Book Review: The Stuff Of Thought

The Stuff Of Thought: Language As A Window Into Human Nature, by Steven Pinkler

This book is a good deal less polemical than I thought it would be, and that is definitely for the best. Even if this book is not necessarily an easy book to read, because the author is writing to an audience of linguists or at least those who are familiar enough with the field to interest him, there is a lot of value here. A book like this can be profitably read in at least two layers. For one, there is the joy of reading the material itself and the information and thought-provoking aspects of the work that exist for the reader based on those materials alone. On another layer, though, the book makes a worthy meta-work in that it comments on the sort of approaches that various (competing) approaches for linguists have and the author himself explicitly draws attention at times to his rhetorical strategy, most notably when he discusses the strategy that he uses to make his own position about the importance of language in shaping thought appear to be more reasonable by contrasting it with more extreme competing options. Thus the reader is given the treat of not only seeing some fine rhetoric in practice about language but also reading attention being explicitly drawn to the rhetorical approach at the same time, which is worthy of respect.

This book is a sizable one at more than 400 pages and it is divided into nine chapters. The book begins with a preface. After that there is a chapter on words and worlds and the relationship between what we say and think and the outside world that we are talking and thinking about (1). After that the author goes down the rabbit hole in terms of looking at languages and how it is that they shape what we think or not (2). The author then, in order to make his own views appear to be more moderate, compares his own views with various radical theories that posit a high degree of a priori knowledge of certain fundamentals shared across all languages or a radical pragmatism (3). The author looks at matters like cleaving the air (4) and the metaphor metaphor by which we have various common ways of thinking about certain things, like government as a family with different conceptions of how this is, and so on (5). There is a chapter on the importance of names and the relationship between sounds and words (6). After that the author explores verbal taboos (7) and the games people play regarding implicature (8), a fascinating aspect of communication for me personally, before ending with a discussion on escaping from the cave of ignorance (9), after which the book ends with notes, references, and an index.

There are a great deal of fascinating aspects of language that the author deals with, and some of these issues are bound to be controversial. Perhaps most controversially at all, the author talks about taboo speech and how it is that there is a point to having speech be taboo in that reducing the taboos on talking about certain subjects may shape behavior in a negative fashion by making us feel less respectful of others. This is especially true when one thinks about the language of disrespect for other groups or the language of sexuality, where treating something in a cavalier fashion encourages us to act in a cavalier fashion by reducing the feeling of sanctity we give to certain matters. Likewise, the author’s thoughts on the importance of politeness and the existence of both positive and negative face (both of which I possess to a high degree, which I suppose makes me a bit of a prickly person when compared to others). The metaphor metaphor is interesting as well, pointing out that there are a great many things we appear to talk about only in some kind of metaphor because of the way that we think as human beings, which has all kinds of fascinating implications.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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