Magazine article The Spectator

Moving between Philosophy and Science

Magazine article The Spectator

Moving between Philosophy and Science

Article excerpt

THE STUFF OF THOUGHT by Steven Pinker Allen Lane, £25, pp. 499, ISBN 9780713997415 £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This is the latest in the longrunning series of popular books that Steven Pinker, a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard, has written about the human mind, particularly about the nature of thought and its relationship to language. Pinker is extremely interested not only in the nature of language, and the way in which languages work, but also in lots of odd or striking things about languages. As part of his attempt to make some highly complex and abstract ideas comprehensible and even attractive, he uses a huge number of examples. Sometimes you feel that his hope is that even if you don't quite cotton on to his theoretical positions, at least you will enjoy the quotations, jokes, even illustrations, that he bombards you with. He has a chapter, for instance, called 'The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television, ' in which he discusses the nature of taboo words, which subjects they are likely to occur in, why it is that the same thing can be called by one word that is decent and another is obscene, how some areas that used to be considered out of bounds no longer are, and many other topics. It's a 50-page chapter, so there is plenty of room for long lists, for comparison of taboo words in different languages, for a consideration of which part of the brain comes into operation when you swear, and much more. I find that Pinker writes on this, and on all the other issues in the book, in a way that makes any page selected at random absorbing reading, but that as you go on you begin to wish that he would cut out many of the examples and let you think harder about what more general point they are supposed to be helping to make.

He begins by pointing out that we should be more surprised than we usually are by the speed with which small children not only learn to talk, but also the rate at which they absorb many rules of language which no one tells them about, and which are quite subtle. For instance, we can say 'Hal loaded the wagon with hay, ' and 'Hal loaded hay into the wagon, ' but we can't say 'Bobby filled water into the glass, ' though we can say 'Bobby filled the glass with water.' Why is it that we can say some of these things and not others, and how is it that it's very rare for children to make mistakes in this area, even though no one explains the asymmetries to them? And moving on from here, Pinker provides countless cases of learners grasping language without being instructed in it. What is it about our minds that enables us to achieve these remarkable results? It's at this point that Pinker often moves between philosophical and scientific questions, not seeming to realise their difference. He only mentions Wittgenstein once, despite his huge contributions to the philosophy of language, and Donald Davidson not at all. …

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