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September 23, 2007

The Double Thinker

By WILLIAM SALETAN
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THE STUFF OF THOUGHT

Language as a Window Into Human Nature.

By Steven Pinker.

499 pp. Viking. $29.95.

There are two ways to look at anything. That’s what I learned from reading Steven Pinker. Actually, I learned it from two Steven Pinkers. One is a theorist of human nature, the author of “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate.” The other is a word fetishist, the author of “The Language Instinct” and “Words and Rules.” One minute, he’s explaining the ascent of man; the next, he’s fondling irregular verbs the way other people savor stamps or Civil War memorabilia.

In “The Stuff of Thought,” Pinker says his new book is part of both his gigs. Hence its subtitle: “Language as a Window Into Human Nature.” It sounds as though he’s finally going to pull together his life’s work under one big idea, but he doesn’t. That’s what makes him so edifying and infuriating to read: he sees duality everywhere.

It’s not that Pinker thinks the world can be neatly divided. That would be dualism. In “The Blank Slate,” he trashed the most famous such distinction, the one between mind and matter. Pinker’s duality is of the opposite kind. Categories intersect like dimensions. The mind is what the brain does. Evolution shaped psychology, but in the process psychology evolved its own laws.

“The Stuff of Thought” explores the duality of human cognition: the modesty of its construction and the majesty of its constructive power. Pinker weaves this paradox from a series of opposing theories. Philosophical realists, for instance, think perception comes from reality. Idealists think it’s all in our heads. Pinker says it comes from reality but is organized and reorganized by the mind. That’s why you can look at the same thing in different ways.

Then there’s the clash between ancient and modern science. Aristotle thought projectiles continued through space because a force propelled them. He thought they eventually fell because Earth was their natural home. Modern science rejects both ideas. Pinker says Aristotle was right, not about projectiles but about how we understand them. We think in terms of force and purpose because our minds evolved in a biological world of force and purpose, not in an abstract world of vacuums and multiple gravities. Aristotle’s bad physics was actually good psychology.

How can we be sure the mind works this way? By studying its chief manifestation: language. Variations among verbs reflect our distinctions among physical processes. Nuances among nouns illustrate the alternate interpretations built into our most basic perceptions.

Metaphor turns out to be our crucial talent. It parlays crude animal knowledge into human advancement. From physical destinations, we extrapolate a conception of goals. From physical journeys, we build an understanding of relationships. Metaphors structure even our most advanced ideas: heat works like fluid, atoms like solar systems, genes like code, evolution like design. In each case, language has fossilized the construction process: “heat flow,” “genetic code,” “natural selection.”

Some thinkers worry that this power to frame perceptions can run away with us. In politics, the linguist George Lakoff has warned, “frames trump facts.” In this view, taxes can be depicted as burdens or as membership fees, driving public opinion this way or that. Pinker rejects Lakoff’s ideas, which have become fashionable among Democratic strategists. “Metaphors are generalizations,” he argues. Their implications can be tested against reality. Lakoff’s proposal to reframe taxes as membership fees flunks the test: if you don’t pay your membership fees, you lose your benefits; but if you don’t pay your taxes, you go to jail.

Nature isn’t the only external standard by which we can evaluate and revise frames and claims. Social behavior can test them, too. If frames overpower rational criticism, Pinker asks, then why do Lakoff and other quasi-relativists write books rationally criticizing frames? The medium belies the message. The medium isn’t just reason; it’s language — and language isn’t the manifestation of one mind; it’s the joint manifestation of millions. The reason language works is that it reflects the world as we jointly experience it.

That doesn’t mean we always use language to convey reality. Language is a social medium with social purposes. Sometimes, we use it not to communicate facts about the world but to filter them. We euphemize bribes as “contributions” to preserve the dignity of lobbyists and legislators. We phrase treaties vaguely because if they were clear, nobody would sign them. We invent subtle sexual overtures to avoid a confrontation if the other guy turns out not to be gay. We complain about doublespeak but rely on double meanings.

These are the aspects of our duality: brain and mind, matter and metaphor, fact and frame, science and politics, information and implication. Even their common lesson has two sides. On the one hand, we must face the limits of our mental construction. We have trouble understanding intellectual property because our ideas of possession and theft are based on physical objects. We have trouble with evolution because we think of adaptation as something that individuals do in their lifetimes, not something a species does over generations. We confuse differences in group averages with claims of group superiority. We’re prone to cronyism because our notions of community arose from family and tribe. In criminal trials, we resist objective explanations of subjective behavior. In sum, Pinker warns, “the machinery of conceptual semantics makes us permanently vulnerable to fallacies in reasoning.”

On the other hand, we are not imprisoned by them. The dialectic of creativity and reality-testing has taken us far beyond other animals and can take us farther. The next step is to dump our most natural and mistaken metaphor — education as the filling of empty minds — and recognize that we learn by extrapolating, testing, modifying and recombining mental models of the world.

That’s the two-faceted human nature Pinker wants to show us through the window of language. But as he does so, one more face appears in the glass: the reflection of the man looking into it.

Being a scientist is hard. You’re supposed to keep your personality out of the way, justifying every topic of interest by some larger theoretical goal. Pinker tries. “I like to think I have a better reason to introduce you to my little friends,” he pleads, referring to verbs and his infatuation with them. But as Pinker’s little friends consume the book, it becomes clear that he’s a geek.

It starts on the first page. The book is pegged to the anniversary of Sept. 11, and that’s the first topic Pinker addresses. Here is Pinker’s angle: Was it one “event” or two? This question makes a $3.5 billion difference to the World Trade Center’s owner and his insurance company, but you’d be hard pressed to think up a more pointy-headed question about the murder of nearly 3,000 people. The riffs continue: verb taxonomies, the nuances of “politeness theory,” the comparative languages of South American tribes. At one point, Pinker draws up a game-theoretic matrix for the question “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” Etchings, of course, are code for sex. But in Pinker’s case, you get the feeling that this guy actually would prefer to show you his etchings. That’s his kink. He’s interested in the stuff of life, but he’s even more interested in how we depict it.

There’s plenty of sex and scatology in Pinker’s etchings. Some of it is shrouded in Nerdish, like the “gynecological-flagellative term for uxorial dominance.” But most of it is brutally explicit. He catalogs scores of terms for genitals, sex acts and excrement. From them, he spins delightful theories about people. He pokes fun at Congressional censors for botching the grammar of words they’re trying to ban. Foul language turns out to be an excellent window not only into human nature but into Pinker’s nature: curious, inventive, fearless, naughty.

And Pinker’s nature turns out to be the book’s organizing principle. The linguistic arcana, the academic squabbles, the Tom Lehrer songs, the Lenny Bruce quotations — they’re all part of the tale of one man’s journey to understanding human nature. The majesty of Pinker’s theories is only one side of the story. The other side is the modesty of how he built them. It all makes sense, when you look at it the right way.

William Saletan writes the Human Nature column for Slate and is the author of “Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.”