The Edifice of Pinkerism

Seth Lerer in the New York Sun:

Screenhunter_16_sep_04_0214This argument, what we might call Pinkerism, sets up a fundamental relationship between language and mind. Its implications have been seen across a gamut of human experiences: from understanding social relationships to developing artificial intelligence. Indeed, some adherents might claim that Mr. Pinker’s work gives us not just a template for humanity, but a program for computer architecture. In short, this is a blueprint for the brain, whether it be organic or virtual.

Mr. Pinker has written so much on this subject, and his work has been the object of so much debate, that one may wonder why we need another 400-plus page book on the matter. “The Stuff of Thought” adds little to the intellectual edifice of Pinkerism. It does, however, furnish that edifice’s rooms with popular examples, political and social implications, and reflections on the ways in which we all use language every day. There are extended chapters on swearing and obscenity, discussions of metaphor and figurative expression in literature and popular culture, and ruminations on the social codes of conversation.

Some of this material is fascinating. I was particularly struck by the discussion of “indirectspeech”: why we often make requests or indicate desire in oblique ways. “Would you like to come up for coffee,” has become an indirect request for sex. “I was wondering if you could pass the guacamole,” has become a polite way of saying, “Pass the guacamole.” Politeness and desire compel us to speak and write in subtle ways, and Mr. Pinker’s sensitivity and knowledge make his account far more substantive than those of other writers on this matter.

More here.  My own review of The Stuff of Thought is here.

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