Of The research field dealing with semantic theories








Physical and Conceptual Realms:

Review of Steven Pinker’s Stuff of Thought


of the Philippines – Diliman
















Of Physical and Conceptual Realms:

A Review on Pinker’s Stuff of Thought

Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature is an engaging guide
to ourselves as it relates language to human cognition and to the world outside
of our minds. It focused on the concepts, emotions, and relationships that are
perceptible through our language and that constitutes the human nature – all
thoroughly discussed with wide-ranging examples that are commended or
criticized by being putting into contrast with presented counter or supporting
evidences. Pinker invites students to scrutinize how language — be they be
words, phrases, metaphors, or dialogues – makes up our everyday social skill
sets for life. The book bridges the human social life and the physical reality
of it all. It delves deep into language’s world of its own.

            In this review, five arguments of pertinence
from the book will be tackled, critiqued, and juxtaposed with psycholinguistic

meanings come from: nature versus nurture and semantic organization

limitations of our language particularly in time and space: cognitive economy

metaphors are understood: parallelism between the physical realm and the
conceptual realm of language

meanings of the words live: reference and sense of words

as a human universal: why people bother with indirect speech

Where meanings come from

            Semantic organization is defined as
“the way in which a person organizes their knowledge and makes sense of their
world” (Freedman & Jones, n.d.). The research field dealing with semantic
theories are debatable as the fundamental questions of semantics remains
unsolved. Still, understanding semantics is vital to studying language as it
begs the question of how our brain could contain such vast amount of knowledge
and then use this information to expatiate and refine its grasp of the world.
Pinker presented three radical theories expounding on the human mental

nativism. This theory puts emphasis on the innateness of our semantic
organization. It claims that humans have an innate inventory of concepts such
as “cause,” “number,” “living thing,” “exchange,” “kin,” and “danger,”. These
large and more abstract set of concepts are said to be “readymade” than constructed

            One good support for this claim is
how the professor in our biology class made us define what a living thing is.
Students had a hard time coming up with a fitting description for such despite
the mutual knowledge of what a living thing is. Common descriptions like “it
has life” and “it is alive” still begs the question of what we consider as
alive or having a life. This is because people can discern a living versus a
non-living without others having to spell out to them the qualities of one.
Humans may be already born with the schema that enables them to easily
distinguish different concepts from each other.

            Another argument for nativism is the
immune system and how it can develop pre-programmed antibodies even before the
body encounters the disease. However, Pinker argues that the immune system is
far different from the brain – a difference that should not be glossed over.
While natural selection could account for the antibodies’ adaption to the
evolving microorganisms surrounding us, it could not account for words such as
“trombone” and “carburetor” that plays little to no role in our survival.

            Extreme nativism theory may appeal as
an explanation to the more primal parts of humanity but it did not take into
consideration how people are also highly social beings that play with words and
conversations (i.e. metaphors, indirect speech) which are not all necessary for
personal survival.

Pragmatics. Contrary to extreme nativism, this theory talks about how the
mind does not contain fixed representations of the meanings of words and how
words are open to loose interpretation of individuals. Word meanings are not
discrete entities for radical pragmatics but patterns of association. According
to Pinker, this goes against the fundamental design of language as it lacks a
precise mental representation. Meanings of words will continuously and freely
interpreted and reinterpreted in context that consensus will be impossible which
will intensely dampen human communication.

Determinism. Meanwhile, this theory totally flips the coin by saying that
it is language that determines thought and not the other way around. It is an
unalterable confinement with no room for relativity. The same determinism was
discussed in class with the notion made weaker by Whorf’s proposed view that,
instead, language only affects rather than dictates our thought processes.

             Nature versus nurture has been arguably one of
the oldest debates in the history of psychology and it carries over which part
of language is inherited (i.e. genetic) or acquired (i.e. learned) — which
part of language is a result of experience or is biologically determined. Such
point of controversy strongly persists visibly even in Pinker’s Stuff of

 The limitations of
our language particularly in time and space

            The book opened the question
“Why is everyday spatial language so bad?” and extends this to, an even worse,
time expression in language which have even fewer tenses than spatial terms.  In class, we discussed the concept of
cognitive economy with an Oxford definition of our tendency of our cognitive
processes to minimize processing effort and resources. And just like thinking,
languages economize when they can as words and syllables are not free. Spatial
terms, for example, can be immensely ambiguous as they do not nail down all degrees
of freedom an object can have with its axes, and so we settle with “near” or
“far”. Same goes with time that is immeasurable in units, is one-dimensional,
and is divided only into two directions (unlike spatial terms): the
unchangeable past and the probable future. This is not because people are “lazy
thinkers” but because complex thoughts literally require physiological expenses
or energy costs (Markman, 2009). There are limited resources of crucial brain
chemicals that must be conserved for more important thinking tasks than accurately
painting a picture setting of a story one’s telling. 

How metaphors are understood

            Socrates had asserted that we must
first know “What is X?” before we can say anything meaningful about X (Godwin,
n.d.). This assertion glosses over how people understand conceptual metaphors.
In the book, it was pointed out that there is a parallel between the physical
realm and the conceptual realm wherein metaphors lie. As was brought up before
as a criticism in extreme nativism, how come our minds evolved an ability to
reason about abstract things when it has no relevance to survival?

            According to Lakoff, the strongest
advocate of how people think in metaphors based on our wordly experience, he
believes that there is a nonmetaphorical, physical world out there, and it is
our human nature that limits our universal experience and interaction with the
world grounded only by many metaphors as an expression of truth about the
world. This does not mean though that knowledge and truth are obsolete, it is only
that humans depend more on their physical interpretations and experiences rather
than in logical formulas with truth values.

            Pinker made a strong criticism of
this view of Lakoff by pointing out that metaphor allows the mind to understand
more abstract domains but one cannot think in metaphor alone because for one to
learn and use a metaphor, one must first know in which dimensions of
similarities these ideas fall into together, and that those dimensions of
similarities are rooted in the physical realm and what only then allows people
to use conceptual metaphor. Applying what Socrates said, people must first know
the concrete defining qualities of a word to be able to put it in contrast with
other words to make sense of the world. This criticism was made even more
stronger when backed up with an evidence of Kemmerer’s study on how patients
with brain damage still managed to retain their ability to comprehend time
prepositions after losing their ability to understand spatial prepositions.
Therefore, the metaphorical overlap of time and space did not withstand. This
suggests that cognition is not modular to metaphorical thinking but rather, an
interaction of different circuits of the brain responsible for understanding
space and for understanding time. Same observations were obtained for
Wernicke’s and Broca’s aphasia wherein one’s inability to produce speech is
independent of his/her’s ability to understand the speech of others.

nobel prize winner, Roger Sperry, discovered that the left hemisphere of the
brain is responsible for the rational, logical, sequential, and overall
analytical ways of processing information while the right hemisphere is for
recognizing relationships, and integrating and synthesizing information to
arrive at intuitive thoughts (1975). Although the lateralization of the brain
might imply that the right hemisphere is solely responsible for metaphor
processing, a study revealed that regardless of whether the sentences were
metaphorical or literal, the left hemisphere predominantly processes close
semantic relationships while the right predominantly processes distant semantic
relationships (Schmidt, Debuse, & Seger, 2007). This is an evidence that
the mind contains several subsystems or modules designed to perform different complex
cognitive processes wherein a metaphorical overlap with the entirety of human
understanding would be an oversimplification of human cognition. Backed up with
these scientific data, Lakoff’s claims simply cannot be as it disregards the
logical thinking’s adherence to strict principles of validity and truth
properties of words and statements, consequently exaggerating people’s reliance
on metaphor for meaning. 

Where meanings of the words live

            Behind every name is an ID. Proper
names, moreover, are powerful markers of social identity and are used to attach
an arbitrary label to a person – a label that could contain the owner’s all
kinds of attributes like gender, appearance, and character (Rymes, 2000).

upon a time, anthropologists jumped to a faulty conclusion when they thought
that a group of primitive people were so unorganized that they did not use
names. They were later proven wrong by Feldman who discovered that these
anthropologists simply failed to grasp the minds and to immerse in the culture
of these people from which it was later discovered to be taboo to reveal one’s
name to strangers (Deluzain, n.d.). This custom is a good example of just how
much value we put in the names we give and the names we use. Oftentimes, these
names of ours are derived from a significant event on a timeline or based on an
item or a person of importance. 

do not only serve as a reminder to us but an enabler for us to distinguish between
one another and therefore putting our world into order. In Pinker’s Stuff of
Thought, he discussed where the meanings of these special words live and how we
organize such meanings in our head through reference and sense of words. As was
discussed in class, reference here is defined as the relationship between a
word and its real-world entity while sense refers to words’ relationship to one
another. The same relationships of words were used by McDowell (1977) in his
attempt to understand language and reality. He said that when we use an object (proper
names) in describing a thought, we are giving an “extrinsic characterization”
that takes the item outside of our mind (McDowell, 1977) — a reference
containing the object’s name and its plausible actuality. On the other hand,
there is an “intrinsic characterization that happens only inside the subject’s
mind – a sense between the object and other ideas about that object.

mechanism of how people’s language relate to their reality has been a
reoccurring theme all throughout Pinker’s book (i.e. the physical and
conceptual realm of metaphors). We have used names as “rigid designators” of
one object into every possible related word making it possible for a name to
carry so much implicit value and meaning and, therefore in essence, bridging
the gap between an individual’s mind to everyone else’s reality hence making it
a necessity to human communication and mutual understanding.

Hypocrisy as a human universal

            Facebook was launched back in year
2004 and started spreading like wildfire ever since. It gave us an avenue to
connect with people and to present the best version of ourselves to others.
Facebook and other social media platforms of today have an increasingly huge
impact in our everyday lives for they have become a way to flaunt the living experiences
we are so very proud of. In fact, from human’s obsession with social media
sprouted various articles and studies like Gündüz’ study of the effect of
social media on identity construction (2017) and an article like The Self in Selfie. These studies and written
works delve on people’s need to create a virtual identity for themselves
outside of their physical social life. But why do people do it?

            Stuff of
Thought mentioned the concept of a “face”. It was defined as “a positive social
value that a person claims for himself”. For Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist,
this “face” is called a persona, the social face a person presents to the world
or the mask people wear to make an impression on others, hiding what is
underneath – one’s true nature. In the book, we discover that humans are highly
social beings who communicate not only for information but also for fun. The
goal of social interactions is not only to get a directly get a message across
but also to get the approval of peers. Thus, people showcase only most of what
is good about them on social media. 

self-preservation tendencies of people project into their language and was also
reflected in the book. To save a “face”, we cloak our intentions in language
and we expect others to do the same despite our professed longing for plain
speaking. This is the game of hide-and-seek that come naturally to people – a
hypocrisy that is a necessity.

            People do
not play this game solely for kicks. Like what was discussed earlier in the
limitations of language, people work under the system of cognitive economy
wherein we unconsciously use as little energy as what is needed and no more.
Following this line of reasoning, indirect speech should be entirely out of the
equation, but we found that is not the case. This is because indirect speech is
more than its flowery words but an actual necessity. Pinker expounded on this
necessity using the logic of plausible deniability.

deniability is giving the hearer an out in a situation. It is an acknowledgment
of the hearer’s desire for autonomy. In this section of the book, Pinker gave
several sample life scenarios, namely, indirect requests, veiled threats, and
even sarcasm. Indirect speech is applied in all three cases to stave off any
bad impression that people may have on an individual’s face. For instance, in
indirect speech, requests, instead of demands, gives the hearer an option to
say no and for the requester to not appear to be bossing around the other which
can be damaging to a good relationship. Veiled threats on another hand is more
beneficial to the speaker than to the hearer as concealing threats under a
layer of niceties could make it less likely for the speaker to face the
consequences of his actions since, due to plausible deniability, he can just
deny any accusation. The third case is sarcasm, or in colloquial terms: sass.
An example from the book is saying “What a great game you just played!” to
someone who performed badly. This is intended to lessen the blow of offense, to
control the bluntness of the words, and to make the sarcastic speaker look less
critical and angry.

            These, of
course, are made possible with the people’s desire to prevent individual
knowledge of something from becoming mutual knowledge in which – according to
Pinker- is the deepest explanation for why people play along with indirect
speech. Jokes, for example, work under this mechanism. For one to understand a
joke, one must tap into a person’s individual knowledge and make it a mutual
knowledge by exposing it to the world through language. Referenced in the book
is The Emperor’s New Clothes where there is an individual knowledge of the
emperor being naked that has become a mutual knowledge only when the little boy
had called it out, and therefore making everyone laugh. To avoid such type of
embarrassment ergo ruining someone’s face, it takes a skill called “tact” — a
skill that the little boy obviously did not have yet. But keep in mind these
examples only work under the assumption of the Cooperative Principle, meaning
that there is an unspoken consensus between the two conversationalist that they
will do each other a favor, and both save each other’s “faces”.

            It was
mentioned that using indirect speech is a necessity but where exactly does the
need for it come into play? There is a phenomenon called psychophysical numbing
or the tendency of humans or societies to look past or ignore past traumatic
experiences or threats of the future of massive consequences (Friedrich, Barnes, Chapin, Dawson, Garst, &
Kerr, 1999). This is simply another manifestation of how humans can easily be
overwhelmed by the weight of an information that we just choose to withdraw
from it completely. Where words have such power to make or break someone, this
self-preservation behavior is essential to our survival. By how vulnerable we
are against ourselves, this rational ignorance might truly be, as the book
suggested, the only countermeasure to what the mind finds overwhelmingly hard
to grasp.

subterfuges serve as a reminder of the social intelligence of humanity and how
language processes are not limited only to interpreting language itself; on how
even the silliest of things play a vital role in what makes up our life.


Pinker’s Stuff of Thought had been an easy read with its engaging topics and
light-hearted humor. It is obvious how Pinker’s style of writing would appeal
to the popular culture. He made use of words that are palatable to laymen by
straying from too cumbersome linguistic terms despite being a psycholinguist
himself. His examples were human expressions used in everyday life, if not
outdated, each clearly defined and elaborated. The book is also divided into
chapters with distinct topics that helped with the overall clarity,
cohesiveness, and comprehensiveness of the ideas presented.

            The gaiety
of the book is a double-edged sword and did not come without a tradeoff. Pinker
presented interesting evidences for and against the ideas wherein Stuff of
Thought can sometimes be highly speculative and borderline persuasive. Pinker
made his own strong claims and precise examples to support them but none of
these are actual studies backed up with hard or even qualitative data, although
he did make strong cases out of his educated observations. Stuff of thought,
despite being entertaining, had received a lot of criticisms from Pinker’s
fellow scholars of said speculative nature. But people should keep in mind that
Stuff of Thought is far from a college textbook intentionally loaded with information.
Instead, I think that the book would be an immensely effective introductory
material to the world of psychology and linguistics with its simplified terms
and relatable examples. It stimulates the reader to examine language, a tool we
use every day, for what more than meets eye and into thinking more about the
relationship or independence of language and human cognition. Therefore,
depending on Pinker’s goal in writing Stuff of Thought, he had been an
effective or ineffective communicator.

            The book’s
overall main theme all throughout has been to peel down language’s linguistic
layers and strip it bare to uncover the basic concepts of the human mind that
make sense of how people structure the reality of the world around us. Now what
I like about the book is it goes beyond the practicality of life and does not
reduce our complexities only to our primitiveness. Now while I am a strong
adherent of natural selection, I also wanted to know what is the psychology of
people’s vanity and what is behind the nuances of the thing we do irrelevant to
our own survival. Pinker answered some of these questions by stressing points
that does not leave people in the stone ages. My favorite of these points is
his piece about indirect speech and how people tend to block out information
that make us feel powerless regardless if it is crucial to our survival (i.e.
global warming, mass killings) thus highlighting the limitations of the mind.

            Stuff of
thought delves into the deep structures of how our mind conceptualize the
physicality of the world around us and how we deal with social interactions and
problem-solving. It fits psycholinguistics into the context of what is relevant
to today. The book has been the perfect combination of fun and educational. I
would highly recommend Stuff of Thought to anyone who is a newbie to but is interested
in language – with its metaphors, profanity, and politeness – as the gateway to
the understanding of the phenomenal power of the human mind.








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Godwin, S. J.
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