With the days getting shorter and shorter and the temperature quickly dropping, there’s no better time to pick up an engaging book and read. This week, I ventured into The Stuff Of Thought by Steven Pinker, and I immediately fell in love with his compelling writing style and thought-provoking statements about the origins and meanings of thoughts. In this post, I’ll try to give a synopsis of a few of Pinker’s thoughts on semantics and pragmatics, along with demonstrating how he uses fascinating connections to explain his ideas.
As you may have guessed, The Stuff Of Thought explores the study of the meanings of words and thoughts. Early on, Pinker states that the natural laws of the universe dictate language, and thus they can be better understood through the study of language. This is quite a profound thought: that the study of language can be used to determine why the world acts the way it does is fascinating. Through the subtleties of language, one can see the developed and complex nature of society.
For example, Pinker discusses how semantics can contribute significantly to the understanding of 9/11. Semantics is what connects language to the real world: it’s what connects the ideas of two speakers and makes them logical to the human mind. Now it may not be entirely obvious why that’s relevant. Why does semantics have anything to do with a tragic act of terror? Let me, or rather Pinker, explain. Understanding the semantic definition of the word caused is vital to differentiating what actually happened from one of the many conspiracy theories that float around the internet. It’s essential to our understanding of 9/11 that bin Laden did not just act to harm the US at the same time as the World Trade Center was destroyed. We need to know that bin Laden’s actions directly correlated to the destruction of the World Trade Center; only through the understanding of the meaning of the word caused can the truth be found, as if we were to take the word to mean “loosely connecting to”, or any other near definition, we would get caught in a web of lies. The interaction between the reporter who said bin Laden caused the destruction and mind of the listener is what the study of semantics tries to understand.
Pinker then moves to a more general outline of the language of thought. He explains that the way humans interpret events in their minds by choosing some details to focus on and some to ignore causes debates and court cases. It speaks to the complexity of human intelligence that we are able to have debates and misunderstandings because our minds choose to view events in different ways — in different circumstances of space and time. For example, is the end of a lecture an instant or a 5-minute conclusion? Based on the actual definition of the word end, the lecture should end when the speaker stops talking, but due to the common use of the word end to indicate a conclusion, the human brain understands that the word can refer to a closing segment of a presentation. This differing interpretation is caused by conceptual semantics, the language of thought.
I want to conclude this post with a quote from Pinker himself. He writes that “The meaning of a word, then, seems to consist of information stored in the heads of the people who know the word: the elementary concepts that define it and, for a concrete word, an image of what it refers to” (9). As you continue through your day, I want you to keep this message with you. Anytime someone begins to have a debate with you, think about what differing context they have in their head that caused their opinion to be dissimilar to yours. Remember, a word has a meaning to every person, and not every word has the same meaning to every person.