Moving between Philosophy and Science

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, October 13, 2007 | Go to article overview

Moving between Philosophy and Science


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Moving between Philosophy and Science
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.