2007-11-24: The Stuff of Thought

The Stuff of Thought

Language as a Window into Human Nature (2007)

by Steven Pinker (1954-)

In his preface, Pinker says: “There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has  a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will. These conceptions vary in their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic. Though these ideas are woven into language, their roots are deeper than language itself. They lay out the ground rules for how we understand our surroundings, how we assign credit and blame to our fellows, and how we negotiate our relationships with them. A close look at our speech – our conversations, our jokes, our curses, our legal disputes, the names we give our babies – can therefore give us insight into who we are.”

This is the third in a trilogy written for a wide audience, beginning with The Language Instinct, and Words and Rules. I’ve read the first, but skipped the second with the impression he was addressing a narrow linguistic topic; I’ve started it now.

Generally I think Pinker’s work and writings are very interesting, and well worth reading and thinking about. Just from the preface, I can imagine an interesting pair of works: one would explore the differences between the human model of reality and some other creatures, such as dogs, cats, chimps, dolphins; the second would similarly compare and contrast humans and post-humans, such as robots and aliens.

Early on he discusses a legal issue that arose from the events of 9/11: Were the attacks on and fall of the two towers of the World Trade Center one occurrence or two? The question arose from a clause in the insurance policy covering the WTC, which capped the payment for a single “event” at $3.5 billion.

p. 83: “The constituents of common sense we have encountered, like causation, force, time, and substance, are not just home editions of the concepts used in logic, science, or our best collective understanding of how to manage our affairs. They worked well enough in the world in which our minds evolved, but they can leave our common sense ill-equipped to deal with some of the conceptual challenges of the modern world.” He goes on to describe several ways our notions can lead us astray: having and benefiting; having and knowing; having and moving; time; things and locations; causality. Each is interesting, though too detailed to recap here.

p. 159: Pinker discusses the Kantian view of the conceptual scaffolding of thought, and then says: “… languages appear to be organized by Kantian abstract categories. We see them in the basic parts of speech: substance in nouns, space in prepositions, causality in verbs, time in verbs and in markers for tense. … in the way verbs enter constructions, which are selective about how something moves, whether it is a substance or an object, whether the event is instantaneous or protracted, and who or what caused it … and … in the everyday metaphors that pervade our language and reasoning, as when we say the price of gas can rise and fall like a balloon, and when we speak of Sonia forcing Adam to be nice or even forcing herself to be nice as if she were closing a jammed drawer.”

p. 189: He addresses the notion of the present. Various lines of evidence and reasoning lead to the notion of “the specious present”, an interval of about three seconds, “the duration of an intentional movement like a handshake; of the immediate planning of a precise movement, like hitting a golf ball; of the flips and flops of an ambiguous [visual] figure; of the span within which we can accurately reproduce an interval; of the delay of unrehearsed short-term memory; of the time to make a quick decision, such as when we’re channel-surfing; and of the duration of an utterance, a line of poetry, or a musical motif, like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

p. 195: Although many metaphors treat time similarly to space, Pinker mentions two differences. First, and most obvious, time is one-dimensional. There are fewer tenses than spatial terms, even when treating with relations between three “points in time”, such as the present moment of an utterance, a reference point-event, and an event being located. Second, the two directions of time from the present are very different. The past is frozen and can’t be changed, and the future is a range of possible events constrained by the present and the laws of causality. We can know the past, but must wait for future events to unfold.

p. 233t: <I need to look at the book to figure out what this refers to>

p. 235: Opening the chapter The Metaphor Metaphor, Pinker quotes the first (rather long) sentence of the Declaration of Independence, and then says:

The United States Declaration of Independence is perhaps the best-known passage of English prose expressing an abstract political idea. … At the heart of this abstract argument, though, is a string of concrete metaphors. The issue at hand was the bands that connected the colonies to England, which it was necessary to dissolve in order to effect a separation. … The four metaphors really allude to a single, unstated metaphor: alliances are bonds. We see the metaphor in other expressions like bonding, attachment, and family ties.

Also palpable is the metaphor in impel – force to move – whose literal sense is plain in the noun impeller, the rotating part that pushes the water or air in a pump, and its cousin propeller. The implicit metaphor is that causes of behavior are forces. It underlies the cognates repel and compel, and analogous words like impetus, drive, force, push, and pressure. A related metaphor may be found in powers of the earth (which calls to mind horsepower and electric power): a sovereign state is a source of physical force.

A bit less obvious is the metaphor for human history, course, which refers to a path of running or flowing, as in the course of a river, a racecourse, and a headlong course. The metaphor is that a sequence of events is motion along a pathway.

The very name of the document echoes two older metaphors, which we can glimpse in related words. To declare, like clarify, comes from the Latin for “make clear,” an instance of the understanding is seeing metaphor, as in I see what you mean, a murky writer, and shedding more heat than light. And independence means “not hanging from,” echoed in suspend, pendant, and pendulum. It alludes to a pair of metaphors, reliance is being supported (propped up, financial support, support group), and subordinate is down (control over him, under his control, decline and fall).

If we dig even deeper to the roots of words, we unearth physical metaphors for still more abstract concepts. Event, from Latin evenire, originally meant “to come out,” (compare venture). Necessary comes from “unyielding” (compare cede). Assume meant “to take up.” Station is a standing-place, an instance of a widespread metaphor that equates status with location. Nature comes from the Latin for “birth” or “inborn qualities,” as in prenatal, nativity, and innate. Law in the sense of “moral necessity” is based on law in the sense of man-made regulations, from Old Norse lag, “something set down.” The metaphor a moral obligation is a rule also underlies entitle, from the Latin word for “inscription.” Decent originally meant “to be fitting.” Respect meant “to look back at” (remember aspect), kind comes from the same Germanic root as kin, require from “seek in return”.

Even the little grammatical words have a physical provenance. Sometimes it is evident in modern English, as in the pronoun it (a situation is a thing) and the prepositions in (time is space), to (intention is motion toward a goal), and among (affiliation is proximity). Sometimes it is evident only in the word’s ancestor, such as of, from a Germanic word related to “off,” and for, from the Indo-European term for “forward.”

Not much is left. Political comes from the Greek polites, meaning “citizen,” from polis, “city,” which is a metonym rather than a metaphor, but still has an association to something tangible. The and that come from an ancient Indo-European demonstrative term (also the source of then, there, they and this), standardly used in connection with pointing. That leaves God, man, and people, which mean what they mean and have for a long time, and the quasi-logical terms and, equal, and cause.

So if language is our guide, the lofty declaration of abstract principles is really a story with a strange and clunky plot. Some people are hanging beneath some other people, connected by cords. As stuff flows by, something forces the lower people to cut cords and stand beside the upper people, which is what the rules require. They see some onlookers, and clear away the onlookers’ view of what forced them to do the cutting.

But should language be our guide? It seems unlikely that anyone reading the Declaration would entertain the bizarre images in the literal meanings of these words or their roots. At the same time it’s jarring to discover that even the airiest of our ideas are expressed (“pressed out”) in thumpingly concrete metaphors. The explorations of language and thought in the preceding chapters have turned up these metaphors under every stone: events as objects, states as locations, knowing as having, communicating as sending, helping as giving, time as space, causation as force. What should we make of the discovery that people can’t put two words together without using allusions and allegories? This chapter will try to steer a path between two extreme answers.

p. 245: Pinker credits George Lakoff with the idea that:

Metaphor is not an ornamental flourish of language, he says, but an essential part of thought: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Mental life begins with a few experiences that are not metaphorical, namely, the sensations, actions, and emotions that are built into our constitution and engage the physical world. From there, conceptual metaphors are acquired by a kind of associative conditioning. We learn that control is up because we experience fights in which the victor ends up on top, that goals are destinations because we walk toward something we want, and that time is a moving object because things that approach us get closer and closer as time elapses.

But this isn’t the half of it. Since we think in metaphors grounded in physical experience rather than in logical formulas with truth values, the entire tradition of Western thought since the Greeks is fundamentally misconceived. Reason is not based on abstract laws, because thinking is rooted in bodily experience. And the concept of objective or absolute truth must be rejected. There are only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purposes of the people who live by them.

Western philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge, ethics, and reality, but a succession of conceptual metaphors. Descarte’s philosophy is based on knowing is seeing, Locke’s on the mind is a container, Kant’s on morality is a strict father, and so on. Nor is mathematics about a Platonic reality of eternal truths. It is a creation of the human body and senses, growing out of activities of moving along a path and of collecting, constructing, and measuring objects. Political ideologies, too, cannot be defined in terms of assumptions or values, but only as rival versions of the metaphor that society is a family. The political right likens society to a family commanded by a strict father, the political left to a family cared for by a nurturant parent. …

Though I believe that conceptual metaphor really does have profound implications for the understanding of language and thought, I think Lakoff takes the idea a wee bit too far.

He then goes on to defend truth, objectivity, and reason. Amusingly, he uses Lakoff’s own words to show that Lakoff also believes in them.

p. 252: Pinker explains the effectiveness of metaphors based on physical experience. They aren’t just arbitrary symbols, for which any substitution would be as effective. Rather, they are linked to modes of inference that allow many related, but unstated, relations among objects and situations to be implicitly understood. This is similar to the notions he expressed in Words and Rules, that we have memory for facts (symbols, words) and memory for procedures (rules, inference).

p. 377: Pinker credits Paul Grice with developing the cooperative principle of communication, in four conversational maxims:


  • Say no less than the conversation requires.
  • Say no more than the conversation requires.


  • Don’t say what you believe to be false.
  • Don’t say things for which you lack evidence.


  • Don’t be obscure.
  • Don’t be ambiguous.
  • Be brief.
  • Be orderly.


  • Be relevant.

In the chapter The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, Pinker explains a lot about swearing, including the reasons we do it, and the words we use.

In the chapter Games People Play, he discusses the ways we use language to be ambiguous and obscure our motives. He has extended examples regarding seduction and bribery. He has several examples of metaphors relevant to social situations, particularly relating biological notions of family to society.

A sense of communality via folk biology can also be reinforced by myths and ideologies. People are told that they are descended from a patriarch or a primeval couple, or that they are connected to a natal land, or came into being in the same act of creation, or are related to the same totemic animal. Here is a rule of thumb in anthropology: whenever a society (including ours) has a cultural practice that seems bizarre, its members may be manipulating their intuitive biology to enhance feelings of community.

Conspicuous by its absence is the one social mechanism that social ad political theorists treat as the foundation of society: a social contract. Friends, families, couples, and clans don’t sit down and verbally articulate the rights and responsibilities that bind them together. If they use language at all, it’s to avow their solidarity in unison or close succession, as in I love you, I pledge allegiance, and I believe with a perfect faith. What they don’t like to do is negotiate the terms of their communality. The very act of delineating perquisites and obligations in words undermines the nature of the emotional (and in their minds physical) fusion that allows them to share instinctively, without concern for who takes what and who gets what.

When I read this, I thought that the marketing folks at CircleLending.com (now VirginMoneyUS.com) ought to make use of these ideas.

p. 428: In the chapter Escaping the Cave, Pinker contrasts the analog nature of the physical world with the discrete nature of our mental representations.

Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events. They assemble these objects and events into propositions, which they take to be characterizations of real and possible worlds. The characterizations are highly schematic: they pick out some aspects of a situation and ignore others, allowing the same situation to be construed in multiple ways. People thereby can disagree about what a given situation really is even when they can agree on how matter has moved through space.

Human characterizations of reality are built out of recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: acting, going, changing, being, having. One event may be seen as impinging on another, by causing or enabling or preventing it. An action can be initiated with a goal in mind, in particular, the destination of a motion (as in loading hay) or the state resulting from a change (as in loading a wagon). Objects are differentiated by whether they are human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate, solid or aggregate, and how they are laid out along the three dimensions of space. Events are conceived as taking up stretches of time and as being ordered with respect to one another.

Each of these ideas has a distinctive anatomy. Humans recognize unique individuals, and also pigeonhole them into categories. They distinguish stable categories that capture an individual’s essence from transitory and superficial properties they may happen to possess. They have a mental zoom lens that can home in on the substance an entity is made of (plastic) or pan back to see its boundaries (a cup). A substance can be seen as a continuous medium (like applesauce) or as an aggregate of parts (like pebbles).

Humans have a primitive concept of number, which distinguishes only one, two, and many, though they can also estimate larger quantities approximately. They use this coarse way of quantifying not just when tallying objects (as in singular, dual, and plural) but also when locating things in space (as in at, near, and far) and when locating things in time (as in the present, recent past, and remote past).

When humans think about where an entity is, or what it is, or how it changes or moves, they tend to conceive of it holistically, as a blob or point without internal parts. The entire object is thought to be located in a spot, or to move as a whole, or to have a trait that suffuses it, or to change from one state to another in its entirety (as in a wagon loaded with hay, or a garden swarming with bees). But humans are also capable of articulating an object into its parts and registering how they are related to one another (as in the bottom of the wagon or the edge of the garden). When the object is a human body, another entity comes into play: the person, who is thought both to be his body parts, and to have his body parts. Among people’s possessions are not just their body parts and their chattels but also their ideas (which they can send to one another) and their good fortune.

p. 431t: I noticed only one typo in the book: “when it seen as just occurring” should be “when it is seen as just occurring”.

p. 439: After summarizing most of the ideas in the book, he says:

None of this, of course, comes easily to us. Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways. This underscores the place of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it (a surprisingly elusive principle in higher education today). 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 sensitive analogies, and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations.


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