There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will.
These conceptions vary in their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic. Though these ideas are woven into language, their roots are deeper than language itself. They lay out the ground rules for how we understand our surroundings, how we assign credit and blame to our fellows, and how we negotiate our relationships with them. A close look at our speech—our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies—can therefore give us insight into who we are.
That is the premise of the book you are holding, The STUFF of THOUGHT: Language as a Window into Human Nature by Pinker S. the third in a trilogy written for a wide audience of readers who are interested in language and mind. The first, The Language Instinct, was an overview of the language faculty: everything you always wanted to know about language but were afraid to ask. A language is a way of connecting sound and meaning, and the other two books turn toward each of those spheres.
Words and Rules was about the units of language, how they are stored in memory, and how they are assembled into the vast number of combinations that give language its expressive power. The Stuff of Thought is about the other side of the linkage, meaning. Its vistas include the meanings of words anc constructions and the way that language is used in social settings, the topic that linguists call semantics and pragmatics.
At the same time, this volume rounds out another trilogy: three books on human nature. How the Mind Works tried to reverse-engineer the psyche in the light of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. The Blank Slate explored the concept of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. This one broaches the topic in still another way: what we can learn about our makeup from the way people put their thoughts and feelings in words.
As in my other books on language, the early chapters occasionally dip into technical topics. But I have worked hard to make them transparent, and I am confident that my subject will engage anyone with an interest in what makes us tick. Language is entwined with human life. We use it to inform and persuade, but also to threaten, to seduce, and of course to swear. It reflects the way we grasp reality, and also the image of ourselves we try to project to others, and the bonds that tie us to them. It is, I hope to convince you, a window into human nature.
- Words and Worlds
- Down the Rabbit Hole
- Fifty Thousand Innate Concepts (and Other Radical Theories of Language and Thought)
- Cleaving the Air
- The Metaphor Metaphor
- What’s in a Name?
- The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television
- Games People Play
- Escaping the Cave