Monday, January 28, 2008

Review: Brust on Steven Pinker

I recommend this review. It's Steven Brust on Pinker's The Stuff of Thought. Brust is one of my favorite authors, and my favorite kind of critic: he tends to bring out aspects of a work that I wouldn't have seen on my own, so I can think about them. He liked the book, but had some problems with the depth of Pinker's linguistic knowledge--or rather the lack thereof. "Consistently interesting, often insightful, but never profound." This paragraph particularly caught my attention:

But here we run into another problem that may stem from Mr. Parker not being a linguist: That is how it works in English; what about other languages? If one is going to discuss language and thought, it is terribly important to know: is this sort of distinction rare? Common? Universal? He only rarely mentions other languages. He certainly does not tell us often enough for me to know when certain sorts of verb behavior reflect universal facets of the mind, and when they reflect aspects of a particular culture. It's even more frustrating because, in attacking certain other theories, he says things like, "If [these things were true], we should expect to see them in languages all over the world(page 78)." Well, yes; but the same thing is true of his theories, and only occasionally does he bring up other languages to support them, and then with qualifications like "most languages," or, "nearly all languages." On page 318, he says, ""Gender plays a role beyond the obvious fact that in almost all cultures, boys' names can be distinguished from girls.'" Almost? Almost? In other words, there are exceptions? Or was he just afraid there might be one and so didn't want to say all? If there are exceptions, that is interesting, and I wish... he'd stopped and talked about it.

Ironically, this reminds me of something Pinker once said about Noam Chomsky: that he makes pronouncements about universal rules but "hasn't done the spade-work to find out how it works in some weird little language in New Guinea."

I really liked Brust's comment on paradox and reality. I would never, ever study philosophy in a formal setting--too much navel-gazing for me--but it's kind of fun to spend a couple minutes thinking about philosophical questions. Just long enough to "solve" them to my own satisfaction. In the case of motion: it's the derivative of position with respect to some temporal frame of reference. "Derivative" implies "limit," and so it doesn't preclude the possibility of discontinuities, if whoever is creating the space-time decides to reassign the coordinates (or rather, re-map the adjacency lists). This doesn't bother me at all, even though it means that something can change position without having "moved." Now, if I were a philospher I'd probably spend several more years chewing on the problem, making up terminology, and trying to get other philosophers to accept my viewpoint. That's why I don't understand philosophers and wouldn't want to study it in school. I get it--who cares if I can prove it? Much less make up a specialized terminology for explaining it. Much less wade through other people's specialized made-up terminology for explaining their take on it. As with many of my hobbies, turning philosophy into a job would take all the fun out of it, for me.

Anyway, it's an interesting review and I may as well post the link out here so someone can benefit.

~B.C.

--

"The presentation or 'gift' of the Holy Ghost simply confers upon a man the right to receive at any time, when he is worthy of it and desires it, the power and light of truth of the Holy Ghost, although he may often be left to his own spirit and judgment." --Joseph F. Smith (manual, p. 69)

Be pretty if you are,
Be witty if you can,
But be cheerful if it kills you.

1 comment:

Kit O'Connell said...

Thanks for the link.