Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Steven Pinker "The Stuff of Thought"

Who would have thought a psychology professor could do stand-up? Formerly a professor of psychology at MIT, Steven Pinker is not only such a good writer, but he is also such a dynamic and entertaining speaker that one can see why Harvard would want to acquire him for its faculty. How the Mind Works is perhaps his best work, addressing consciousness largely at the perceptual level. This current book approaches the mind from a physico-linguistic standpoint, dealing with words not primarily as tags for conceptual abstractions, but rather as mental nexuses which are processed physically in various parts of the brain. For example, he studies how expletives and other taboo words not only have objective referents as universals, but how they also tend to hijack our emotional circuits and, if we do not exert focused mental self-control, cause us to act as outraged mammals rather than rational animals. Read an excellent technical review of the work at Babel's Dawn blog by Edmund Blair Bolles - but keep in mind that the book is less technical in presentation than the review.

I cannot highly enough recommend Pinker's appearance on BookTV. The topic may sound difficult, yet Pinker is not only crystal clear, he is also laugh out loud funny. Click here to see him speek for 45 minutes, commercial free. If you watch the talk, you'll be sold on the book.

Here is Steven Pinker at the Authors@Google conference:


Anonymous said...

I listened to about half of the video. Though he IS very funny, I don't think he has anything new to say.
His "insights" into language are merely re-formulations of basic facts about language, with a Kantian bias that says thought is forced into certain forms.
For example, he observes that we have a preposition, "along," which we can use to speak about movement down a road or about a motion which spans the length of a pencil, etc., but which can't be used to speak of the path of an ant, walking the diameter of a plate. Such an ant must be said to walk "across" the plate. This shows that grammar (prepositions, in this example) force us to attend to certain spatial characteristics: in this case, edges. We reserve "along," Pinker tells us, for spatial situations having edges. This sort of useage demonstrates, he claims, that grammar has a theory of physics--of space, time, and causation-- and that theory controls how we think and speak. Consider, however, that we can say, "The second ant followed ALONG the same path the first took," still without there being an edge. His "data" are anecdotal, not up to academic standards.
It is unremarkable that concepts and the rules for putting them together--grammar--are derived from the way things are, and thus reflect how they are. It is unremarkable to note that concepts and grammar must be used in lawful ways.
His theme seems to be that thought is not objective, but is, rather, controlled by a theory-laden grammar.
Though his examples are amusing, and his credentials impressive, he is selling a point of view that diminishes any claim to objectivity, and that should be taken seriously.

Ted Keer said...

I have to agree that Pinker is open to a lot of criticism from an Objectivist standpoint, which is where I assume you are coming from, anonymous.

He is certainly wrong to say that our grammar forces us to think in a certain way. A sewing patter doesn't force anyone to cut along the lines. It is simply "prepackaging" in a way that is the effect of convention. But the very fact that he can make himself understood shows that one doesn't have to stay within the bounds of a linguistic tradition which is the result of millenia of almlost entirely un-self-aware contributions by anonymous speakers.

Linguists discount prescriptive grammar. People do think sloppily. They have fuzzy concepts. They use false analogies. They don't know the origins or the motivations for the terms they use. This is not, of course, necessary. I would agree that it is far better to use language consciously, self-consciously, and exactly, just as Pinker himself does. Linguists treat this sloppiness as the authentic state of the human mind.

Having studied linguistics for a couple dozen years, I am used to the non-prescriptive mentality of the discipline. Linguists take fuzziness as a primary, and try to explain linguistic developments as consciously unmotivated. They therefore tend to use Kantian language, acting as if it is "the mind" (as noumenal self - although they don't use the term) rather than people's choices which make them talk in a certain way. (Chomsky's entire unfortunate theory of the grammar organ is an ad hoc attempt to explain linguistic competence without having to acknowledge that men can and do abstract.) The idea that speach determines conceptualization is wrongly taken for granted. Common usage is taken for real usage. "Real people" don't think self-consciously they say, only scientists do, and that isn't genuine language according to linguists. Of course, if everyone were raised learning how to conceptualize properly, common usage would be different, and the linguists would have to improve their theories.

I disagree as to whether there is any value in Pinker's thoughts. If one keeps in mind that he deals with people who think sloppily and un-self-consciously, his theories fit his subjects. What the ultimate value of a theory of sloppy thought might be is open to question. But he does prompt thought. I could not recommend this book to someone who wanted a theory of mind and hadn't read Rand or her equivalent. His theories here are fatally flawed as theories of how to think. But he doesn't present them as theories on how one should think, just on how most people do think.

The Psychological channel said...

There is a very interesting and scientific discussion about Steve’s work on the blog section of The Psychological Channel website.


Check it out it will blow your mind

Bob Sanders