Steven Pinker: The Stuff of Thought

If you have a mind, you'll want to watch this. Steven Pinker, linguist, evolutionary psychologist and Harvard psychology professor, delivers a fascinating presentation on the intimate relationship between language and the workings of the mind.

Pinker asks himself what a Martian visitor might conclude about human nature based on the ways in which we use language. In order to answer this general question, he explores grammar as a window into thought, swearing as a window into emotion, and innuendo as a window into social relations. Studying language has never been this much fun!

In his analysis of grammar, Pinker explains how a rudimentary theory of physics and metaphysics is embedded in language, helping us structure and make sense of our experience. On this view, prepositions denote space, nouns denote matter, tenses denote time, and verbs denote causality. This analysis helps to explain many of the quirky ways we use language, which sometimes become sources of frustration, especially among sticklers.

My favorite part of the presentation, swearing as a window into emotion, shows Pinker's elegant and adept ability to curse more than a trucker without losing a bit of respectability or academic integrity. Armed with the philosophical distinction between use and mention, he is invincible. Why does swearing produce the strong emotional responses it does? And why is swearing so closely linked to religion, sex and scatology?

Finally, Pinker analyzes innuendo (yes, in your endo) as a window to understand social relationships using the tools of economic and evolutionary game theory (prisoner dilemmas and that sort of stuff). Among other things, as it turns out, our use of language reveals social hierarchies and our place within them. Pinker answers these and many other fascinating questions.

I know what you're thinking: next time you go to the doctor, you're going to ask if he needs a doodie sample, right?

If you want to see just how versatile the word fuck is, check this out.
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