Deborah Cameron is impressed by The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker's accessible study of semantic meaningDeborah Cameron
GuardianThe Stuff of Thought: Language As a Window Into Human Nature
Would you feel better about paying your taxes if they were renamed "membership fees"? The US linguist George Lakoff thinks you might. Lakoff believes that political debates are essentially contests between different metaphorical frames. He has criticised the Democrats for jumping on George Bush's "tax relief" bandwagon during the 2004 presidential campaign, on the grounds that "tax relief", which frames taxes metaphorically as an affliction or a burden, is an apt slogan for neoconservatives, but a self-defeating one for their opponents. If the Democrats want to win the argument, what they need to do is reframe the issue using a different metaphor - for instance, taxes are what we owe to society in exchange for the services it provides to its members.
But perhaps Lakoff underestimates our capacity for thinking critically about language. If a political party actually took his advice, they would surely provoke a torrent of criticism. Some critics would dispute the aptness of the metaphor: you'd have lefties denouncing its trivial consumerism ("society is not a golf club") and libertarians asking when membership of the taxpayers' club was going to become optional. Others would denounce the malignity or futility of politically motivated language engineering. There would be an Orwellian camp muttering darkly about newspeak, and a Shakespearean camp ("a tax by any other name ...") accusing the reframers of fixating on what they would doubtless describe as "mere semantics".
The Stuff of Thought is a book about semantic - linguistic - meaning, and Steven Pinker wants to show that there is nothing "mere" about it. But although his title might seem to imply otherwise, he is not suggesting that language is "the stuff of thought" - the raw material we use to think with, or the Nietzschean "prisonhouse" from which our thoughts cannot escape. The idea that language shapes or constrains thought is one of the intellectual commonplaces of the last 100 years, given philosophical gravitas by Nietzsche's "will to power" concept, Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the collected works of assorted post-structuralists, and fixed in the popular imagination by Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and the garbled "Eskimos and snow" version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the theory that, as Benjamin Lee Whorf put it in 1940, "we dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages" - and that consequently there may be radical differences in the way different linguistic communities perceive the same phenomena). Pinker, however, is on a mission to debunk it. "Words are not the same as thoughts," he says, "and much of human wisdom consists of not mistaking one for the other."
In Pinker's philosophy, the stuff of thought is thought: we can only argue about the meanings of words or the aptness of metaphors because we have something to think with apart from words and metaphors. But if we want to understand the workings of that deeper conceptual apparatus, language offers a rich source of evidence - in the words of the book's subtitle, a "window into human nature".
Pinker begins with some of the puzzles thrown up by the behaviour of English verbs. For instance, why can you "fill a glass with water", but not "pour a glass with water", and conversely "pour water into a glass" but not "fill water into a glass"? This seems strange, given that the two sentences "she filled a glass with water" and "she poured water into a glass" could be descriptions of the same real-world event. How do children acquiring English manage to learn that "pour" and "fill" are not interchangeable? The answer is that the rules have a deeper logic: they reflect the way our minds deal with concepts such as substance, place, movement and causation. They also demonstrate our ability to construe the same state of affairs in more than one way. Both versions of the "water/glass" event involve a liquid moving into a container, but whereas "fill" puts the emphasis on what is happening to the container, "pour" puts the emphasis on what is happening to the liquid.
Yet, although we can approach the same reality from many different angles, some ways of thinking do seem to come more naturally to us than others. Certain intuitive theories - of matter, time and space, causation and agency - are apparent in the structure of so many human languages as to suggest that they must be part of our species' standard cognitive equipment. It seems, too, that these intuitive ways of conceptualising are typically very unlike the corresponding scientific accounts. We do not grasp the universe as it really is, but rather from the vantage-point of our own interactions with it.
The mismatch between science and intuition, however, is more evidence that we are capable of thinking outside the language box - for if we were not, there could be no science. Quantum mechanics is so counter-intuitive that physicist Richard Feynman once said of it: "nobody knows how it can be like that". And yet physicists have not been prevented from concluding that it is like that. An adequate account of language and thought has to be able to explain the fact that we do come up with non-intuitive ideas, and we do manage to express those ideas in words (albeit, in the case of quantum mechanics, words that few non-physicists can make much sense of).
In Pinker's view, what makes this possible is, first, our propensity for metaphor, which allows us to grasp complex and abstract relationships through simpler analogies, and second, the combinatorial power of language, which allows a finite stock of words and grammatical structures to be assembled into an infinite number of sentences expressing a potentially limitless variety of thoughts. So although there is a box, it contains the tools we need to think outside it. Pinker proposes that the goal of education in modern societies should be to teach us how to use those tools to compensate for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of conceptualising the world.
The Stuff of Thought delivers the same rewards as Pinker's earlier books for a general audience. He has a very good eye for the apt example, the memorable quote and the joke that nails his point; he is lucid in exposition and vigorous in argument. But to my mind, at least, the other side of that coin is less attractive. Pinker is the scientific equivalent of a conviction politician, and while his certainty lends his writing clarity and force, it can also make him sound glib and overly pleased with himself (one chapter opens with a discussion of famous scientists named "Steve"). His intellectual universe can seem very black and white: he does acknowledge some of the scholars who disagree with him, but when he has vanquished these opponents to his own satisfaction there is no sense that any nagging doubts or unsolved puzzles remain.
Whether readers are convinced will depend on how far they share Pinker's certainties about human nature. (I share some of them, but not all: in particular, I do not consider the sweeping and speculative claims of evolutionary psychology to constitute an adequate account of human social, sexual and emotional behaviour, and am accordingly unconvinced by arguments that rely heavily on that account.) But even if you don't think it has all the answers, The Stuff of Thought does have what are arguably the two most important qualities of a good popular science book: it makes its subject accessible, and it makes its readers think.
· Deborah Cameron is professor of language and communication at Oxford University. Her book The Myth of Mars and Venus is published this month by Oxford University Press