Type: Persuasive Essays
Sample donated: Lois Osborne
Last updated: September 23, 2019
OfPhysical and Conceptual Realms:AReview of Steven Pinker’s Stuff of Thought2015-14043Universityof the Philippines – Diliman Of Physical and Conceptual Realms:A Review on Pinker’s Stuff of ThoughtPinker’sStuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature is an engaging guideto ourselves as it relates language to human cognition and to the world outsideof our minds. It focused on the concepts, emotions, and relationships that areperceptible through our language and that constitutes the human nature – allthoroughly discussed with wide-ranging examples that are commended orcriticized by being putting into contrast with presented counter or supportingevidences. Pinker invites students to scrutinize how language — be they bewords, phrases, metaphors, or dialogues – makes up our everyday social skillsets for life. The book bridges the human social life and the physical realityof it all. It delves deep into language’s world of its own. In this review, five arguments of pertinencefrom the book will be tackled, critiqued, and juxtaposed with psycholinguisticthemes. i.
Wheremeanings come from: nature versus nurture and semantic organizationii. Thelimitations of our language particularly in time and space: cognitive economyiii. Howmetaphors are understood: parallelism between the physical realm and theconceptual realm of languageiv. Wheremeanings of the words live: reference and sense of wordsv. Hypocrisyas a human universal: why people bother with indirect speech Where meanings come from Semantic organization is defined as”the way in which a person organizes their knowledge and makes sense of theirworld” (Freedman & Jones, n.
d.). The research field dealing with semantictheories are debatable as the fundamental questions of semantics remainsunsolved. Still, understanding semantics is vital to studying language as itbegs the question of how our brain could contain such vast amount of knowledgeand then use this information to expatiate and refine its grasp of the world.Pinker presented three radical theories expounding on the human mentalorganization.
Extremenativism. This theory puts emphasis on the innateness of our semanticorganization. It claims that humans have an innate inventory of concepts suchas “cause,” “number,” “living thing,” “exchange,” “kin,” and “danger,”. Theselarge and more abstract set of concepts are said to be “readymade” than constructedonsite. One good support for this claim ishow the professor in our biology class made us define what a living thing is.
Students had a hard time coming up with a fitting description for such despitethe mutual knowledge of what a living thing is. Common descriptions like “ithas life” and “it is alive” still begs the question of what we consider asalive or having a life. This is because people can discern a living versus anon-living without others having to spell out to them the qualities of one.Humans may be already born with the schema that enables them to easilydistinguish different concepts from each other. Another argument for nativism is theimmune system and how it can develop pre-programmed antibodies even before thebody encounters the disease. However, Pinker argues that the immune system isfar different from the brain – a difference that should not be glossed over.
While natural selection could account for the antibodies’ adaption to theevolving microorganisms surrounding us, it could not account for words such as”trombone” and “carburetor” that plays little to no role in our survival. Extreme nativism theory may appeal asan explanation to the more primal parts of humanity but it did not take intoconsideration how people are also highly social beings that play with words andconversations (i.e. metaphors, indirect speech) which are not all necessary forpersonal survival. RadicalPragmatics. Contrary to extreme nativism, this theory talks about how themind does not contain fixed representations of the meanings of words and howwords are open to loose interpretation of individuals. Word meanings are notdiscrete entities for radical pragmatics but patterns of association.
Accordingto Pinker, this goes against the fundamental design of language as it lacks aprecise mental representation. Meanings of words will continuously and freelyinterpreted and reinterpreted in context that consensus will be impossible whichwill intensely dampen human communication. LinguisticDeterminism. Meanwhile, this theory totally flips the coin by saying thatit is language that determines thought and not the other way around. It is anunalterable confinement with no room for relativity.
The same determinism wasdiscussed in class with the notion made weaker by Whorf’s proposed view that,instead, language only affects rather than dictates our thought processes. Nature versus nurture has been arguably one ofthe oldest debates in the history of psychology and it carries over which partof language is inherited (i.e. genetic) or acquired (i.
e. learned) — whichpart of language is a result of experience or is biologically determined. Suchpoint of controversy strongly persists visibly even in Pinker’s Stuff ofThought. The limitations ofour language particularly in time and space The book opened the question”Why is everyday spatial language so bad?” and extends this to, an even worse,time expression in language which have even fewer tenses than spatial terms. In class, we discussed the concept ofcognitive economy with an Oxford definition of our tendency of our cognitiveprocesses to minimize processing effort and resources.
And just like thinking,languages economize when they can as words and syllables are not free. Spatialterms, for example, can be immensely ambiguous as they do not nail down all degreesof freedom an object can have with its axes, and so we settle with “near” or”far”. Same goes with time that is immeasurable in units, is one-dimensional,and is divided only into two directions (unlike spatial terms): theunchangeable past and the probable future. This is not because people are “lazythinkers” but because complex thoughts literally require physiological expensesor energy costs (Markman, 2009). There are limited resources of crucial brainchemicals that must be conserved for more important thinking tasks than accuratelypainting a picture setting of a story one’s telling. How metaphors are understood Socrates had asserted that we mustfirst know “What is X?” before we can say anything meaningful about X (Godwin,n.
d.). This assertion glosses over how people understand conceptual metaphors.In the book, it was pointed out that there is a parallel between the physicalrealm and the conceptual realm wherein metaphors lie. As was brought up beforeas a criticism in extreme nativism, how come our minds evolved an ability toreason about abstract things when it has no relevance to survival? According to Lakoff, the strongestadvocate of how people think in metaphors based on our wordly experience, hebelieves that there is a nonmetaphorical, physical world out there, and it isour human nature that limits our universal experience and interaction with theworld grounded only by many metaphors as an expression of truth about theworld. This does not mean though that knowledge and truth are obsolete, it is onlythat humans depend more on their physical interpretations and experiences ratherthan in logical formulas with truth values. Pinker made a strong criticism ofthis view of Lakoff by pointing out that metaphor allows the mind to understandmore abstract domains but one cannot think in metaphor alone because for one tolearn and use a metaphor, one must first know in which dimensions ofsimilarities these ideas fall into together, and that those dimensions ofsimilarities are rooted in the physical realm and what only then allows peopleto use conceptual metaphor.
Applying what Socrates said, people must first knowthe concrete defining qualities of a word to be able to put it in contrast withother words to make sense of the world. This criticism was made even morestronger when backed up with an evidence of Kemmerer’s study on how patientswith brain damage still managed to retain their ability to comprehend timeprepositions after losing their ability to understand spatial prepositions.Therefore, the metaphorical overlap of time and space did not withstand. Thissuggests that cognition is not modular to metaphorical thinking but rather, aninteraction of different circuits of the brain responsible for understandingspace and for understanding time. Same observations were obtained forWernicke’s and Broca’s aphasia wherein one’s inability to produce speech isindependent of his/her’s ability to understand the speech of others. Anobel prize winner, Roger Sperry, discovered that the left hemisphere of thebrain is responsible for the rational, logical, sequential, and overallanalytical ways of processing information while the right hemisphere is forrecognizing relationships, and integrating and synthesizing information toarrive at intuitive thoughts (1975).
Although the lateralization of the brainmight imply that the right hemisphere is solely responsible for metaphorprocessing, a study revealed that regardless of whether the sentences weremetaphorical or literal, the left hemisphere predominantly processes closesemantic relationships while the right predominantly processes distant semanticrelationships (Schmidt, Debuse, & Seger, 2007). This is an evidence thatthe mind contains several subsystems or modules designed to perform different complexcognitive processes wherein a metaphorical overlap with the entirety of humanunderstanding would be an oversimplification of human cognition. Backed up withthese scientific data, Lakoff’s claims simply cannot be as it disregards thelogical thinking’s adherence to strict principles of validity and truthproperties of words and statements, consequently exaggerating people’s relianceon metaphor for meaning. Where meanings of the words live Behind every name is an ID. Propernames, moreover, are powerful markers of social identity and are used to attachan arbitrary label to a person – a label that could contain the owner’s allkinds of attributes like gender, appearance, and character (Rymes, 2000). Onceupon a time, anthropologists jumped to a faulty conclusion when they thoughtthat a group of primitive people were so unorganized that they did not usenames.
They were later proven wrong by Feldman who discovered that theseanthropologists simply failed to grasp the minds and to immerse in the cultureof these people from which it was later discovered to be taboo to reveal one’sname to strangers (Deluzain, n.d.). This custom is a good example of just howmuch value we put in the names we give and the names we use. Oftentimes, thesenames of ours are derived from a significant event on a timeline or based on anitem or a person of importance. Namesdo not only serve as a reminder to us but an enabler for us to distinguish betweenone another and therefore putting our world into order. In Pinker’s Stuff ofThought, he discussed where the meanings of these special words live and how weorganize such meanings in our head through reference and sense of words.
As wasdiscussed in class, reference here is defined as the relationship between aword and its real-world entity while sense refers to words’ relationship to oneanother. The same relationships of words were used by McDowell (1977) in hisattempt to understand language and reality. He said that when we use an object (propernames) in describing a thought, we are giving an “extrinsic characterization”that takes the item outside of our mind (McDowell, 1977) — a referencecontaining the object’s name and its plausible actuality. On the other hand,there is an “intrinsic characterization that happens only inside the subject’smind – a sense between the object and other ideas about that object. Themechanism of how people’s language relate to their reality has been areoccurring theme all throughout Pinker’s book (i.e. the physical andconceptual realm of metaphors). We have used names as “rigid designators” ofone object into every possible related word making it possible for a name tocarry so much implicit value and meaning and, therefore in essence, bridgingthe gap between an individual’s mind to everyone else’s reality hence making ita necessity to human communication and mutual understanding.
Hypocrisy as a human universal Facebook was launched back in year2004 and started spreading like wildfire ever since. It gave us an avenue toconnect with people and to present the best version of ourselves to others.Facebook and other social media platforms of today have an increasingly hugeimpact in our everyday lives for they have become a way to flaunt the living experienceswe are so very proud of. In fact, from human’s obsession with social mediasprouted various articles and studies like Gündüz’ study of the effect ofsocial media on identity construction (2017) and an article like The Self in Selfie. These studies and writtenworks delve on people’s need to create a virtual identity for themselvesoutside of their physical social life. But why do people do it? Stuff ofThought mentioned the concept of a “face”. It was defined as “a positive socialvalue that a person claims for himself”.
For Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist,this “face” is called a persona, the social face a person presents to the worldor the mask people wear to make an impression on others, hiding what isunderneath – one’s true nature. In the book, we discover that humans are highlysocial beings who communicate not only for information but also for fun. Thegoal of social interactions is not only to get a directly get a message acrossbut also to get the approval of peers. Thus, people showcase only most of whatis good about them on social media. Theseself-preservation tendencies of people project into their language and was alsoreflected in the book. To save a “face”, we cloak our intentions in languageand we expect others to do the same despite our professed longing for plainspeaking. This is the game of hide-and-seek that come naturally to people – ahypocrisy that is a necessity.
People donot play this game solely for kicks. Like what was discussed earlier in thelimitations of language, people work under the system of cognitive economywherein we unconsciously use as little energy as what is needed and no more.Following this line of reasoning, indirect speech should be entirely out of theequation, but we found that is not the case. This is because indirect speech ismore than its flowery words but an actual necessity.
Pinker expounded on thisnecessity using the logic of plausible deniability. Plausibledeniability is giving the hearer an out in a situation. It is an acknowledgmentof the hearer’s desire for autonomy. In this section of the book, Pinker gaveseveral sample life scenarios, namely, indirect requests, veiled threats, andeven sarcasm. Indirect speech is applied in all three cases to stave off anybad impression that people may have on an individual’s face.
For instance, inindirect speech, requests, instead of demands, gives the hearer an option tosay no and for the requester to not appear to be bossing around the other whichcan be damaging to a good relationship. Veiled threats on another hand is morebeneficial to the speaker than to the hearer as concealing threats under alayer of niceties could make it less likely for the speaker to face theconsequences of his actions since, due to plausible deniability, he can justdeny any accusation. The third case is sarcasm, or in colloquial terms: sass.An example from the book is saying “What a great game you just played!” tosomeone who performed badly. This is intended to lessen the blow of offense, tocontrol the bluntness of the words, and to make the sarcastic speaker look lesscritical and angry. These, ofcourse, are made possible with the people’s desire to prevent individualknowledge of something from becoming mutual knowledge in which – according toPinker- is the deepest explanation for why people play along with indirectspeech. Jokes, for example, work under this mechanism. For one to understand ajoke, one must tap into a person’s individual knowledge and make it a mutualknowledge by exposing it to the world through language.
Referenced in the bookis The Emperor’s New Clothes where there is an individual knowledge of theemperor being naked that has become a mutual knowledge only when the little boyhad called it out, and therefore making everyone laugh. To avoid such type ofembarrassment ergo ruining someone’s face, it takes a skill called “tact” — askill that the little boy obviously did not have yet. But keep in mind theseexamples only work under the assumption of the Cooperative Principle, meaningthat there is an unspoken consensus between the two conversationalist that theywill do each other a favor, and both save each other’s “faces”. It wasmentioned that using indirect speech is a necessity but where exactly does theneed for it come into play? There is a phenomenon called psychophysical numbingor the tendency of humans or societies to look past or ignore past traumaticexperiences or threats of the future of massive consequences (Friedrich, Barnes, Chapin, Dawson, Garst, &Kerr, 1999). This is simply another manifestation of how humans can easily beoverwhelmed by the weight of an information that we just choose to withdrawfrom it completely. Where words have such power to make or break someone, thisself-preservation behavior is essential to our survival.
By how vulnerable weare against ourselves, this rational ignorance might truly be, as the booksuggested, the only countermeasure to what the mind finds overwhelmingly hardto grasp. Thesesubterfuges serve as a reminder of the social intelligence of humanity and howlanguage processes are not limited only to interpreting language itself; on howeven the silliest of things play a vital role in what makes up our life. Conclusion StevenPinker’s Stuff of Thought had been an easy read with its engaging topics andlight-hearted humor. It is obvious how Pinker’s style of writing would appealto the popular culture. He made use of words that are palatable to laymen bystraying from too cumbersome linguistic terms despite being a psycholinguisthimself. His examples were human expressions used in everyday life, if notoutdated, each clearly defined and elaborated. The book is also divided intochapters with distinct topics that helped with the overall clarity,cohesiveness, and comprehensiveness of the ideas presented.
The gaietyof the book is a double-edged sword and did not come without a tradeoff. Pinkerpresented interesting evidences for and against the ideas wherein Stuff ofThought can sometimes be highly speculative and borderline persuasive. Pinkermade his own strong claims and precise examples to support them but none ofthese are actual studies backed up with hard or even qualitative data, althoughhe did make strong cases out of his educated observations. Stuff of thought,despite being entertaining, had received a lot of criticisms from Pinker’sfellow scholars of said speculative nature. But people should keep in mind thatStuff of Thought is far from a college textbook intentionally loaded with information.Instead, I think that the book would be an immensely effective introductorymaterial to the world of psychology and linguistics with its simplified termsand relatable examples. It stimulates the reader to examine language, a tool weuse every day, for what more than meets eye and into thinking more about therelationship or independence of language and human cognition. Therefore,depending on Pinker’s goal in writing Stuff of Thought, he had been aneffective or ineffective communicator.
The book’soverall main theme all throughout has been to peel down language’s linguisticlayers and strip it bare to uncover the basic concepts of the human mind thatmake sense of how people structure the reality of the world around us. Now whatI like about the book is it goes beyond the practicality of life and does notreduce our complexities only to our primitiveness. Now while I am a strongadherent of natural selection, I also wanted to know what is the psychology ofpeople’s vanity and what is behind the nuances of the thing we do irrelevant toour own survival. Pinker answered some of these questions by stressing pointsthat does not leave people in the stone ages. My favorite of these points ishis piece about indirect speech and how people tend to block out informationthat make us feel powerless regardless if it is crucial to our survival (i.
e.global warming, mass killings) thus highlighting the limitations of the mind. Stuff ofthought delves into the deep structures of how our mind conceptualize thephysicality of the world around us and how we deal with social interactions andproblem-solving. It fits psycholinguistics into the context of what is relevantto today. The book has been the perfect combination of fun and educational. Iwould highly recommend Stuff of Thought to anyone who is a newbie to but is interestedin language – with its metaphors, profanity, and politeness – as the gateway tothe understanding of the phenomenal power of the human mind. ReferencesDeluzain, H.
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