.

I am a great fan of Pinker's and I enjoyed this new book very much. Like his others, it breathes the spirit of good-natured, rational, humane inquiry. A few commentators — our own Steve Sailer, for instance — have criticized Pinker in the past for being excessively diplomatic about human group differences; but surely a scholar who has said in public that yes, men and women have different innate capabilities, and yes, Ashkenazi Jews have higher mean intelligence than the rest of us, and no, parenting styles have little effect on the maturation of personality, and a great many other things very shocking to the common sensibility of our times, is paying his dues. In any case, the only part of this new book likely to bring a blush to the cheek of a Chief Diversity Officer is one titled "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television," which is of course about swearing and taboo speech. If teenage boys still frequent bookstores, this chapter will be the best-thumbed one in shelf copies.

Also like Pinker's previous books, this one is filled with small linguistic delights — jokes, puns, paradoxes, and even a scattering of familiar comic strips to illustrate some of the author's points. I learned some words, too: "momentaneous," for instance, to describe an event, like the swatting of a fly, that, while it occupies some measurable amount of time in the real — sorry, "real" — world, can be treated by language as instantaneous. (Though I think my favorite is "whimperative" — the excessively diffident way of getting someone to do something, as in, "I was wondering if you might pass the salt.")

The author explains in his introduction that The Stuff of Thought is intended as the third volume in a trilogy about language and mind (that is, following Pinker's 1994 The Language Instinct and 1999 Words and Rules), and at the same time as the third in another trilogy about human nature (following his 1997 How the Mind Works and 2002 The Blank Slate). This book is intended, in other words, as a sort of capstone on an inverted-V structure of previous works. If this means that Steven Pinker is done with writing books for lay readers about linguistics and cognitive science, I take it as very bad news.