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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Recent book reviews: Steve Pinker's Stuff of Thought

Seth Lerer, in "The Edifice of Pinkerism" suggests that not since the 18th century has there been so much argument about the mind. He is, of course, reviewing Harvard cognitive psychologist Steve Pinker's latest, Stuff of Thought.

Wow. Stuff. I knew Pinker was a materialist, but does he mean stuff like ... stuff? The kind of stuff you give to the SallyAnn (puzzles you've done twice and clothes that never fit). Well, almost, according to Lerer. That is, he believes in "a theory of mind that holds that certain concepts or ways of thinking are hardwired into our brains at birth."

Well, hard wiring is the stuff that the electrician sneaks into a nearby dumpster after fixing the lighting system. So he must mean ... stuff.

But I still don't get it. Everything these guys talk about is simply "an idea in the minds of men." It becomes physical only when they act, and then mainly in the outcome. Before that, what is it, exactly? Not stuff.

Lerer comments:
Then again, there is a fair amount of sheer attention getting in the book, especially the long chapter on "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." Mr. Pinker comes off as a comedian manqué, channeling George Carlin to make witty observations on why we can and cannot say things publicly. There's nothing more uncomfortable to a young student than a middle-aged college professor working at being cool, and there are times throughout this book when I just cringed at the Groucho Marxisms or the list of verbs for sexual activity. That this list in particular ends with the Yiddish "shtup" can only be explained by Mr. Pinker's belief that there is something inherently funny in the sonic concatenations of the shtetl.

Mr. Pinker, of course, is more than just a borscht-belt John Locke. He is the cognitive philosopher of our generation, and his work on language and mind has implications for anybody interested in human expression and experience.

Yes, but WHAT implications? Should I just start ignoring Pinker?

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