Steven Pinker: The stuff of thought

In an exclusive preview of his new book, The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker looks at language, and the way it expresses the workings of our minds. By analyzing common sentences and words, he shows us how, in what we say and how we say it, we’re communicating much more than we realize.

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3 thoughts on “Steven Pinker: The stuff of thought

  1. I really appreciated that. He condensed a lot of vague thoughts I’ve had over the years.There is an additional use of indirect language, where the authority issues commands cloaked in the spider-web-thin guise of polite suggestions or requests. The subjects have no choice but to obey. Even commenting on the truth can get us in trouble. We get this the first day of kindergarten, and we see it all the way through 12th grade. We see it in jury duty. We get it from security guards. It is the ‘polite’ form of cop-speak, the form that comes before the Tasers, guns, or truncheons come out.Why is it there? Nobody is fooled by any illusion of choice. Is it there because the authorities like to delude themselves into believing they aren’t bullies?I’m asking because I really don’t know.

  2. Yes, wonderful summation. I’ve been toying with a list of “containers” for some years, and it’s great to hear Pinker explain the container/conceptual-structure underpinnings of language so concisely.I’d view the guard-citizen situation through a grid similar to the one Pinker showed for the Fargo bribery example. While i’m not certain of the exact situation that you’re imagining, my (highly generalized and simplified) grid would be:(guard request) | cooperative citizen | uncooperative citizen—————————————————————-no request | action not taken | action not taken—————————————————————-“polite” request | nonviolent, action taken | belligerent, action partially taken—————————————————————-“rude” request | belligerent, action partially taken | violent, action not takenSo I’d think that there’s no need for any delusion, self or otherwise, just plausible deniability (as Pinker mentioned), which allows/forces the participants to abide by whatever social compacts are pertinent to the situation. I would guess that the vast majority of participants, both guards and citizens, would prefer to have a successfully nonviolent exchange, and deniability – the “polite” guard – would allow this.

  3. I wanted to mention that while this post is about a “preview” of the book, the book itself has been out for several months. It’s *long*, but there’s a lot of good information in it.Now, in a blatant abuse of this comment, I’d like to mention that I’m running several experiments on language and thought along the lines of the stuff Pinker writes about in his book ( There isn’t anything at the moment on bribery, but Pinker and I have been kicking around some ideas, so stay tuned.

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