Running in people’s minds (Pinker, 2007, p.4).” Pinker

Running Head: A WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 1A Window Into Human NatureA Book Review on Steven Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought”2015-08390University of the Philippines – Diliman, Quezon CityIn partial fulfillment of the coursePsychology 145: Psychology of LanguageSubmitted to:Professor Ramon Joseph DagumanSubmitted on:December 15, 2017A WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 2″Language is entwined with human life… It reflects the way we grasp reality, and also theimage of ourselves we try to project to others, and the bonds that tie us to them (Pinker, 2007).”Steven Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” probes how the human mind works through examining ouruse of words. In this book, Pinker depicts language as a medium by which we examine our innerruminations; it shows how language is a “window into human nature.”Pinker puts it best when he says, “The nature of reality does not dictate the way thatreality is represented in people’s minds (Pinker, 2007, p.4).” Pinker invites us to think of thismetaphorically: that our minds or inner world exists within a cave, and our relationship with theworld is comprised of the shadowy representations that are made available to us by our minds(as discussed in chapter 9) (Pinker, 2007). As the book discusses about reality and how peoplegrasp it, perhaps its contents can be best summarized visually in ?Figure 1 ? below.Figure 1. Visual Summary of the “Stuff of Thought”Firstly, let us have an overview of the contents of the book to explain ?Figure 1 ?. Chapter 2talks about how we descend through the rabbit hole of the English verb system – it elucidates onhow children solve the induction problem of extracting a set of rules to understand and to expressnew thoughts in language, how verbs are the chassis of sentences, and how the framing ofevents affects meaning. Chapter 3 mainly explains the merits of the theory of conceptualsemantics (our inventory of concepts and the schemes that combine them) by contrasting it toA WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 3Fodor’s extreme nativism, radical pragmatics, and linguistic determinism. Chapter 4 thendescribes how space, time, causality, and substance are represented in language, in the mind,and in reality; Pinker talks about how our conceptualizations of these are confined by how ourminds choose to interpret them. Chapter 5 explains why people usually cannot put two wordstogether without allusions, allegories, and metaphors; whereas Chapter 6 focuses on names -how we come to coin terms for certain objects and how names are rigid designators instead ofabbreviated descriptions. Afterwhich, chapter 7 talks about the mysteries of cursing; particularlythe origin of taboo words and how these words are dysphemistic (calling to mind the mostdisagreeable aspects of a referent). Chapter 8, on the other hand, talks about the wonderment ofindirect speech: how our choices of words make a difference, affect our social relations, andexpress matters about our nature as social beings. In this paper, for the sake of organization, Iwill explain and critique Pinker’s most salient arguments chapter-by-chapter to give you a moreholistic view of his ideas – moving from representations, words, and, their social uses. Pinker’sbook can be considered pioneering in that many researchers have produced empirical evidencefor the workings of the psychology of language, but very few have tied it back to human nature asPinker has done. Perhaps through this endeavor of evaluating his ideas, we can have aprofounder insight on the stuff of thought.Chapter 2 focuses on the intriguing process of language acquisition. Noam Chomskyargues that children are equipped with an innate universal grammar, but as Pinker hasmentioned, this is improbable since the logic of induction mandates that children must formassumptions about language before they are able to learn it. This is corroborated by the MotorTheory of Perception which supports how there is a link between perception and production evenshortly after birth, and how infants in their first year make assumptions about their language andnarrow down the acoustic consequences of all languages to those that are applicable to their own(Carroll, 2008).A WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 4In his approach to the language acquisition dilemma, Pinker evaluates verb constructions.He considers verbs to be sentence frameworks with receptacles for other elements (e.g. subject,object, etc.). How are we able to explain children’s mastery of positive exceptions such asirregular verb forms? To explain the paradox of a child seeming to learn the unlearnable, Pinkerasserts that instead of the rule transforming the arrangement of phrases in a construction, ittransforms the framing of events that goes into its meaning. He gives the following examples toclarify this point: (1) ?Hal loaded the wagon with hay. (2) ?Hal loaded hay into the wagon ?. Sentence1 is a container-locative construction, in which A (Hal) causes C (wagon) to change state bycausing B (hay) to go to C. Sentence 2 is a content-locative construction, in which A causes B togo to C (Pinker, 2007). This flip in interpretation is present in the mind itself, and helps explain theholism effect (when one loads hay onto a wagon, it may be of any amount, but when one loadsthe wagon with hay, it is implied that the wagon is full). To put things simply, children are able tolearn the rules of language because the mind does not focus on what a verb or a rule does (i.e.construe the container as the object being affected), but rather emphasizes what things are andhow they change. Pinker uses the Gestalt Perception Parallel to explain how when there aremultiple ways to interpret an event, we keep a certain portion in focus while the others remain inthe background. That people around the world share a complex mental process in categorizingverbs and their constructions in this way has evidence. Based on data from 50 languages, Allanasserts that linguistically speaking, people categorize certain events and communicate aboutthem similarly (1977). He found that classifiers denote a principal perceived attribute of an entityto which a word refers. Despite this, in focusing on the importance of framing in allowing childrento learn verbs better, Pinker has underestimated the importance of grammatical rules in general.It is one thing to correctly perceive the reality that verbs are constructing in a sentence, and it isanother matter to know how to express this properly semantically. If framing is the main basis forlanguage acquisition around the world, then how come children have different mean length ofA WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 5utterances in morphemes (MLUs, a measure of linguistic productivity) at different ages in differentcultures (Carroll, 2008)? It is my opinion that perhaps the complexity of the grammatical rules of acertain language (e.g. how some sentence constructions are easier to learn in Hebrew thanEnglish) should be considered tantamount to framing in learning verbs. Yes, we may visualizeand frame sentences a certain way in our minds, but this is also immensely affected by howcomplicated constructions are in our language; successful framing is largely a function ofgrammar itself, and I opine that Pinker could have shed more light on this.Moving on from how words are acquired, let us now delve into how words are representedin the mind. In chapter 3, Pinker explains what Jackendoff’s theory of conceptual semantics(which emphasizes how word meanings are represented in the mind as assemblies of basicconcepts in a language of thought) is by comparing it to what it is not: Fodor’s extreme nativism(which stresses having an innate mental organization), radical pragmatics (the idea that the minddoes not have fixed representations of word meanings since words are fluid), and linguisticdeterminism (our native language determines the kinds of thoughts we can think). Personally, Ithink that Fodor’s claim that the meanings of words cannot be decomposed into simpler units ispeculiar, since the very process of defining words involves decomposition (University of Illinois,1989). Radical pragmatics’ claim that a word lacks a precise mental representation is repudiatedby the existence of an internal lexicon (our representation of words in permanent memory) whichallows us to associate properties of words in our minds (Carroll, 2008). This is also evidenced byhow lexical decision tasks have allowed researchers to attain lexical representations ofSerbo-Croatian nouns (Lukatela, Gligorijevic, & Kostic, 1980). Pinker is also able to justify howpolsemy (the coexistence of different meanings for words) occurs because of the interactionbetween memorized forms and combinatorial operations, not from a lack of mental representationfor words. Linguistic determinism on the other hand, or at least its strong version (saying that onlylanguage determines thought), is defeated by how thought also influences language (e.g. despiteA WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 6the lack of a term for a new color, it can be distinguished from other colors) (Carroll, 2008).However, in explaining what conceptual semantics is by explaining what it is not, Pinker forgoesthe onus probandi (burden of proof). What then is conceptual semantics? Despite giving a formaldefinition for it, I opine that Pinker has failed to adequately expound on its implications andprinciples. Jackendoff’s theory can be criticized for its obscurity, as both Wierzbicka (2007a,2007b) and Goddard (1998, 2001) have said. Personally, I also find conceptual semantics to betoo abstract to represent word organization. Jackendoff proposes the representation of meaningsin assemblies in the mind, but these assemblies have been called obscure since they may bearbitrary and vary from one person to the next. Jackendoff’s theory also loses ground as he says,”Primitives (assemblies) can never be justified: (it) only makes sense in the context of the overallsystem of primitives in which it is embedded (Jackendoff, 1990).” It seems that the use ofconceptual semantics to explain mental representations may be too variable and arbitrary. I findthat in giving a theory for mental word organization, it has to be more constant from person toperson.?From looking into mental word representations, let us now focus our study onrepresentations of space, time, causality, and substance in particular which were discussed inchapter 4. Pinker mentions how substances, with which we use mass nouns, lack intrinsicboundaries and can spill into a variety of shapes; whereas multitudes, with which we use countnouns, can be conceived as separate individuals (2007). This coincides with Whorf’s descriptionof mass nouns lacking clear boundaries and of count nouns having definite boundaries; Whorftakes this a step further, asserting that these grammatical distinctions affect our worldview(Carroll 2008). Pinker also mentions how it is typically unpredictable whether a kind of mattershould be referred to as a count or mass noun (2007). For instance, he finds it confounding howwe consider “noodles” to be a count noun and yet deem “rice” to be a mass noun. Pinker is ableto mention how the counthood and masshood of these words vary among languages due toA WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 7differences in culture and exposure to them, but he fails to mention that there is a more simple,essential basis for why words are considered predominantly count or mass nouns in differentcultures. In examining count and mass nouns across 14 classes of language terms, Wierzbicka(as cited in Hampton & Moss, 2004) found that apart from exposure or interaction with the object,perceptual conspicuousness plays a more important role in count-mass distinctions (1988); thatis, aggregates of count nouns such as noodles are considered as such because their parts aremore conspicuous (e.g. larger) than mass nouns such as rice which are harder to individuate.Perhaps Pinker has taken the arbitrary mass-count noun divisibility argument too far whileneglecting the weight of simpler arguments. I think that in building his arguments, Pinker shouldgive greater credence to parsimony, starting with the most obvious and simplest explanations forphenomena.Chapter 5 then discusses humanity’s fondness of a particular way to represent words andmeanings: metaphors. Pinker has been keen to discuss conceptual metaphors, which hementions are umbrella metaphors that underlie verbal metaphors (e.g. ARGUMENT IS WAR is aconceptual metaphor with “Your claims are indefensible,” and “He attacked every weak point inmy argument,” as verbal metaphors). Although his statement that metaphors may have asuperordinate metaphor holds ground, I challenge his assertion that to be fluent with the variousverbal metaphors of a conceptual metaphor, one has to fathom the conceptual metaphor in asizable depth; that people who do not know the overarching conceptual metaphor would not beable to produce or understand its verbal metaphors. Essentially, Pinker has agreed with the tenetof Lakoff and Johnson’s Conceptual Metaphor Theory for which it is most criticized (Lakoff &Johnson, 1980). Based on the aforementioned theory, it is assumed that we comprehend verbalmetaphors by activating underlying conceptual metaphors (Carroll, 2008); hence, similar toPinker’s statement, the conceptual metaphor is necessary for us to understand verbal metaphors.However, Glucksberg, Keysar, and McGlone have found that in giving participants metaphorsA WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 8such as “Our love is a bumpy roller coaster ride” and asking them to paraphrase them,participants came up with verbal metaphors related to the up-and-down nature of a roller coaster,but failed to give paraphrases closely related to the underlying conceptual metaphor (LOVE IS AJOURNEY) (1992). This does not refute the existence of conceptual metaphors, but rather givescredence to how they may not be automatically accessed during metaphor comprehension.Although participants were not able to access the conceptual metaphor during comprehension,they were still able to give other verbal metaphors related to it, which shows their understandingof the conceptual metaphor. This opposes Pinker’s statement that verbal metaphors cannot beproduced or understood without the underlying conceptual metaphor. In my opinion, Pinkershould be more critical of how he explains phenomena by consulting empirical evidence for them.Beyond giving theoretical arguments, he should countercheck their applications in real life.Chapter 6 on the other hand discusses a particular form of words: names. I urge thereader to bear with me on this part, as the concepts rely heavily on philosophy and truthconditions. In the chapter, Pinker endorses Kripke’s notion that a name is not an abbreviateddescription, but rather a rigid designator (a term that designates the same individual in everypossible world) (Pinker, 2007). Kripke says that descriptions do not intuitively fit a referencedname; for instance, describing Aristotle as a “male philosopher” may be counterintuitive sinceAristotle may not have been a philosopher at all (Pettit, 2004); Perhaps there are someindividuals who do not consider Aristotle to be a philosopher – this would nullify theaforementioned description of him. In light of this, in using a name, Kripke motions that we mustonly refer to its reference, what it actually pertains to in the actual or imagined world (Carroll,2008). When one says the name “Aristotle,” one is referring to his actual referent in the world, tothe man “Aristotle” who once lived, not to his titles and honorifics. Although it is sensical to use aname as a rigid designator, I believe that Kripke has taken it too far. Philosophers who havesupported rigidified descriptivism have argued that at least some names are governed byA WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 9rigidified descriptions; that is, they are described by statements that will always refer to the samething in a world, just like references (Pettit, 2004). For instance, although “Aristotle is a malephilosopher” may not be true for everyone and other imagined worlds, saying that “Aristotle is amale philosopher in the actual world” will always hold true in the actual world because by itsstandards, Aristotle was male and he fits the standard description of what a philosopher is (aperson engaged in the study of philosophy) (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2017). Kripke hasfailed to see that descriptions may be as constant as their references depending on the world oneis referring too (e.g. actual world, imagined world). Moreover, by focusing on only a name’sreference, Kripke has given less importance to its sense (its connection to other words), which isequally important (Carroll, 2008). Descriptions relate names to other concepts and words,showing a name’s sense with them. When we only consider a name’s reference, we aredisregarding much of its sense, which according to Pinker, is vital to the meaning of a word(2007). With this, I think Pinker should be more cautious in citing other theorists such as Kripkewhose notions may be counterfactual to his own (i.e. Pinker clarified the importance of bothsense and reference).Chapter 7 elucidates on another form of words: swear words; particularly, why cursewords evoke the negative emotional reactions that they do. Pinker poses a truly baffling questionwhen he asks about why certain words are considered as taboo curse words, whereas theirsynonyms are not. For example, the term “manure” is freely used on the radio and even in books,but how come actual laws have been written against the use of its expletive-counterpart if theyboth refer to the same thing? Pinker gives out a strong point in saying that the classification ofwords as taboo or curse words depends on what they connote, not only on what they denote. Aconnotation suggests certain aspects of meaning beyond what the name explicitly describes,whereas denotation refers to the objective or dictionary meaning of a word (Carroll, 2008).Although manure and its expletive-counterpart both denote the same substance, the expletive isA WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 10particularly dysphemistic, according to Pinker: it connotes or calls to mind the most disagreeableaspect of the referent (e.g. that the referent of the expletive, an excretion of the human body, maycause disease, according to Pinker) (2007). It may also remind the listeners of the high,negatively-valenced emotions felt by the speaker of the curse word, which may alarm thelisteners. Pinker further bolsters his argument by mentioning how word connotations areprocessed by the amygdala, which helps invest memories with emotions (2007). Thus, when aperson is told an expletive in a negative scenario (e.g. when someone whom he or she hasangered cursed him or her), his or her amygdala may invest this memory with negative emotionswhich may be brought up once he or she encounters the expletive again. This argument ofPinker’s reflects his best quality as a theorist: his ability to look beyond the facade of aphenomenon (e.g. emotions evoked by curse words) to see underlying factors (e.g. connotation)which he backs up with historical and biological evidence.Chapter 8 then talks about the application of words socially – about the “games peopleplay,” or why we often utilize indirect speech in conversations. Pinkers mentions how we chooseour words carefully and speak indirectly because aside from conveying our intentions, we want tomaintain our ties with other people by being polite. Pinker mentions Goffman’s Politeness Theory,that when people interact, they constantly worry about preserving their “face” (a positive socialvalue that a person holds), which causes them to speak more indirectly lest they lose theirpositive image (2007). It is highly unlikely to have qualms with this phenomenon, because asPinker mentions, “politeness is universal,” and we all have the tendency to use indirect speech inorder to be polite (2007). Some researchers have argued, however, that the Politeness Theoryhas wrongfully equated politeness with “saving face.” They have argued that more than savingone’s positive social value to other people, an underlying motivation for politeness is strategicconflict-avoidance (Vilkki, 2006). Pinker could have stressed this more, that politeness is not justfor social propriety and for maintaining one’s ties with another, but rather it is a mechanism toA WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 11prevent conflicts with other people. It is important to note this distinction because humans are notonly social beings; they are also beings for themselves who use language for self-preservation. Itmust be mentioned, however, that Pinker’s argument that we engage in politeness to “save face”is still weighty; it must just be considered commensurate to our need for conflict-avoidance. Onceagain, from this we can see that Pinker should be more careful in citing other theories to supporthis claims.Overall, I found Pinker’s book to be an eye-opener. It is his gift as a theorist to allowothers to see the underlying mechanisms of linguistic phenomena (e.g. cursing, indirect speech,etc.). As we have analyzed the concepts of his chapters from word representations, to words, andto their applications in real life, I have personally gained a profounder understanding of whyhumans use language the way they do, whether to “save face,” avoid conflicts, or simply engagein good conversation. It has influenced me to be more critical of my motivations for my wordchoices and those of others. If there is anything Pinker has left unanswered with regard to humannature and language however, it is explaining how most of his supported theories (e.g.conceptual semantics) fare with real life applications and empirical findings. For instance, are ourmental representations confined within our minds, or do they have concrete manifestations in thereal world? Moreover, given that we now have a greater understanding of people’s motivationsbehind their speech acts (e.g. indirect speech), how then can people improve the flow of theirconversations to avoid conflicts? Lastly, now that we have in-depthly evaluated how our thoughtsaffect our language, how then does language affect our thoughts? These are perhaps musingsfor another book, but for now, Pinker has satisfied me with a greater understanding of thethoughts and feelings I put into words; he has made me understand how language is indeed awindow into human nature.A WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE 12ReferencesAllan, K. (1977). Classifiers. ?Language, ? ?53 ?(2), 285-311. Retrieved from, D. (2008). ?Psychology of Language ? (Fifth ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.Glucksberg, S., Keysar, B. & McGlone, M.S. (1992). Metaphor Understanding and AccessingConceptual Schema: Reply to Gibbs (1992). ?Psychological Review?, ?99 ?, 578-581.Goddard, Cliff (1998) ?Semantic Analysis. ? Oxford University Press.Goddard, Cliff (2001) Review: Language, Logic, and Concepts: Essays in Memory of JohnMacnamara, ed. by Ray Jackendoff, Paul Bloom, and Karen Wynn. ?Journal ofLinguistics? 205-210.Hampton, J., & Moss, H. 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