The Stuff of Thought - Steven Pinker, 2007
The Stuff of Thought ought to be titled The Stuff of Language - a tale told by a linguist full of sound and parsing signifying a fair bit of neat info about language but not a lot spot about the brain. This is because the book leans heavily on linguistics rather than the biological sciences and talks of how language has been taken apart by linguists and what this suggests about how our linguistic minds work. And if that is what you want in a book of this title, written by a well-known, clever, disciple of Chomsky, this is it. Pinker is an engaging, magpie intellectual in that he has an almost endless, tantalizing list of interesting facts, jokes and permutations at his fingertips while ripping through such subjects as: the social purpose of language, the mind as metaphor machine, the relation between language and the 'reality' we share, the relation between words and thinking and emotions, the etymology of words, for example, names, and naming, the symbolism in language, how we say one thing while meaning something quite different, how we use language as a medium of mental exchange, and so on.
The last paragraph of Chapter 1, Words and Worlds, is a quick summary of this book. If you are looking for someone to disaggregate language and show what this reveals about humans, this is a good book to buy. On the other hand, at 439 pages (before chapter notes) of medium-sized print, the book is 100 pages too long. I found myself skipping here and there. Read the first and last chapters first. They tell you the entire book in short form, though there is much fun missed, for ex, the Monty Python Spam skit and the chapter on swearing.
On the other hand, what I would have been more interested in a book of this title was to hear an update on books by Damasio and Panskepp about the role of the sub-conscious in our thoughts, particularly as we do not think in our emotions in words, an important distinction, because when we think consciously, much of what we do is in words. So that words have a primacy in our conscious thinking, and thus the world that Pinker is talking about, but have zero, zilch, nada, nothing to say about the mid-brain where emotion is situated and sends its tendrils up into our conscious brain behind the right front eyebrow for us to focus our attention on and then be brought to life.
I would have liked to hear his take on how Wernicke's (recognition of language) area in our left temporal lobe has a role in recognizing what others are saying to us and our visual understanding of written language (whether in letters or hieroglyphs). I would have liked to hear him address the role of Broca's area (speech) in our being able to communicate with one another through making our lips, tongue, lungs, mental feedback loops and etc. work.
And I was interested, as a poet, in his take on metaphor, because that is a primary part of poetry. Here, again, in chapter 5, he breaks metaphor down into different types based on this and that distinction on subject matter, time sequence, spatial separation and so on. All of these are important to the student of language in that person's quest to understand our medium of mental exchange. And how our language is saturated with metaphor to an extent that we don't even recognize that many things we say are metaphors. If someone offers the symbolic ice-breaker: 'Hi, how are you?' And we answer: Feeling up. Feeling down., or, I'm dead. All of those responses are metaphors, as in, to feel good is up, to feel bad is down, and being dead simply conveys how tired we are. All three are metaphors, but trivial ones.
I found it fascinating that our speaking is drenched in metaphor. On the other hand, the distinctions, of different metaphor type as parsed in this book is irrelevant to a poet. A poet is interested in producing more, more apt, more original, non-cliche metaphors out of the endless manic creativity that we have in Wernicke's area linked to frontal creativity, influenced by the subterranean currents of the subconscious. But, perhaps this is expecting too much out of this kind of book. dcreid.ca.
And, one final thought: the image of the book on this site is not large enough to give you the book's sub-title: Language as a Window into Human Nature. Since the title is: The Stuff of Thought, knowing the sub-title is highly relevant to the slant of the book, and thus who would be interested in buying it.