Thursday, September 13, 2007

Steven Pinker's new book: The Stuff of Thoughts: Language as a Window into Human Nature

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and Slate, and is the author of seven books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, and most recently, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. This photo is from the "silly" part of his Harvard website.

In the current New York Review of Books, Colin McGinn reviews Harvard professor Steven Pinker's new book. Some of the articles in the NYRB are are online; unfortunately, not this one. Here's a taste of the review:

After a discussion of how we know, without ever learning reasons, that while we can say both Hal loaded the wagon with hay and Hal loaded hay into the wagon, we can't say John poured water into the glass but not John poured the glass with water, Pinker concludes that the way we understand systems of verbs like these means that we

must possess a language of thought that represents the world according to basic abstract categories like space, time, substance, and motion, and these categories constitute the meaning of the verb. When we use a particular verb in a sentence, we bring to bear this abstract system to 'frame' reality in certain ways, thus imposing an optional grid on the flux of experience. We observe some liquid moving into a container and we describe it either as an act of pouring or as the state of being filled. . . . The grammar of our language reflects this innate system of concepts. As Pinker is aware, this is a very Kantian picture of human cognition.

And, voila, there we are right in the middle of the eighteenth century!