Monday, August 2, 2010

Language shapes our world
The Tribune, Sunday, August 1, 2010

Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman

The Stuff of Thought
Steven Pinker
Penguin. Pages 500, Price: £ 3.50

Shakespeare wrote famously in Romeo and Juliet: "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." We might disagree with the Bard, for although it is true that if rose had some other name, it would taste as sweet, but it would depend on what that other name was. The rose would not smell as sweet if it were a homonym of ‘shit’.

Under the influence of philosophers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, Russell, and Wittgenstein most of us strongly believe that language shapes our world. This view was taken to the extreme when Roland Barthers said, "Man does not exist prior to language, either as a species or as an individual."

American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker defies these extremely influential philosophers. He upends the established view by forcefully arguing that it is our thoughts about the world around us that actually shape our language. After all if roses never existed, we would not think about their smelling sweet or otherwise.

Pinker is a versatile genius who is eminently persuasive and eloquent. Philosophy of language, Semantics, linguistics, and evolutionary psychology are his main interests. Philosophy of language concerns problems such as: How words relate to reality; What is the nature of meaning? What is truth, reference, logical necessity? Semantics is the study of meaning in language, and Linguistics is the scientific study of natural language.

Pinker’s earlier books The Language Instinct (1995), Words and Rules (1999) explored the human capacity for language – how we manage to absorb innumerable words and the astonishingly complex rules that govern their use. In two other books, How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate (2002), he examined human nature, mind, and consciousness using an evolutionary framework.

His latest book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature shows that semantics and psychology are ultimately related. Human beings think, language is the medium with which they think, and thinking constructs our world for them. Each individual thinks differently, hence each of us lives in a different world though the objective reality is the same for all of us.

Pinker begins the book by asking us to recall what happened on September 11, 2001. He asks us how many events took place on that fateful day. Most of us would say one event took place because although the World Trade Center had two towers, they should be treated as one, and though several people were involved, the attacks were conceived in the mind of one man who had just one mission. Some might argue they were two events as there were two separate buildings standing at a reasonable distance from each other; they were struck at different times, and collapsed at different times. Many of us might be frustrated by this debate which seems frivolous, or mere philosophical hair-splitting. Whether it was a single event, two events, or three, what difference does it make?

It makes a great difference points out Pinker. If the judges determining the insurance claims saw 9/11 as one event, the leaseholders of WTC would get three and a half billion dollars, on the other hand, if the lawyers could prove it that they were two events, the leaseholders would receive seven billion dollars. A difference of a solid three and a half billion dollars!

Further, some might call it a terrorist attack on freedom; others might call it a holy war waged for freedom. The way language is used and conceived could be the difference between life and death.

Pinker writes: "The fact that rival construals of a single occurrence can trigger an extravagant court case tells us that the nature of reality does not dictate the way that reality is represented in people’s minds. The language of thought allows us to frame a situation in different and incompatible ways. . . . And the ability to frame an event in alternative ways is not just a reason to go to court but also the source of richness of human intellectual life. As we shall see, it provides the materials for scientific and literary creativity, for humor and wordplay, and for the dramas of social life."

Continuing in the same vein, Pinker says that most of the conflicts among peoples and countries are nothing but a matter of how we use words and definitions. Abortion is seen by some as the free choice of a woman to be a mother or not, while anti-abortionists term it as murder in the womb.

Pinker shows how our minds deal with the objective, physical world. Consider the following sentences:

"She loaded hay into the wagon",

"She loaded the wagon with hay"

Although they might seem similar to us, the former is a content-locative construction in which the emphasis is on the thing being moved; and the latter is a container-locative construction in which the emphasis is on where the thing is being moved to. In the first case the impression is that some hay was loaded into the wagon, and in the second the suggestion is that the wagon was fully loaded with hay.

Then, there is a major controversy in psychology about what is innate, i.e., hereditary, in us and what we acquire through culture and the environment. The established view is that nothing is innate; the mind is a blank slate on which experience is written.However, this view is being seriously challenged by thinkers like Pinker who hold that although environment plays its role, heredity, too, plays a major role in language acquisition because children learn their mother tongue very easily without any professional training, and animals cannot be taught a language no matter what training is given to them. The capacity to learn a language is innate, but what language a child learns would depend upon the society into which it is born. Further, the human brain is made up several specialist domains which make us capable of rationality, emotions, abstract theorising, and linguistic skills.

There are a good number of other concepts like how we use proper names, indirection of speech, metaphors, swearwords, and jokes, which make this book extremely valuable for readers interested in language and the wonder called the human mind.