Monday, September 24, 2007

Steven Pinker: The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker has yet another new book out, The Stuff of Thought. I've generally been a fan of Pinker's work over the years, especially his books on language. This despite my sense that he falls into the same camp as Daniel Dennett (who I also like, though I often disagree with him), among others, who see consciousness as an accidental and somewhat unnecessary by-product of neurological functioning.

Here is some of the NYT review of Pinker's new book:

There are two ways to look at anything. That’s what I learned from reading Steven Pinker. Actually, I learned it from two Steven Pinkers. One is a theorist of human nature, the author of “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate.” The other is a word fetishist, the author of “The Language Instinct” and “Words and Rules.” One minute, he’s explaining the ascent of man; the next, he’s fondling irregular verbs the way other people savor stamps or Civil War memorabilia.

In “The Stuff of Thought,” Pinker says his new book is part of both his gigs. Hence its subtitle: “Language as a Window Into Human Nature.” It sounds as though he’s finally going to pull together his life’s work under one big idea, but he doesn’t. That’s what makes him so edifying and infuriating to read: he sees duality everywhere.

It’s not that Pinker thinks the world can be neatly divided. That would be dualism. In “The Blank Slate,” he trashed the most famous such distinction, the one between mind and matter. Pinker’s duality is of the opposite kind. Categories intersect like dimensions. The mind is what the brain does. Evolution shaped psychology, but in the process psychology evolved its own laws.

“The Stuff of Thought” explores the duality of human cognition: the modesty of its construction and the majesty of its constructive power. Pinker weaves this paradox from a series of opposing theories. Philosophical realists, for instance, think perception comes from reality. Idealists think it’s all in our heads. Pinker says it comes from reality but is organized and reorganized by the mind. That’s why you can look at the same thing in different ways.

Read the rest of the review.

You can read an excerpt and see Pinker speak about his project at the Times Online.

Here is Pinker's TED Talk about this book.

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