In case you haven’t heard, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker is touring the country in a thinly veiled campaign to sell his new book, The Stuff of Thought. Yesterday I heard him speak at the Philadelphia Free Library. It was very entertaining, though in retrospect, perhaps not super cohesive.
The first third of the lecture was about language as a window into human cognition. For instance, Pinker discussed how verb tenses reveal a primitive theory of physics. Things can either be determined and unchangeable, present and part of conscious experience, or undetermined and changeable. Though this tripartition does not really supervene on scientific truths, conventional use of tenses does allow us to communicate our ideas effectively. Pinker also stressed how we compartmentalize time with spatial metaphors; for instance, we are relieved when a difficult exam is ‘behind’ us. Pinker suggests that spatial metaphors help us separate events conceptually, but that some ambiguity remains. As an example, he asked whether “9/11” refers to one event (a terrorist attack) or two (each plane as a separate event). This question seems besides the point, until you realize that the owner of the World Trade Center was supposed to receive 3.5 billion dollars for each destructive event that befell his property. In case you are wondering, a jury decided that it was only one event.
The second third of the lecture was filled with gratuitous swears. I’m not kidding. Pinker was trying to make a point about how language can serve as a window into our emotions, though in reality this point may have been obscured by the furious laughter that erupted every time the the distinguished professor uttered words like “fuck” or “doo-doo.” He delineated five contexts in which we swear, devoting most of his discussion to cathartic swearing. Pinker dismissed the so-called hydraulic theory in which we swear to “let off steam.” Instead, he suggested that crude interjections are analogous to situations in which lower-order animals let out a yelp or squeal to startle attackers. According to Pinker, swearing is mediated by the same primitive rage circuits, but over time these circuits have hijacked our language systems to produce expletives. He stressed the automaticity of these outcries, suggesting that they may have evolved to alert bystanders about our misfortunes.
Lastly, Pinker discussed how our use of innuendo might reveal interesting information about how we navigate social relationships. He brought up an example from the movie Fargo, in which Steve Buscemi’s character hands over his wallet to a cop who pulls him over and asks for his driver’s license. Buscemi lets a fifty dollar bill peak out of the wallet and suggests, “I was just thinking we could take care of it right here, in Brainerd.” Buscemi’s character hopes to bribe to cop, but chooses to veil his offer. Pinker examined this situation through the lens of Game Theory. While failing to offer a bribe brings about a moderately negative outcome no matter what (paying a fine) an overt bribe carries a high risk if the cop is honest (arrest). Innuendo provides a third option, in which Buscemi’s character preserves a degree of plausible deniability while successfully suggesting a tit for tat. Thus, the cop is allowed to choose between a relationship of domination and one of reciprocity.
The lecture was very clean and well-rehearsed. In fact, it seems like the same one that he gave in New York. My summary leaves much to be desired, so I highly recommend checking out His Highness for yourself. Perhaps the most engaging part of the lecture was also the least scripted: Pinker does a fantastic job of answering questions pitched from all levels of sophistication.
You can find the schedule for his lecture tour here.
UPDATE: Pinker has a piece in The New Republic that explains his theory of swearing much better than I could ever hope to do.