No Dark Magic

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The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by Steven Pinker

Posted at — Feb 27, 2020

I believe that this is how non-fiction books should be.

Nothing is assumed about the knowledge of the reader (apart from some slightly advanced English vocabulary), and nothing is dumbed down. The author carefully unpacks one linguistics theory after the other, and the journey is nothing short of delightful.

Speaking of theories: ever heard of the one claiming that the language you speak shapes your thinking? As in, if there’s no word for a feeling X in your language, you can’t really think about it? It is very popular, what’s with the bazillion words Eskimos have for snow and whatnot. But it’s not true.

It gets more interesting and intricate.

Why are these sentences more or less interchangeable…​
Babs stuffed the turkey with breadcrumbs.
Babs stuffed breadcrumbs into the turkey.

…​but these aren’t?
Amy poured water into the glass.
*Amy poured the glass with water.

Why does “Amy poured the glass with water” sound weird, and how do children (and adult learners of English) know that it sounds weird? The first few chapters examine fine details like that. It is a preparation for talking about cause, effect, time, and location in human speech; and that in turn is a preparation to talking about metaphors.

The beauty of human thinking is that we’re able to look at a situation and associate it with another one which is similar to it only on a very abstract level.

X’s daughter was diving for sand dollars. X pointed out where there were a great many sand dollars, but X’s daughter continued to dive where she was. X asked why. She said that the water was shallower where she was diving. This reminded X of the joke about the drunk who was searching for his keys under the lamppost because the light was better there even though he had lost the keys elsewhere.

Being reminded of a joke is nice enough, but being able to apply an abstract metaphor in science is sometimes groundbreaking, and it’s the same mechanism.

There is also a discussion of theories about invention of new words (and people naming their babies), a chapter on swearwords (more informative and intriguing than Svordomsboken, by the way), and a careful exploration of politeness and veiled threats.

In the end, all these threads come together.

The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements in empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in selective analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations. […​] With the use of metaphor and combination, we can entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs. We can do this even as our minds flicker with the agonists and antagonists, the points and lines and slabs, the activities and accomplishments, the gods and sex and effluvia, and the sympathy and deference and fairness that make up the stuff of thought.


(499 pages, ISBN:0670063274, Worldcat, Open Library)

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