• The Stuff of Thought

  • Language as a Window into Human Nature
  • By: Steven Pinker
  • Narrated by: Dean Olsher
  • Length: 9 hrs and 36 mins
  • 4.0 out of 5 stars (868 ratings)

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The Stuff of Thought

By: Steven Pinker
Narrated by: Dean Olsher
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Publisher's Summary

New York Times best-selling author Steven Pinker possesses that rare combination of scientific aptitude and verbal eloquence that enables him to provide lucid explanations of deep and powerful ideas. His previous books, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Blank Slate, have catapulted him into the limelight as one of today's most important and popular science writers.

Now, in The Stuff of Thought, Pinker marries two of the subjects he knows best: language and human nature. The result is a fascinating look at how our words explain our nature. What does swearing reveal about our emotions? Why does innuendo disclose something about relationships? Pinker reveals how our use of prepositions and tenses taps into peculiarly human concepts of space and time, and how our nouns and verbs speak to our notions of matter. Even the names we give our babies have important things to say about our relations to our children and to society.

With his signature wit and style, Pinker takes on scientific questions like whether language affects thought, as well as forays into everyday life: why is bulk e-mail called spam, and how do romantic comedies get such mileage out of the ambiguities of dating?

The Stuff of Thought is a brilliantly crafted and highly readable work that will appeal to fans of everything from The Selfish Gene and Blink to Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

©2007 Steven Pinker (P)2007 Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. and Books on Tape. All rights reserved.

Critic Reviews

"Engaging and provocative...filled with humor and fun." (Douglas Hofstadter, Los Angeles Times)

"Pinker is a star, and the world of science is lucky to have him." (Richard Dawkins) 

"Curious, inventive, fearless, naughty." (New York Times Book Review)

What listeners say about The Stuff of Thought

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Pinker is truly a brilliant and lucid explainer...

I loved this book! I had enjoyed "The Blank Slate" by Pinker. One of the downsides is that I used to think I was a bit of an intellectual...once you read or hear Pinker, you realize how high the bar of genuine intellect truly goes. The guy is "freakin" brilliant.

Some reviewers complained that the material was too dense for audiobook format. There were a few sections in which I found it helpful to back the story up and re-listen...but the format was fine.

Both my parents were academics and language lovers, so Pinkers obvious erudition and use of occasionally obscure verbiage was enjoyable to me, not off-putting.

The basic premise of the book is that human nature, and brain "hard-wiring" is illuminated by the way we use language.

The only reason this didn't get five stars is that I liked Bill Bryson's "A Brief History of Nearly Everything" even a bit better, and I consequently wanted to rate it even higher.

If you liked "Outliers" and appreciate genuine philisophical depth and orginality, you will like this book. Pinker knows and brings to bear on his thesis about a remarkable number of fields. Just as I felt about "The Blank Slate," my private thought was, "If I can ever be half as articulate and intellectually gifted as this guy, I would be ecstatic."

But be warned...if you are aren't willing to do just a bit of intellectual "heavy lifting" in parts, this book may not be for you. Pinker is not writing for the undergrads and underachievers here...he does not bother to dumb things down.

In summary, I learned about my own character and nature, as well as others, while thinking about ideas elucidated and spawned by this book.

It is a winner.

Rudi Hoffman
Port Orange, FL

32 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Escaping the Cave

Steven Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought" is about language. Yet - it is not just about the language. It's a deep philosophical tractate about the very nature of mind and its interaction with the world.

"Language is a window into human nature, exposing deep and universal features of our thoughts and feelings. The thoughts and feelings cannot be equated with the words themselves"

The central theme of the book is an attempt to uncover the abstract layer that our mind uses to think, to perceive, to be conscious. Going from the concepts of innate words, through polysemy, metaphors, names, and language games we play - Steven slowly makes evident the existence of deeper, more abstract, but also more precise layer of the human mind. There are numerous examples that illustrate the specific reflection of this abstract "stuff" in our language. Equally amazing is to find reflections of concepts of space, time and causality in the forms of our language.

I'm glad to notice that Pinker goes far beyond the biological interpretation of our mind. When you read "The stuff of thought" you have the impression that this author finally writes about the software our brain runs. To me - this software is the "stuff", although Pinker does not formulate such thesis.

Here is a small weakness of the book - while Pinker convinces the reader to his main argument - and the reader expects to learn more about "the stuff of thought" - he suddenly comes short on this subject.
But the book ends with fantastic chapter "Escaping the Cave" where the cave is Platon's metaphorical cave. The language is our cave, but it also can help us to escape this cave. Here lies its strength, beauty and power...

24 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Great Book

As a former teacher of English (as a foreign language - TEFL), I found this book excellent. English is my second language and for a long time I have been facinated by the "behavior" of verbs, be in English or my own native language. It will help TEFL teachers explaining why certain words behave in a particular way. I think this ought to be a required reading for all who intend to teach English as a second/foreign language. The reader is also outstanding.

20 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

okay book, poorly read


While not uniformly interesting, the book itself has something to offer, but the narrator reads it so breathlessly fast (as if in a hurry to reach the end) that I found it very hard to follow, and had to keep backing up. It's the only audible book that has caused my iPod to create a screen to set the speed. I tried slowing it down, but the voice became very warrrrbbbbld. I gave up on reaching the overly long section on baby names. If I had a hard copy, I could have skipped that. So, basically, ill suited to be an audio book.

19 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Audiobook does not do the material justice

Very difficult book for an audiobook. Hard to follow. The reader went very fast. There is no time to absorb the ideas-- particularly the examples. You can't easily page back and relisten to key parts. The ideas were not that dense; but they were hard to follow.
I also thought the book was heavier on technical linguistics and less on insights into human nature than I was expecting. At least listening to it during a commute, it came out very disjointed and without a clear theme.
If you are still interested, I'd recommend using old technology and actually reading it-- but only if you are really into linguistics. There are some interesting concepts here but no great insights into human nature.

17 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

A step ahead

I'm a translator and lover of all things linguistics. I find that this book brings together the contents of Pinker's Language Instinct and How the Mind Works very well and makes rather complex knowledge more accessible to the lay person. This audio book was so interesting and definitely a step ahead of my understanding, so it encourages me to buy the book after all, to take my time to ponder his theories and conclusions. Thank you!

17 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

disappointing

I was excited about this book because I am a self-avowed "word geek", but ended up disappointed. This is really a philosophy book, with (sometimes) interesting reflections on how the brain and human nature affect the languages we speak.

While this would be a great book to read for an academic course, in my mind Pinker's writing did not possess the story-telling ability required to make the academic details of what he was explaining seem intuitive or compelling (a la "Blink" by Gladwell or "Freakconomics" by Dubner & Levitt).

The book does get more enjoyable after the first hour or two (I almost didn't make it), but the material covered there seemed less novel (e.g., the cycles of baby's names has been covered many times over in the pop-psychology genre).

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Brilliant, practical, engaging

Steven Pinker blends remarkably astute observations that seem obvious once made, clear summaries of different theories and researches, and persuasive speculations into a great narrative.
I certainly do intend to listen to it again, but that is testimony to its richness of thought, not to any failing of the recording.
I don't believe that reading the hard copy would be as much fun or any more productive.

9 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Challenging listening

This audiobook is challenging though fascinating listening. The exploration of how we use language to represent our social, psychic and physical worlds is well researched and often surprising and amusing. It's rather difficult to keep one's concentration given the complexity of many of the ideas and theories presented here. I've often wished I was reading the actual text, to see the words and technical jargon on the printed page. There do seem to be gaps in the narrative, and I plan to go to the hard copy version of the book now that I've finished listening. Worth the effort, though, for the insights it offers on how we process language to negotiate the worlds we live in.

9 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

Not an enjoyable read

I found the subject matter very interesting and thought that I would find relevant and relatively easily understandable information on what the topic purports to present. Unfortunately, I found this book very difficult to follow. I felt the writer spoke from his ivery tower of academic literature and never bothered to dissect the subject and explain it to an interested reader. I essentially lost my interest half-way through and didn't finish the book.

6 people found this helpful