The Stuff of Thought

Issue section: 

Steven Pinker, Penguin, £25

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, first came to prominence with his book The Language Instinct, a popular account of Noam Chomsky's theory that all human beings are born with an innate capacity for understanding and utilising the complex rules of language. Subsequently Pinker wrote How the Mind Works, which claimed to unlock the secrets of the human psyche using the new science of "evolutionary psychology". But it drew widespread criticism for its "Flintstones" version of human evolution, with US middle class values projected backwards into the mists of prehistory (Socialist Review, March 1998).

Pinker's two subsequent books, Words and Rules and The Blank Slate, dealt respectively with the units of language, and similar themes about human nature. In Pinker's latest work his stated aim is to pull together these two different strands. Yet this is primarily a book about the intricacies of language, with the musings of evolutionary psychology consigned to a mere footnote. For me, this makes The Stuff of Thought a more intriguing and useful read, although not without considerable flaws.

By analysing everyday speech, Pinker reveals important clues about the nature of our thought processes and the historical origins of phrases. In a chapter entitled "The Seven Words you Can't Say on Television" Pinker investigates the peculiar syntax of swearing, and asks why we can say "Fuck you!", but not "Don't fuck you." The reason is that "fuck you", an epithet with great shock-power, has replaced the much older phrase "God damn you" but still follows the original's syntax.

So what are the flaws within this book? One is that Pinker's obsession with words can get in the way of the deeper concepts he is trying to sell. He argues that the 9/11 attacks can be viewed as a single event, or two events, depending on the language you use. Apparently this matters for a billion dollar insurance claim over the destruction of the World Trade Centre, but it is difficult to see why anyone apart from lawyers will see it as significant. And even the dissection of swearing, although it has its entertaining moments, begins to drag after a whole chapter.

More importantly, I found this book ultimately disappointing because it fails to deliver on its central claim of explaining the nature of human thought. Curiously for someone so focused on language, Pinker rejects the idea that thought itself is governed by words. Thought is, well, just thought.

In contrast, the Marxist tradition has been to see thought and language as crucially interlinked. In the brief period after the Russian Revolution when intellectual creativity blossomed, psychologists like Lev Vygotsky and philosophers of language such as Valentin Voloshinov explored the connection between thought and language.

They concluded that what makes human thought processes unique is precisely the fact that they are tied to the same abstract symbols from which human language is constructed, although our "inner speech" is very different from outer language in its form, being much more telegraphic and abbreviated.

One of the consequences of severing the connection between thought and language is that it is possible to end up viewing human nature as a fixed, unchanging entity. But Vygotsky and Voloshinov showed that the fluidity of inner speech means that in periods of great social upheaval ideas that are fixed in people's heads can be challenged.

There is little sense of this in Pinker's book, but some of the nuances of language that he describes can nevertheless be of interest to those who are willing to look beyond his superficial view of human society.