Running head: STUFFED WITH THOUGHT 1Stuffed with Thought2015-03649A

Running head: STUFFED WITH THOUGHT 1Stuffed with Thought2015-03649A Summary and A ReviewSteven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought is an insightful book. And by insightful, I mean anexcruciatingly detailed 499-page book looking at the many, many, MANY consistencies andinconsistencies the English language has with how we humans, our complex brains and all,perceive the physical and mental worlds around us.This book was meta-beyond-meta. It basically opened a gateway into the mind usinglanguage as its key (or maybe battering ram would be more accurate). It’s kind of like a textbookabout philosophy and psycholinguistics without being an actual textbook. It’s a difficult read butworthwhile since it made me think about stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise if I had not read thebook. I mean, who would have thought that the way we perceived an object’s function (or lackof) would be crucial to which preposition to use? Or how our conception of now or the “speciouspresent” would affect how we construct events, past, present and future, and in turn influencethe tenses that we use? Or how conceptual semantics plays an important role in the way peopleframe major things or events in their life? For example, the Americans called their invasion ofthe Philippines something that they had to do in order to “help” the native Filipinos, even callingit “The White Man’s Burden” but the Filipinos (maybe most of them) saw it as a hostile act ofoccupation.Steven Pinker, he thought of all of that and was even able to make a book out of it. It’san amazing feat. To write half a thousand pages on something most people don’t even notice ortake for granted in our daily lives. Reality in some way affects how we think but our minds arefar too complex and riddled with other stuff like emotions and feelings, and maybe even braindamage, to objectively see the world as it is. The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker proves that.Since being a jack of all trades, I believe, is significantly less of a skill than being amaster of one, or few, I will only be focusing on specific points in the book. It is, after all, betterSTUFFED WITH THOUGHT 2to focus on one aspect and master it rather than try to take it as a whole and just end up beingable to do only bits and pieces of everything (Ormrod, 2015).Here is a summary and a review of what I believe to be the five important points in thebook:Ignorance is blissIn Chapter 8: Games People Play, Pinker mentioned that the two main goals of everyinteraction with a fellow human being is to convey intent and regulate/change the kind ofrelationship we have with that human being, all the while using carefully chosen words that wethink will achieve these goals. Yet why do we still not truly say what we mean? Instead, we keepmum and don’t communicate it out loud, just keeping it to ourselves. Or sometimes, we wouldrather not know. For example, an avid Brooklyn Nine-Nine fan wouldn’t want to turn to the fanpages in Twitter in case she reads something that will spoil a major plotline of the show whileshe’s diligently doing her Book Review on Steven Pinker’s Stuff of Thought for her Psych 145:Psychology of Language class.Pinker suggests that the main reason we would rather not know is because that theknowledge may contain in it some piece or parcel of information that we believe could bepotentially harmful to us. It’s like, in our minds we see a proverbial sign, warning us that if wecontinue to drive straight ahead we will fall off a cliff with no safety railings and thus plummetinto our inevitable dooms much sooner than we would have hoped.This reluctance or overall refusal to know is what Pinker calls the Law of IndispensableIgnorance. We choose to ignore some things that we believe will heavily affect us in someemotional, physical or mental way.For a personal example, might I give a story about my father’s reluctance to go to thedoctor and have a check-up. My father is an avid drinker, since his college days in UP, he wasknown to be “malakas uminom.” This is something he has been somewhat proud of his wholeadult life, but when the news came that his older brother, also an avid drinker has rectal cancer,STUFFED WITH THOUGHT 3and suggestions from doctors and family (a bit funny because his family is also filled withdoctors) say that he too undergo several tests like a colonoscopy and abdominal ultrasound, herefused. I believe that he would rather stay in this bubble of not knowing what’s going on insideof him and just continue to live the unhealthy life he is living today, with all the alcohol and highcholesterol than have to face the possible truth that there might be something wrong and haveto completely change his lifestyle. Thus, he remains not knowing because changing one’s dailylife and habits is a threat to him.Another reason for why someone would choose to remain not “in-the-know” is becausethat person might have to make an unbiased opinion. This is something I believe the creators ofthe famous reality competition television show The Voice have taken into account. Not knowinghow the singer looks like will ultimately eliminate the prejudice or judgments certain peoplemake when they first see a person and just be able to focus on the singing capability instead(ahem, ahem, American Idol).A reverse of the not knowing and also a reason as to why we veil speech is because wehave secrets to keep. We are keeping another person or a group of people ignorant ofsomething we may perceive to be harmful to them or to ourselves, mainly because we fear thatthe secret might have severe consequences, it might incite judgement and ridicule aimedtowards ourselves, and we all know how Filipinos just love to save face (Lasquety-Reyes,2016).An example of hiding what we mean in a normal social context is if your younger sisterasks you what you think of her outfit and you don’t want to break her little heart by saying thatthe outfit does not match even though that is what you really want to say, but instead you saythat it does because you don’t want the negative outcome, you don’t want her to get hurt (andinstill in her the mindset that she has to ask other people’s opinions on the way she’s supposedto dress when it’s only her choice and her choice alone that matters).STUFFED WITH THOUGHT 4A more political example would be Paolo Duterte’s invoking of his right to privacy whenasked to show if he does or does not possess a tattoo that would prove him to be a part of anotorious Chinese Triad involved in drugs (Sy & Romero, 2017). My speculation would be that ifhe had not stated that he would invoke his right to privacy, he would ultimately incriminatehimself. I take his invocation of his right to be a statement of guilt. But that’s just me.To add to Pinker’s reasons for why people don’t truly say what they mean is becausesome people keep secrets to gain power. Information is after all, something we value. Ifsomebody knows a secret of someone else, they have the choice to wield it or manipulate theoriginal owner of the secret. It’s a sad and detestable sentiment but not one that is absent in theworld we have today.Fuck youIn Chapter 7: The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, Pinker mentioned that theFreedom of Speech is a right. Here in the Philippines, it is stated in Article III, Section 4 of the1987 Constitution that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, ofexpression…” but there will always be instances where we can’t just say what we want to say.Just as in the Philippines, the United States of America has a place in their constitutionheld by the protection of the freedom of speech. This protection is absent in only 5 instances, inwords of fraud and libel because they stand for the opposite of truth, which the freedom ofspeech looks for; and advocacy of imminent lawless behavior and “fighting words” which elicitnegative, and maybe even harmful, behavior. The last instance is obscenity, which has no legaljustification other than the words being perceived to be indecent. “Obscene” words, words whichtalk about sex and excretion. Though these two are both about naturally biological stuff and bothonly telling of the human experience, why are they being censored?Swear words have a wide range of uses. They could be used as imprecations to saywhen someone’s angry, they could be figures of speech or as hyperboles to emphasize just howshit (oops!) something is. For me, I find the most important use of swearing is the catharticSTUFFED WITH THOUGHT 5swearing. Releasing all that negative energy building up inside with a single word or singlephrase can sometimes be so… freeing.Have you ever been in a classroom where time seemed to stand still? When yourprofessor goes on and on babbling about things unrelated to the discussion when somebodyreminds him that it’s time for the class to end so when you step outside the door, you stretchand let out that one word… “bitch.” This, has happened to me a lot, especially after a difficultexam. And after letting out that one word, all the tension in the brain and the stomach and thechest seem to have dissipated. That’s the cathartic power of swearing.Cathartic swearing, according to Goffman in Pinker, is also something people do toshare to the world, or announce to them something terrible that has happened, in order to cryout for help, or in my case, just look for someone to luksa with after a long exam.This leads me to a point that Pinker makes. According to Pinker whenever someonehears a taboo word, usually one of a bodily effluvia type, that person would automaticallyshudder in disgust, immediately perceiving the meaning, especially if it’s a word with shortvowels and stop consonants like cock. I can confirm this in one interaction I had with my mother.I was walking with my mother in the mall when I dropped one of the things I was carrying, I thensaid fuck and she immediately reprimanded me, saying it’s a foul word and that I shouldn’t useit. But I suggest that though people get disgusted by taboo words, some would rather look pastits “ugly” phonetic characteristics and just look at the way it was used and the context it wassaid in. For an example, I refer back to an anecdote of exiting a room after a difficult exam. Isaid “fuck” and to my surprise, the stranger next to me said “same.”Seman-tic-tac-toeIn Chapter 1: Words and Worlds, Pinker outlines that meaning is different for a variety ofpeople and situations.This is my interpretation of what he has said. Like the famous childhood game orpastime, conceptual semantics or the language in our head, in our environment, in our reality isSTUFFED WITH THOUGHT 6a game of tic-tac-toe, an interaction of two or more people as players. The x’s and the o’s whichdictate what is being said, mainly the semantics, in the game and the three vertical andhorizontal lines tell of the order and the relationships the xo’s have with each other. Comparinglanguage and its meanings to a game would signify that there would have to be a clear-cutwinner. One who has had a neat row of either three x’s or three o’s in a vertical, horizontal ordiagonal. That is the same with language. In the sense that, when speaking with anotherperson, only one meaning should be agreed upon by both. But if you play by yourself, laying outonly x’s not o’s or vice-versa, there would be no one to challenge your meaning orunderstanding, so you remain as is.Either that or you create your own set of meanings, devoid of the influence from otherpeople’s meanings. A meaning, a semantic network which only you can understand. But yournetwork can also change, not with interactions with other people, but with interactions with yoursurroundings in general. For example, if you lay only x’s and encounter something which doesnot correspond to what you know, that information or meaning is inputted into your brain as ano. So far, there has only been x’s in your brain, but that o disrupts the system that you have, youthen turn to seek other o’s until your curiosity is satisfied, until there is a neat line of threeconsecutive o’s which then challenge and change your current meaning and conceptualization.This is what I think conceptual semantics is. It’s a game of tic-tac-toe. Of course, this gamevaries among people and languages, especially the stakes with which the game is being playedfor. Like the example in The Stuff of Thought where Larry Silverstein gets either 3.5 billiondollars or twice that amount from his insurance company based on how many events the 9/11tragedy had, whether it was one whole incident or separate bombings. Was it one event or two?An example in my daily life would be with a particular set of groupmates that I have forone of my GE classes. Apparently, we have different conceptions of the notion of “early.”The agreement was to meet at 1 o’clock but to also meet early (emphasis on early) sowe could prepare for our audio presentation before we started. Early to me is a time before 1STUFFED WITH THOUGHT 7o’clock, maybe 15 minutes or 10 minutes or so. The dictionary meaning of early (basically agoogle definition search) would be “happening or done before the usual or expected time.” Thatis accurate with what I think early is, but to them, early is either coming on time, exactly 1o’clock or coming 30 minutes late. Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe, I did not take into account thatwe are Filipinos and of course have our own time scale, creating a new definition of early. Mypoint is that maybe, in future set-ups, a confirmation would be much appreciated or needed todefine or identify which meaning of early we are using, or maybe I’m just ranting about mygroupmates, who knows?Substance abuseIn Chapter 4: Cleaving the Air, in the section Grinding, Packaging and Pigeonholing:Thoughts About Substance, Pinker talks about mostly nouns. Nouns, he says, representconcepts, people or objects in our head. Nouns are the surface representations (Carroll, 2008)we have of what we see in the world as nameable or categorizable. And in the section, hebasically abuses them, stripping them and grinding them down to the smallest levels he can.The way we distinguish and use mass nouns and count nouns in a sentence or indiscourse, he posits early in the chapter section, is a direct representation of how we see theobject or substance in reality. He says that they directly tap into our objective world, using themass and count nouns with words associated with how they behave or act or what they’re stateis in real life, in how we see them.Mass nouns are for substances, things that you take in certain quantities. They areunbounded, meaning that aside from when they’re in a container, they spill out and leak andspread all over. Mass nouns are substances that have to be contained. Like a mole of asubstance (in chemistry, a substance can be quantified with Avogadro’s number of 6.02 x 1023,meaning that an Avogadro’s number of molecules of a substance would be a mole) which cannever appear alone, like sand, or water, or rice and many more. Mass nouns when referred to,are treated in the same way a person would treat the physical forms of sand, water or rice. YouSTUFFED WITH THOUGHT 8take the substance as a whole and don’t individuate each and every molecule from thecollective mole. An example would be how we don’t use quantifiers when referring to massnouns, they can appear “naked” in a sentence. We say, “I like sand.” We don’t say, “I like threegrams of sand.” That would just be unnatural.We then move onto the second kind of noun, count nouns. Count nouns representmatter that can be quantified and individuated. These are objects which have a definiteboundary without having to confine them in a container. Nouns such as bags, laptops or books.These can easily be counted, unlike their mass noun counterparts where counting a molecule orgrain of a substance could take forever, hence the term count nouns. When using count nounsin a sentence, we would have to use quantifiers that would signify how many of the objects arebeing used or referred to. Since count nouns represent objects in real life or in physical realitywhich have a boundary and can be individuated, we can use quantifiers. For example, we say “Ineed a bag,” instead of saying “I need bag.” The “a” in the sentence shows that a single bag isthe object of the sentence. We just can’t treat count nouns the same way we do mass nouns. Orcan we?Early in the chapter section, Pinker states that the way we use and refer to mass andcount nouns in discourse is accurate and based off of how we see their physical forms in reallife. But, Pinker, later in the chapter section, refutes his own argument.Let’s take a single marble into consideration. As one marble, it is a count noun, but awhole box of them could be treated in the same way you would mass nouns. A container ofmarbles, only the plural form of a count noun, can be spilled out and spread all over, just like amass noun. In the same way you can divide mustard into two, you can also divide the marblesinto two. What then of another count noun? Let’s take a cat for example, a whole box of catscan’t be spilled out or spread all over just like marbles. You can’t divide cats into two, that wouldjust be wrong.STUFFED WITH THOUGHT 9The problem, Pinker suggests is that the English language has far too many exceptionsto create a clear-cut distinction with the way we use mass and count nouns. Some can betreated like the other, while some can’t.This section made me think of how language, like physical reality and like substances,still has blurred lines. It invokes the question, is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable?Mema-MetaphorIn the The Digital Clock: Thoughts About Time section of Chapter 4, Pinker touchesupon the subject of metaphors used in the construction of time. George Lakoff and MarkJohnson explored metaphors which related both time and space and came up with threeconceptual metaphors. Time orientation, where time is linear, and the observer can either goforwards to the future or backwards to the past; moving time, where time is moving, and theobserver is stationary and; moving observer where there is a landscape of time and theobserver is moving past it. If more metaphors can be found under the overarching conceptualmetaphors, then the conceptual metaphor can also be called a generative metaphor.Examples for each would be: time orientation, “The to die is right in front of us”; movingtime, “The deadline for the book report is coming” and; moving observer, “It’s December! Wereally flew by this past year.”In Chapter 5, he expounds more on metaphors. Conceptual metaphors, like the onesrelating time and space mentioned before, can help people learn and understand abstractconcepts, like freedom and love. Relating them in such a way to ordinary things or events weencounter in our day to day life, like in the of the example in time orientation, the metaphor istreating the time to die the same way you would treat a box that is in your way, it is “right in frontof us.” Though conceptual metaphors may only be understood if the person who receives themetaphor or is listening to it can also understand the tenor-vehicle-ground aspects of themetaphor (Carroll, 2008), we can also change the way we frame a metaphor so that it can beeasily understood.STUFFED WITH THOUGHT 10George Lakoff suggests that associative learning, a concept from classical conditioningfrom Ivan Pavlov where we learn to automatically associate one thing with another throughrepetitive and almost simultaneous presentation of both items or states of being, is how wedevelop, identify and propagate conceptual metaphors.Through the proper use of language in metaphors, we can find the pieces of biggerthings that are just like the smaller things. Like how in the book, it presented love as a patient.Though there are some metaphors that just aren’t as strong as others, there, they posea similarity instead of a deeper connection, seeing only the physical, just until the surface. Likehow gravity affects cosmic bodies and causes them to collide, the same can be said about fateand love, two people, one collision.A ConclusionSteven Pinker’s Stuff of Thought has definitely changed the way I think about the Englishlanguage in relation to the world. Never again will I judge myself for being afraid to know thepotentially dangerous unknowable. Never again will I curse and not hear the word “bodilyeffluvia.” Never again will I look at substances and objects in the same way. Never again will Ihave pointless arguments with other people when the only thing we’re debating about is thedefinition of something. Never again will I look at a metaphor and not try to look for theoverarching conceptual metaphor.Never again will I look at the world and how it is conceived in language as two separateconcepts.STUFFED WITH THOUGHT 11ReferencesCarroll, D. (2008). Psychology of Language. Wadsworth: Thomson Learning.Lasquety-Reyes, J. (2016). In Defense of Hiya as a Filipino Virtue. Asian Philosophy, 66-78.Ormrod, J. E. (2015). Human Learning (7th ed.). Singapore: Pearson Education.Pinker, S. (2007). The Stuff of Thought. Penguin Group.Sy, M., & Romero, P. (2017, September 8). Triad tattoo? Rody son invokes privacy. Retrievedfrom