Steven Pinker Explains The Stuff of Thought

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker

The Chapel was filled to capacity on Monday night to hear Steven Pinker’s lecture “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.” Pinker was invited to give the annual Plant Lecture, which recognizes outstanding scientists as guest lecturers on campus.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Serena Butcher introduced her former professor to the Chapel audience, noting that while she was his student at Harvard University, Pinker truly impressed her as a “good questioner” in a field where “the quality of the question” often corresponds to the quality of academic scholarship.

Pinker began his lecture by explaining that while anthropology, biology and psychology all can provide unique insight into human nature, his research focused on the insight we can gain from how and why humans use specific language.

Throughout his lecture, Pinker pointed out impracticalities in the English language that we don’t even notice on a day-to-day basis. Why does one “fill out” a form when they are actually filling it in? Why do we say that subways and tunnels are “underwater” when they are in fact “surrounded by” water? Pinker then proceeded to explain his theory behind such linguistic impracticalities, and what they reveal about the way we perceive our world.

Pinker’s theory correlates the principles of physics to the way we utilize language. We use prepositions to create a concept of physical space in our language, and orient our speech according to these spaces. The word “along” suggests travel on a two-dimensional space, although we apply the word to three-dimensional objects such as “roads” and “table.” We also use nouns to create physical boundaries that permit us to orient our speech. When someone says, “I cut off the end of the ribbon,” the “end” of the ribbon only means the very edge, but the noun “end” allows us to grasp the implied concept.

The theory of “space” in language extends itself to abstract ideas. As language can locate the “end” of a ribbon, so can our language help us to place ourselves in time. When a lecturer announces he is “coming to the end” of his talk, we understand that the “end” is a boundary made concrete by linguistics. Thus, when we “fill out” a form, we use the preposition “out” to imply that the form will reach a conceptual boundary: completion.

While language contains inherent principles of physics, such as space and time, it also has a dramatic emotional impact on human perception. Pinker used the example of “taboo words” to illustrate the many complex effects of profanity on cognition. Every “swear word” triggers a reaction in a specific area of brain. Some words elicit reactions associated with fear, while others are associated with revulsion. Each word contains insight into how we are feeling, or how we wish to make others feel by using a specific word. While there are many theories behind why we use swear words, Pinker supports the theory that profanity can communicate a strong emotional state to the people around us.

Ultimately, Pinker illustrated that the way we use language can serve as a window into social relations. Language demonstrates emotional states, and also recognizes dominance and reciprocity in human social relations. “Awkwardness” arises when “incorrect” language upsets normal social relationships. Pinker’s lecture was an illuminating analysis of how the words we use casually reveal our hyper-awareness of the way that others perceive us.

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