Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, Cognitive Scientist
Steven Pinker, Cognitive Scientist

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. He is a cognitive scientist that specializes in visual cognition and language development in children. His ideas can be broadly defined as belonging to the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology, for which he is one of the most vocal and eloquent proponents. His intellectual compatriots would be people like Daniel Dennett, Marc HauserJared Diamond and Richard Dawkins. Counter to many of his evolutionary psychology views are people like Chomsky and a new field of neuroathropologists (I’ve read through a number of the neuroathropologists issues with him and found them to be mostly personal attacks and strawman arguments which is a little disappointing for academic dispute but please check them out for yourselves at this link).

He is the author of several popular science books, which include The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Stuff of Thought (2007). In the last of these he explains his popular work to date as belong to two separate streams that The Stuff of Thought could be said to be the third book in each. The Stuff of Thought also contains the chapter concerning the Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television which is perhaps one of the most popular online videos where you can see him speak. The title of this chapter comes from an early George Carlin stand up routine. It’s this access to humour and nonacademic culture which gives Pinker a very accessible style. Even so they’re not works I would attempt to read in bed if you’re tired. You need to be alert.

The Stuff of Thought was one of the most popular bookclub books here at the shop. When we gathered to discuss it we had 35 people sitting outside the shop getting to grips with the metaphors of thought and underlying concepts of the everyday language we use. Our discussion focussed on how such knowledge is particularly useful in helping to develop strong critical thinking skills.

One of my favorite Pinker quotes, although I can’t remember where I read or heard it is: “In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them.” It’s this ethos that seems to underpin much of his ideas. A search for the reason we think the way we do and what this means specifically for the most important questions we deal with in our daily lives.

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