“The Stuff of Thought” by Steven Pinker


Professor Pinker introduced the readers to some of the major constructs used in the English language, such as content-locatives, container-locatives, double-object datives, prepositional-datives, causatives and intransitives. He also gave an overview of various linguistic theories, such as Extreme Nativism, Radical Pragmatism and Linguistic Determinism. I find it very informative and interesting, especially the ingenious experiments conducted to test the theories and explore the cognitive capabilities of babies, monkeys and humans. It’s also fascinating to note the parallel between time and space as is drawn by the language.


From the $3.5 billion argument over the meaning of the event on September 11, to the use of metaphors and cuss words, to the application of game theory in relationship negotiations (such as attempted bribery) in our daily life, there are numerous examples demonstrating that linguistics and semantics are indeed an interesting and import part of our world. The humorous quotes and anecdotes throughout the book also helped display the charm of language.

Ultimately Uninspiring

While Professor Pinker spent a great deal of ink pointing out the mistakes in other linguistic theories, he did not present a concrete, coherent theory of his own. Even when he was refuting other theories, he seemed to be picking and choosing pieces so that they can be easily demolished. He could have at least done justice by presenting them in their entirety first.

The book has no flow, at least to me. I found myself wondering in the maze, the “stuff”, of the author’s thoughts, with no clear path. At one point, when arguing against Extreme Nativism, he likened the elegant and versatile immune system of the human body to the wasteful, inefficient airport security checks, I almost gave up in exasperation. I had to really force myself to focus, to gleam more understanding and eventually finish the book.


  1. Video of Steven Pinker’s lecture on “The Stuff of Thought” @ Google
  2. Video of George Lakoff’s lecture on “The Political Mind” @ Google

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