The Stuff of Thought and Steven Pinker in Tucson

It’s sometimes harder to describe what comes naturally than it is what comes artificially. We learn to speak by virtue of being around adults who speak, and yet analyzing the languages humans have developed and what those languages represent is harder than it is for a toddler to intuitively learn them. Speaking develops with no schooling aside from the “school” of other humans—and yet its manifold distinctions are the subject of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, a complex book that gives some answers leading toward still more questions as he tries to explain the paradoxical mysteries of consciousness and perception.

The subtext of The Stuff of Thought seems to be that language affects us more than we consciously realize and that our uses of language tends to occur in previously unexamined patterns that, once perceived, can be better used to our advantage. Such bold statements take some explaining: language reveals a great deal about us, Pinker argues, including theories of causation embedded inflectionally in some languages and syntactically in English. Some examples are simple: “John threw the ball” indicates who acted on what, and in that model it is difficult to misinterpret what is being said and who is doing what to what. Throw in prepositions and other spatial features encoded in language, however, and it becomes steadily harder to grasp precisely why “A sad movie makes you sad, but a sad person is already sad,” even if we understand the difference without being told the rule. The Stuff of Thought is a guided tour through what we didn’t know that we know. “I am exploring my sexuality; you are promiscuous; she is a slut,” and while all three phrases or words might describe the same fundamental behavior, and yet each has very different and apparent shades of meaning, from positive to pejorative.

This is an example of how we “flip frames,” or understand an event in multiple ways depending on its context. In Newsweek, Lynne Spears—the mother of children famous for celebrity and fecundity, in that order—said of one who recently gave birth at 17, “But [despite] a situation that has fallen in her lap, she’s doing exceptionally well[…]” Notice the phrase, “a situation that has fallen in her lap,” as if the person involved had no agency and was struck by a meteor on her way to school. Then again, maybe the girl in question didn’t have as much agency as classical economists would believe; in Dan Ariely’s excellent Predictably Irrational, he discusses an experiment in which students who were aroused admitted to considerably risk taking in an inventory of potential sexual behaviors than those who were not.* The frame Lynne Spears uses betrays at least some idea of her “frame,” but if we’re not paying attention to her statement, we’re likely to miss it. Furthermore, to be fair, Lynne Spears might refer to her daughter’s choice long after conception, at which point it’s too late to remake the past and one must deal with the options at hand. Temporal ambiguity—a subject Pinker discusses in Chapter 4, “Cleaving the Air”—becomes essential, and nothing about what Lynne Spears said indicates the precise time period she meant. It turns out that such relativity is inherent in language, which applies imprecise spatial metaphors to time, leaving us with the uncertainty much celebrated by Deconstructionists.

Other chapters in The Stuff of Thought deal with metaphors, naming, and game theory, but to go into each would expand this post into a weak shadow of the book, rather than a pointer in its direction. Some extra discussion is warranted, though, and Pinker also discusses swearing and how it changes over time in Chapter 7, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” and especially why so much revolves around excretion, sex, and religion. The power of the latter has declined in much of the West along with belief in a literal manifestation of God, and Pinker speculates that phrases like “go to hell,” or “damnit,” that are sufficiently innocuous to be broadcast on television, might have been more threatening when people believed they were Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God (sample: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some detestable insect, over the fire, detests you, and is dreadfully provoked”). Those around excretion and sex, however, still hold more power because they’re both vectors for disease, literally, and the latter can also be a vector for emotional disease, as many pop songs and novels about jilted love attest.

The good news is that Pinker visited Tucson on his tour for the paperback edition of The Stuff of Thought. The bad news for readers is that he hewed so closely to the material in it as to render the talk itself redundant. The points were identical and the examples to support generalizations merely less frequent and deep. But he did expand slightly on issues of swearing and “how to identify and quantify the material world,” and perhaps the most interesting part of his talk was not the talk itself but the audience’s reaction to his discussion of swearing. It’s fairly unusual to hear an impeccably dress professor speculate about the tabooness of words like “fuck” and “cunt,” and the audience tittered appropriately. Pinker can euphemize with the best, referring to “the gynecological-flagellative term for uxorial dominance” at one point in The Stuff of Thought. He leapt between high and low registers with relative ease, and I suppose after discussing the issues numerous times it becomes easier to keep one’s equanimity around swearing. At the end Pinker discussed using language and knowledge of what others know as a way to redefine relationships, expressing the dangers of being too blunt or not blunt enough, and suffering the consequences in the form of missed opportunities or social blunders. One might avoid the kinds of problems from Chapter 8, “Games People Play,” by refusing to feel awkwardness or by reducing one’s susceptibility to societal influence. But he never went that far, and some problems he presents leaves us with the implied answers or ameliorations, like a coyer version of Machiavelli in The Prince.

The sense of Pinker giving only a small taste of his book was reflected in the question and answer period: someone would ask a question, Pinker would begin to elaborate, and then refer the questioner to the relevant chapter. Materials as complex as his can’t easily be summarized and grokked, particularly because one of his book’s major virtues is the wealth of examples and metaphors he uses to describe the general principles he and others have derived from language itself. It’s also a drawback of this post: I’ve tried to give a general overview of Pinker’s ideas, but my own writings are at such a surface level that they can do no more than point to the book. Call it the difference between something like Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary, which would’ve been better left a newspaper article and The Stuff of Thought, a book whose teachings are easier to describe than to apply. Pinker has accomplished a difficult task in synthesizing so much research, but its readers have the harder work of deciding what to do with what we’ve learned.

* I won’t give away the experiment design; for that, you’ll have to read Predictably Irrational.

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