The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker, a renowned cognitive neuroscientist and research psychologist, is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His research on cognition and language has won the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences and two prizes from the American Psychological Association. His critically acclaimed books include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate. Pinker is a Humanist Laureate of the Center for Inquiry’s International Academy of Humanism. He recently discussed his newest book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, with D.J. Grothe, an associate editor of Free Inquiry.—Eds.

Free Inquiry: In this book, you argue that our use of language tells us about our evolved human nature.

Steven Pinker: That’s right. Since we use language to share knowledge, to negotiate our social relationships, and to blurt out our emotional states, I suggest that language is a very informative window into the actual content of our thoughts and relationships.

FI: Can you explain how the language of thought has inherent categories—the building blocks of thought itself?

Pinker: Our use of nouns and verbs, prepositions, and tenses reveals something about our concepts of matter and causation, space and time. Our concept of causation that determines our use of verbs is the same concept of causation that we use in ascribing moral responsibility. Just as we use a verb to talk about direct, hands-on, billiard-ball style causation—where someone intends something to happen, acts on it, and causes it to change—we also appeal to that concept when we find someone guilty of a murder. When an event in the world doesn’t neatly fit into one of these categories of thought we see in language, our intuitions are accordingly fuzzy: we don’t know what to think when one person shoots another and the wound isn’t fatal, and then the doctors, because of malpractice, cause the man to die. Did the man who pulled the trigger therefore commit murder? Similarly, we don’t know what to do with intellectual property—if I bake a loaf of bread and one person eats it, another person can’t. But if I create a song and one person downloads it, another person is not prevented from enjoying it. We have trouble when we have to deal with fuzzy, evolutionarily novel problems such as these.

FI: Other cognitive scientists who study language argue that metaphors, say, can be used much more effectively to advance certain political or scientific agendas—for example, to properly frame science using metaphors that are more palatable to the non–science-booster public, especially avoiding things like equating science with atheism.

Pinker: I think that metaphor is an essential tool of framing, persuasion, and rhetoric and always has been, but it is a mistake to think that simply plant-ing the right metaphors in people’s minds is enough to make them think in a certain way. People can evaluate metaphors and can entertain competing metaphors at the same time. The onus is on scientists to show that a particular metaphor is apt. I think it is simplistic to say that if you simply offer better metaphors people will swallow them. Yes, it is good to use metaphors when promoting a position, but one still has to defend one’s metaphors against rival ones. And that means digging beneath the metaphor to expose the concepts it is made of and to show that they actually do correspond to reality. To take an example from George Lakoff’s suggestion that taxation be reframed as membership fees: we see how quickly that metaphor falls apart, since people can always choose not to pay their membership fees in an organization, but with taxes, if you choose not to pay them, you will go to jail. The fact that people can see how skin-deep these kinds of metaphors are means they are not slaves to their uses in either political or scientific discourse.

FI: You argue there are real-world implications of using language to understand human nature for education, politics, and corporations.

Pinker: Yes—by exposing our instinctive ways of thinking and relating and therefore telling us about the raw materials we’re working with. In the case of understanding the world around us—what we hope science will do—we can look at the instinctive ways people think of evolutionary change or the laws of physics and debug concepts students bring instinctively into the classroom in order to build more defensible concepts. In the case of larger-scale institutions, one can be mindful of the kinds of social relationships that are often revealed through our use of language.

To be concrete: one of the reasons science advances is that we try to negate the social relationships of dominance and authority that we often wield in our language of everyday life. If I propose a theory and someone criticizes it, I can’t respond that he has no right to criticize, because I am a full professor and she is just a student, for instance. This is because in science we choose to subordinate dominance, authority, and status to a disinterested pursuit of the truth. By examining human language, we learn what we’re up against and what forces in the human mind we’ve got to minimize in order to make progress toward larger goals—in the case of science, the pursuit of truth.

To hear more of D.J. Grothe’s interview with Steven Pinker, go to www.pointofinquiry.org.


Steven Pinker, a renowned cognitive neuroscientist and research psychologist, is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His research on cognition and language has won the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences and two prizes from the American Psychological Association. His critically acclaimed books include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and …

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