Review: Language, Cognition, and Human Nature

Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles

Steven Pinker

I love science and science writing, and when people ask me why, I have a simple answer: Because I really don’t get most of it. I have a scientific curiosity and Pinker2mathematical brain, but if it weren’t for the grading curve, I’d still be taking Freshman biology.

I’ll never fully grasp the writings of Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, but I love reading them. They pique my interest, and I always come away learning something. Maybe it’s my fear of becoming cognitively rigid in middle age, but the prospect of a static or shrinking intellect keeps me up at night. I’m well past the point of exploring texts that merely reinforce my current knowledge base.

Which brings us to Steven Pinker and his new collection of articles, Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles.

While pursuing my master’s degree, I wasn’t feeling challenged in my English coursework, so I signed on for a semester of Philosophy of Language. I loved it, but I can still barely understand half of it. I did learn one thing, though: I kick ass at propositional logic, but predicate logic turns my brain to creamed corn.

So I was excited to read this collection, which Pinker prefaces with a curious introduction concerning general interest science writing. He talks of the popularity of scientists who are able to write for a popular audience (and science writers who can serve as a go-between), but argues that we’re underestimating readers with this approach. Rather than spoon-feeding the masses distilled information, Pinker provides us with the source material: his actual academic articles.

This is not light reading, and be warned it is challenging.

But it is enjoyable and enlightening. If you haven’t tried to wrap your mind around language theory, you need to read this book. Even if you don’t understand half of it, what information you glean will radically affect your relationship with language and the mind.

If nothing else, it’s a head trip—no lab coat required.