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Loaded sentences

The Stuff of Thought Language as a Window Into Human Nature; Steven Pinker; Viking: 500 pp., $29.95

September 16, 2007|Douglas Hofstadter | Douglas Hofstadter, the author of "I Am a Strange Loop," is a cognitive scientist and director of Indiana University's Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition.

IN "The Stuff of Thought," celebrated Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker sets out to explain how language reveals our inner nature. Terming us "verbivores, a species that lives on words," Pinker argues that our verbivorous, highly biased perception of reality differs radically from the findings of science yet allows us to thrive in a complex universe. The meanings of words matter profoundly, for words determine our reality, or at least a large part of it. Semantics is no arcane intellectual quibble; it lies at the core of our existence.

Pinker shows, for example, how subtle features of English verbs reveal hidden operations of the human mind. Consider such contrasting sentences as "The farmer loaded hay into the wagon" and "The farmer loaded the wagon with hay." In this pair, the verb "load" has two different kinds of objects: the stuff that gets moved and the place it goes. Also, in the first sentence, the destination is the object of one preposition; in the second, the stuff is the object of another. Pinker sees these "alternations" as constituting a "microclass" of verbs acting this way, such as "spray" ("spray water on the roses" versus "spray the roses with water"). Where does this observation lead him? To the idea that we sometimes frame events in terms of motion in physical space (moving hay; moving water) and sometimes in terms of motion in state-space (wagon becoming full; roses becoming wet).

Moreover, there are verbs that refuse such alternations: for instance, "pour." We can say "I poured water into the glass" but not "I poured the glass with water." What accounts for this curious difference between "load" and "pour"? Pinker claims that pouring merely lets a liquid move under gravity's influence, whereas loading is motion determined by the human agent. "Pour" and "load" thus belong to different microclasses, and these microclasses reveal how we construe events. "[W]e have discovered a new layer of concepts that the mind uses to organize mundane experience: concepts about substance, space, time, and force," Pinker writes. " . . . [S]ome philosophers consider [these concepts] to be the very scaffolding that organizes mental life. . . . But we've stumbled upon these great categories of cognition . . . by trying to make sense of a small phenomenon in language acquisition."

Pinker exploits his wonderfully keen faculty for linguistic observation to pry open the human head and discover its secrets. Sometimes this technique works terrifically, other times not so well. Consider his claim that "the causative construction subscribes to a theory of free will." That is, we cannot say "Bill laughed Debbie" as a substitute for "Bill made Debbie laugh," whereas we can say "Bill bent the hanger" instead of "Bill made the hanger bend." The idea is that because Debbie has free will, Bill's antics can contribute to her laughing but can't be its total cause, whereas the will-less hanger is totally coerced by Bill's action.

Pinker offers similar examples, and his idea of microclasses seems applicable, but I managed to come up with a fair number of counterexamples, such as "Bill cheered Mary up" (so Mary cheered up), or even "Stengel pitched Ford in Game 6" (so Ford pitched in Game 6). There's an echo of the notion of free will in the reluctance of verbs like "laugh" and "cry" to enter into causative constructions, but it's hardly a universal feature of the intransitive verbs that apply to people.

Pinker would like language to be as precise a guide to the mind's machinery as the behavior of particles in force fields is a guide to the laws of physics. He sees linguistic regularities abounding, and he tries using them to penetrate the hidden "language of thought," whose most critical ingredients are "ethereal notions of space, time, causation, possession, and goals." Although I'm less sanguine than Pinker about language's regularity -- and, indeed, about the existence of a "language of thought" -- I find his thesis well worth contemplating.

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