Review of The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker (2008)

Philosophy, Human Nature and the Collapse of Civilization Michael Starks 3rd Ed. (2017) (2017)
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I start with some famous comments by the philosopher (psychologist) Ludwig Wittgenstein because Pinker shares with most people (due to the default settings of our evolved innate psychology) certain prejudices about the functioning of the mind and because Wittgenstein offers unique and profound insights into the workings of language, thought and reality (which he viewed as more or less coextensive) not found anywhere else. The last quote is the only reference Pinker makes to Wittgenstein in this volume, which is most unfortunate considering that he was one of the most brilliant and original analysts of language. In the last chapter, using the famous metaphor of Plato’s cave, he beautifully summarizes the book with an overview of how the mind (language, thought, intentional psychology) –a product of blind selfishness, moderated only slightly by automated altruism for close relatives carrying copies of our genes--works automatically, but tries to end on an upbeat note by giving us hope that we can nevertheless employ its vast capabilities to cooperate and make the world a decent place to live. Pinker is certainly aware of but says little about the fact that far more about our psychology is left out than included. Among windows into human nature that are left out or given minimal attention are math and geometry, music and sounds, images, events and causality, ontology (classes of things), dispositions (believing, thinking, judging, intending etc) and the rest of intentional psychology of action, neurotransmitters and entheogens, spiritual states (e.g, satori and enlightenment, brain stimulation and recording, brain damage and behavioral deficits and disorders, games and sports, decision theory (incl. game theory and behavioral economics), animal behavior (very little language but a billion years of shared genetics). Many books have been written about each of these areas of intentional psychology. The data in this book are descriptions, not explanations that show why our brains do it this way or how it is done. How do we know to use the sentences in their various way (i.e., know all their meanings)? This is evolutionary psychology that operates at a more basic level –the level where Wittgenstein is most active. And there is scant attention to context. Nevertheless this is a classic work and with these cautions is still well worth reading. Those wishing a comprehensive up to date framework for human behavior from the modern two systems view may consult my book ‘The Logical Structure of Philosophy, Psychology, Mind and Language in Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Searle’ 2nd ed (2019). Those interested in more of my writings may see ‘Talking Monkeys--Philosophy, Psychology, Science, Religion and Politics on a Doomed Planet--Articles and Reviews 2006-2019 3rd ed (2019), The Logical Structure of Human Behavior (2019), and Suicidal Utopian Delusions in the 21st Century 4th ed (2019)

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