Every time we swear, we reveal something about human emotions. When we use an innuendo to convey a bribe, threat, or sexual come-on (rather than just blurting it out), we disclose something about human relationships. Our use of prepositions and tenses tap into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and our nouns and verbs tap into mental models of matter and causation. Even the names we give our babies, as they change from decade to decade, have important things to day about our relations to our children and to society. By looking closely at our everyday speech-our conversations, our jokes, our legal disputes-Pinker paints a vivid picture of the thoughts and emotions that populate our mental lives.
Pinker takes on both scientific questions-like whether language affects thought, and which of our concepts are innate-and questions from the headlines and everyday life. Why does the government care so much about dirty words? How do lobbyists bribe politicians? Why do romantic comedies get such mileage out of the ambiguities of dating? Why do so many courtroom dramas hinge on disagreements about who really caused a person's death? Why have the last two American presidents gotten into trouble by the semantic niceties of their words? And why is bulk email called spam?
The Stuff of Thought marries the two topics of Pinker's earlier bestsellers: language (The Language Instinct, Words and Rules) and human nature (How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate). It presents entirely new material, while written in the style that made those books famous: lucid explanations of deep and powerful ideas, presented with irreverent wit, elegant style, and a deft use of examples from popular culture and everyday life.
"In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker pitches himself as the broker of a scientific compromise between "linguistic determinism" and "extreme nativism." ... He advocates the middle ground of "conceptual semantics," in which the meaning of our words depends on an underlying framework of basic cognitive concepts. ... Pinker tries hard to make this tour of linguistic theory as readable as possible. ... But profanity from Lenny Bruce can't always compensate for the cryptic vocabulary and long list of competing 'isms. ... The Stuff of Thought concludes with an optimistic gloss on the power of language to lead us out of the Platonic cave, so that we can "transcend our cognitive and emotional limitations." It's a nice try at a happy ending, but I don't buy it. The Stuff of Thought, after all, is really about the limits of language, the way our prose and poetry are bound by innate constraints we can't even comprehend."