The theme this time round was 'grenser' (in English, limits or boundaries). I had planned take the methaphoric route and write about the moral and ethical limits that are met when you have a pet - I'm thinking especially about the emotion and money invested in a single amimal (or in our case, two cats), when so many others suffer; least of all those that end up on my plate.
It's something that I've been mulling over a lot, and even more so recently as Schrödinger has been ill and we've had to have a serious think about whether it would be fair, or -and I cringe as I write it- 'worth it', to keep him alive if he got worse. Thankfully he has made a full recovery, but I'm pretty sure we'll have to think about it again soon enough.
As it was, I didn't have enough time to get my thoughts together and write something up in time; The plan is to have something in the edition after next. I've already thought of a cheese-tastic title: 'The Paradox of Schrödinger, My Cat'.
I did, however, manage to write a review of The Stuff of Thought , by Steven Pinker. The editors were kind enough to include it in this edition despite the book being a little old. I've always planned to review new books for them but I was so busy that I had to write about what I was reading at the time. After picking up a tonne of new books whilst I was back in the UK for Christmas, I have plenty of things on my to-read list, but I've also been given the editors' blessing to approach a few publishers on behalf of the magazine to request advance copies of any upcoming books that catch my eye, which is pretty nifty!
Argument #1 2013:
Review of The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker
Ever noticed that you’re able to imagine something like a horse with a human head, but not two pieces of fruit next to each other without one of them always being on the left? In The Stuff of Thought, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker explains how the mind is not caged by language, but instead works based on intuitions we have evolved about how the natural world works. Thinking is more than just the voice in your head, and the stuff of thought is more than just the words the voice in your head uses to ‘speak’.
We have an understanding of space and time, matter and causality, which comes before we learn the words to represent them. These intuitions ground us in the reality of the world around us and set rules for the form of language and the way we use words. The example with the half-man-half-horse and the fruit shows whilst we can use words to describe the impossible, even our imaginations unable to violate fundamental principles of time and space.
The first few chapters of the book are dense with discussions of the types and forms of English verbs and nouns. There are a lot of counterintuitive ideas, theories and counter theories to digest as Pinker walks us through what words can tell us about the way we think. Words can be grouped according to the type of matter they relate to and our intuitive ideas of cause and effect. These ideas are not just specific to English, but other languages and cultures can use the same «pure intuitions» to describe the world in very different ways.
My favourite example is that most Western cultures think of the future as in front of us and the past behind, whilst speakers of Amayra, from the Andes, do a complete 180. They think of the future as the unknowable that lies behind us, whilst the past, which we can see, is in front. Using examples like these, Pinker lays out one of the core ideas of the book: Whilst language can reinforce habits in the way that you think, it in no way dictates or limits what you can think, as other researchers of language have suggested.
A lesson in grammar
Be prepared to learn a lot, but also find yourself reading over sections and paragraphs more than once. As a non-linguist, despite being a native English speaker, I had a tough time picking apart Pinker’s theories. Unless you have a special interest in linguists, part of the book can feel a little heavy going. The sections on grammar are intense, and it can sometimes feel like you’re drowning in examples of correct and incorrect syntax. On the whole however, it’s forgivable because they come couched within thought-provoking, and occasionally funny, stories, or illustrated with clever comic strips.
The real strength of The Stuff of Thought is the way Pinker draws on other fields to show just how far down the rabbit hole language can take us. You’ll learn not just a lot of English grammar and cognitive psychology, but a surprising amount of physics, philosophy and sociology.
Cute pop-psychology factoids
The «Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television» and «What’s In A Name?» chapters represent a frustrating problem with most of the second half of the book: a tendency to stray too far from the central thesis. Discussions of the roots of swearing and how we name things are fascinating, but they suffer from straying too far into cute pop-psychology factoid territory and as a result, they don’t describe or explain ‘the stuff of thought’ as precisely as earlier chapters.
It’s also a problem that native English speakers are taken as a homogenous group representing Western culture, as this makes the light shining through this «window into human nature» necessarily small; I would love to read Pinker’s ideas extended to other languages and cultures with the same detail. How his ideas work now that everyone «Can Haz Teh Internetz» and English evolves ever quicker, one can only begin to imagine.
The theme for the next edition of Argument is 'brains', which I am super excited about. It might take some burning of candles at both ends, but the plan is to review James Flynn's Are We Getting Smarter? which I am currently making my way though, and something on the rise of 'neurononsense' and what some fantastic bloggers, more dedicated than myself, are doing to combat it.