Friday, December 28, 2007

Lehrer, Jonah. "We Are What We Say." WASHINGTON POST December 23, 2007.

Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2007. In The Stuff of Thought, Pinker pitches himself as the broker of a scientific compromise between 'linguistic determinism' and 'extreme nativism.' The linguistic determinists argue that language is a prison for thought. The words we know define our knowledge of the world. Because Eskimos have more nouns for snow, they are able to perceive distinctions in snow that English speakers cannot. While Pinker deftly discredits extreme versions of this hypothesis, he admits that "boring versions" of linguistic determinism are probably accurate. It shouldn't be too surprising that our choice of words can frame events, or that our vocabulary reflects the kinds of things we encounter in our daily life. (Why do Eskimos have so many words for snow? Because they are always surrounded by snow.) The language we learn as children might not determine our thoughts, but it certainly influences them. Extreme nativism, on the other hand, argues that all of our mental concepts -- the 50,000 or so words in the typical vocabulary -- are innate. We are born knowing about carburetors and doorknobs and iPods. This bizarre theory, most closely identified with the philosopher Jerry Fodor, begins with the assumption that the meaning of words cannot be dissected into more basic parts. A doorknob is a doorknob is a doorknob. It only takes Pinker a few pages to prove the obvious, which is that each word is not an indivisible unit. The mind isn't a blank slate, but it isn't an overstuffed filing cabinet either. So what is Pinker's solution? He advocates the middle ground of 'conceptual semantics,' in which the meaning of our words depends on an underlying framework of basic cognitive concepts. (As Pinker admits, he owes a big debt to Kant.) The tenses of verbs, for example, are shaped by our innate sense of time. Nouns are constrained by our intuitive notions about matter, so that we naturally parcel things into two different categories, objects and substances (pebbles versus applesauce, for example, or, as Pinker puts it, "hunks and goo"). Each material category comes with a slightly different set of grammatical rules. By looking at language from the perspective of our thoughts, Pinker demonstrates that many seemingly arbitrary aspects of speech, like that hunk and goo distinction, aren't arbitrary at all: They are byproducts of our evolved mental machinery. Read the whole review here:

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