Seth Lerer reviews Stephen Pinker in Arts & Letters
Not everything, Mr. Pinker would claim, comes with the child out of the womb — he rejects, for example, the linguist Jerry Fodor’s notion that we are born with some 50 thousand concepts and that every human language has a way of representing, in a core vocabulary, this embedded stock of ideas. Mr. Pinker believes in something he calls “conceptual semantics.” As he puts it in his new book, “The Stuff of Thought” (Viking, 512 pages, $29.95), “Word meanings are represented in the mind as assemblies of basic concepts in a language of thought.” All human beings do not necessarily have all the same structures of language or expression. Rather, we have a “sensitivity to subtle semantic distinctions” — a way of recognizing differences between certain kinds of actions or conditions.
We all have, according to Mr. Pinker, ways of expressing place and movement, ways of distinguishing actions in time, and ways of expressing causal relationships. Not everybody in the world expresses these things in the same way. But just about everybody has some way of expressing them. Mr. Pinker’s view is therefore different from those who believe in a set of absolute innate ideas: the notion that, not only do we have a concept of, say, killing, but we all have, whatever our language, a word for “kill.” Instead of this kind of absolutism, he holds that we all have “a cast of basic concepts.” These are far more abstract than killing, eating, or fishing. Instead, they are ideas about relationships.