The Stuff of Thought: : Language as a Window into Human Nature, Paperback

The Stuff of Thought: : Language as a Window into Human Nature Paperback

4 out of 5 (3 ratings)


In "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature", Steven Pinker looks at how the relationship between words and thoughts can help us understand who we are.

Why do so many swear words involve topics like sex, bodily functions or the divine?

Why do some children's names thrive while others fall out of favour?

Why do we threaten and bribe and seduce in such elaborate, often comical ways?

How can a choice of metaphor damn a politician or start a war? And why do we rarely say what we actually mean? Language, as Steven Pinker shows, is at the heart of our lives, and through the way we use it - whether to inform, persuade, entertain or manipulate - we can glimpse the very essence of what makes us human. "Awesome". ("Daily Mail"). "Highly entertaining ...funny and thought-provoking". ("The Times"). "Anyone interested in language should read "The Stuff of Thought" ...moments of genuine revelation and some very good jokes". (Mark Haddon, "Sunday Telegraph" Books of the Year). "No one writes about language as clearly as Steven Pinker, and this is his best book yet". (David Crystal, "Financial Times"). 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 six books, including "The Language Instinct", "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate".


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 512 pages, Illustrations
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Psychology
  • ISBN: 9780141015477



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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

Review by

Innate ideas about space, time and causality are woven into our language, so a close look at our speech can give us insight into who we are.

Review by

This is a truly fascinating book, really putting in perspective for me how language is a window into human nature. It is packed with facts, stories, examples and pure knowledge. There is just a bit too much of it, and some of it is too scholarly for my taste. Pinker uses too much space to explain theories he dosn't support, and the reader is left wondering why. The language itself, ironically, is at times too complicated. However, some of the chapters are true gems, lifechanging I would say...

Review by

Steven Pinker really is an amazing writer: amazing for his ability to attract crank reviews for his books. Let’s take KromesTomes’s review as our example: one star, with the main (or rather the only) criticism being that Pinker is a ‘terribly “loose” writer’.Now, for me, this is strange. It is easy to disagree with some of Pinker’s ideas, as he takes a contentious stand in some of the most fundamental debates in philosophy, psychology and linguistics. His writing style is not normally so controversial – for a writer who likes to tackle the big issues, his prose is unusually lucid. Most people have a stereotype of academic writing in their heads: they think it is dense and dull. Like many stereotypes, it has some truth to it – many academic papers are impenetrable even to specialists in the same field. Academic writing on language, strangely enough, suffers just as much as any other field. Steven Pinker’s writing definitely does not fall into this category – he tries to engage with the reader, to stir up and maintain interest. This is definitely a good idea, as linguistics can be a little dry – try Steven Ullmann’s Semantics: An Introduction to the Science of Meaning as bedtime reading.So, Pinker uses “actually” in a way which is not recorded in Webster’s. Well, I have news (I’m whispering): sometimes people use words in ways which are different to those described in the dictionary. Sometimes they even use words which aren’t even in the dictionary! Imagine that! Actually (can I say that?), this use is in my dictionary (the Oxford): “used to emphasize that something someone has said or done is surprising”. Yet, this is beside the point, which is that it is not at all difficult to know exactly what Pinker meant when he wrote that sentence, just as I know what is meant by a “loose” writer. I’m sure no native speaker of English requires a dictionary to understand it. Google doesn’t sell noun phrases? Well, it sells to companies wishing to advertise on their search engine the right to have their ads display when certain words, usually noun phrases, are entered into the search box by a user. As I have worked on Microsoft’s attempt to compete with Google in this arena, I know that it is common within the industry to speak of “buying and selling keywords”, rather than use a two or three dozen word sentence as I’ve just done. Not only does it save a lot of time in meetings, but this linguistic phenomenon also has a name: synecdoche. I’m sure that one’s in Webster’s. One could pick holes in the English used in the review: some people would object to the comma placed inside the inverted commas in “selling noun phrases,” as this implies that it is part of the quote, or to the use of “but” at the start of a sentence. You might say this is pedantry – I would agree and I apologise – but picking holes in perfectly clear and understandable language (or “how people use language in the real world”) is not restricted to this or the below review. Indeed, Pinker devoted a whole chapter of The Language Instinct to linguistic prescriptivism (Chapter 12 – The Language Mavens). Don’t get me started on the count nouns and mass nouns thing, as I wouldn’t want to keep you here for another ten minutes, although it’s, erm, actually really interesting.Have a read – you’ll enjoy it, even if you don’t agree with it. No dictionary needed.

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