The Stuff of Thought

I’m always attracted to books that give insight into the minds of investors.

The newest outing from Harvard prof Steven Pinker looks to be
just that sort of book: “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature”
explores language and human cognition:

“The Stuff of Thought” explores the duality of human cognition: the modesty of its construction and the majesty of its constructive power. Pinker weaves this paradox from a series of opposing theories. Philosophical realists, for instance, think perception comes from reality. Idealists think it’s all in our heads. Pinker says it comes from reality but is organized and reorganized by the mind. That’s why you can look at the same thing in different ways.

Then there’s the clash between ancient and modern science. Aristotle thought projectiles continued through space because a force propelled them. He thought they eventually fell because Earth was their natural home. Modern science rejects both ideas. Pinker says Aristotle was right, not about projectiles but about how we understand them. We think in terms of force and purpose because our minds evolved in a biological world of force and purpose, not in an abstract world of vacuums and multiple gravities. Aristotle’s bad physics was actually good psychology.

How can we be sure the mind works this way? By studying its chief manifestation: language. Variations among verbs reflect our distinctions among physical processes. Nuances among nouns illustrate the alternate interpretations built into our most basic perceptions."

from the NYTimes review

Fascinating concept, completely applicable to the
Bull/Bear debate.

A great video of Steven Pinker at TED is below:

“The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature”

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. RW commented on Sep 25

    Pinker seems to take a rather constrained view of language and cognition, at least compared to a George Lakoff, Mikhail Bakhtin or George Steiner for example, but that’s not a knock: Somewhere in all the complexity there must be a means to systematize the ways language guides us, reveals us and betrays us; Pinker could have something.

  2. peter from oz commented on Sep 25

    can’t quite grasp how you extrapolate pinker to the bull/bear debate
    rgds pcm


    BR: Your perception of reality depends upon on how you organize and reorganize data in your own mind. Different people look at the same thing and yet reach different conclusions. Hence, the Bull/Bear debate.

    Also, check out the video!

  3. calmthewaves commented on Sep 25

    Perception is reality filtered through our identity. The way we see ourselves is the dominant factor in how we perceive the events and people around us.

    I think our investing success is dependent on our ability to seperate our identity from our financial position. Including our identity can hamper our objectiveness.

  4. Quiddity commented on Sep 25

    Thanks for bringing Pinker to our attention, but I must say that I find him to be a slippery character. I’ve not read his books but have read several essays by him.

    I am a hard-core reductionist. Pinker is not. Therefore, Pinker can spin tales that suit his particular agenda, which, to put it crudely, is anti-science.

    We will, eventually, figure out how language is processed in the brain. (Just as we are beginning to explore visual processing: low-level-filters in the occipital, then integration of those signals to an intermediate “shapes” data form, then …)

    Until that’s completed, any purely literary exploration of the mind (as opposed to a chemical-biological one) will be, more or less, poetry.

  5. mhm commented on Sep 25

    It is probably worth a browse at the bookstore. But it seems to be really about philosophy of language and not something bigger.

    “Pinker says it comes from reality but is organized and reorganized by the mind.”

    Well, Pinker _thinks_ it comes from reality. You see, the problem with language is that is can imply things that are not being clearly expressed. “Peter says…” implies an authoritative answer and his conclusion must be true. Then again, Peter didn’t say it, it was the author of this NYT review. Who knows if he got the whole idea?

    “Philosophy of language”… you could yawn just by reading the title, but it actually is a very interesting subject.

  6. Rich Lather commented on Sep 25

    One of the blogs linked on this page linked to a blog somewhere else which linked to a story about an AI program someone had written that scans the web for key phrases and their negative or positive connotation to get an indication of the zeitgeist for, presumably, the world.

    Unfortunately, the author appeared to be a regular crackpot in his other posts, ranting about the zionist conspiracy and whatnot.

    The author seemed to be a crackpot, but the idea does not. It does seem to be an avenue for exploration, and, I would bet, the best place for such research to be done would be at Google. Not so much for their vast onsite copy of the internet, but the extensive database of user searches for the mere fact that on the internet, few post but damn near everyone searches.

  7. The Financial Philosopher commented on Sep 25

    There is no such thing as original thought. “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” — Bash

    It’s easier just to go back to the ancient philosophers. Give me Lau-tzu, Buddha, Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle.

    Thanks for the break from sub-prime, though. It’s quite refreshing…

  8. Eclectic commented on Sep 25

    Fascinating… Thanks!
    Hardly, Peter/Oz…

    It’s easy to see it applied to markets and perceptions of market sentiment. Here are just a few significant ways, although you could write a book on the subject:

    1) – Personification of a market’s tendency, as in: The market thinks this or that, or wants this or that. In reality this manner of speaking is often an attempt to merge a personal opinion into the cover of the abstract.

    2) – Using language as obfuscation of meaning, as in: The myriad levels of incremental buy recommendations that everyone knows are really disguised levels of sell recommendations… everybody, that is, except the customers they sell the research to.

    3) – Using written boilerplate negation of intent. In financial documents these are the “safe harbors” that just permit lying to occur without worrying about the consequences. Same for the “fine print” of almost every formal communication you can receive from a corporation through advertising, or the “footnoted-away” significance of pro-forma EBITDA. Gee, did I actually say “footnoted-away?”

    4) – Using key trendy words to give the impression of competence. For example, a research analyst recommending a certain stock in an industry referred to as being in that “space” rather than in that industry. It’s basically just using lingo to enhance the way something looks or sounds to the uninformed.

    5) – The fake-speak of the leaders of corporations in financial difficulty, or of governmental heads about public concerns. In case you haven’t read me on this blog, I refer to this as Big Mouth Bombastia, the result of infections with the genus and species, Bombastus Hyperbolus. These can take the form of outright lies (punishable fraud, felonies), contrived legal deceptions (but likely immoral, for example: dumping vast amounts of stock while holding to a public illusion of financial health), and in the special case of governmental heads, purposeful deception for our own paternalistic good, or for political good… or apparently just for fun as Mr. Greenspan seemed to imply on 60 Minutes was sometimes his approach with members of Congress. Barringo likes to post good examples of fake-speak from time-to-time, and it’s a routine offering over on:

    The Old Testament of fake-speak can be found in press releases just before the Great Crash of 1929, and during the depths of the Depression of the 1930s that followed it. The New Testament is still being written, with recent canonization being approved thus far for pro-forma EBITDA… the dot com bust… and the housing extravaganza.

    Maybe you’ll enjoy this little reprint of some of my Eclectic-isms, from Eclectic’s Adaptive Lexicon:

    Private Equity – Industry that is a great proponent of the concept of “shrinking equity supply,” circa: mid-late-2000s.

    Investment Trusts – Industry that was a great proponent of the concept of “shrinking equity supply,” and subsequently did a good job of “shrinking all the equity it was supplied,” circa: 1929 through the mid-1930s.

    Last Ticket – The last ticket… to the last train leaving this miserable town. The ticket you must buy now before all the equity in the known universe is forever sucked down the black hole of private equity.

    Future – a situational place of the forward accretion of time, a place likely to be knee-deep in train tickets.

    Barringo – A shifty-eyed, Mac-lovin’ one-shot gunslinger. Usually scores bulls-eyes, sometimes forgets gun and shows up with only a knife.

    Kudlowvia – A situational place, the seat of all Say’s Law, supply-side and GSNT worship.
    GSNT – The Greatest Story Never Told.

    NeverToldVille – Legendary capitol of The Greatest Story Never Told.

    Kudlownians – A situational mentality [distinct from: ‘Kudlowvia’ (place)]: a theory of mind requiring a corrective doctrine, as in “Bernanke’s First Epistle to the Kudlownians.”

    AA – A shifty-eyed machine gunner with a proclivity for lexicological adventurism. Try 10-letter word across (study of proper names); cross it down at 5th letter across with 2nd letter of down-word (near or adjacent to the mouth); finally, cross down-word last letter with 1st letter of new 7-letter word across (Mayan City).

    Eclectic – Part-time economic theoretician , philosopher, objectivologist, and author of “The Perceived Liquidity Substitution Hypothesis.”

    Objectivologist – One who practices the art and study of objectivity.

    Paul Volcker – Mythological god, considered the ‘Zeus’ of the Dallas Fed.*

    Milton Friedman – Patron Saint of the Dallas Fed.*

    Monetarism – False religion (*or substitution of the mythological for the religious, and the religious for the mythological).

    Big Mouth Bombastia – Disease of known causative microbial infection – the genus and species: “bombastus hyperbolus.” First symptoms are a small fever accompanied by loudmouth profound willfulness, with or without fundamental basis. Disease typically (but not exclusively) borne by optimists.

    Kudlowvia a high source of known contagion.

    Hoof-in-Mouth Disease – Secondary disease often accompanying primary infection of bombastus hyperbolus. This disease never curable because aggressive financial media lacking. Use of an intensely hot follow-up spotlight on patient is a theoretical treatment as yet untried.

    Prestidigitation – A collective enterprise associated with: 1) – pro-forma EBITDA accountancy, 2) – supply-side economic theory, 3) – Employer-granted corporate stock options, and, 4) – Say’s Law advocacy. Alternative definition: “Hocus Pocus.”

    Hurricane – A gigantic circular wind that might destroy many houses.

    MBS Derivatives Market – A gigantic circular wind that might destroy the housing industry and the economy.

    (last update – March 11, 2007)

  9. tekel commented on Sep 25

    I did a paper in college about theories of language evolution by species and acquisition by newborns. Lots of interesting stuff by Chomsky (he’s not ALL politics) and the venerable S.J. Gould. Pinker was right in there pitching, but it always seemed to me that he was more focused on style than substance, and that he left the heavy lifting on that topic to those who had gone before.

    In his favor, IIRC, Pinker is rather more readable than Jared Diamond, although I found both GG&S and “The Language Instinct” much less engaging (and economically influential) than “Hubbert’s Peak” by Kenneth Deffeyes. Perhaps this whole focus on the etymology of various nouns is the sweet spot in Pinker’s literary opus. Mom will probably buy me the book for Christmas so maybe I can weigh in with more confidence after I’ve actually read it :-D

  10. Alex commented on Sep 26

    I _love_

    I guess it’s not such a big secret after all. You’re actually only the 2nd person that I know of that knows about and not because I linked them to it.

  11. RAE commented on Sep 26


  12. Eclectic commented on Sep 26


    You misspelled “tonight.”

  13. michael schumacher commented on Sep 26


    I could’nt agree more with your post. #3,4,and 5 are occurring with such a scale it’s hard to fathom who is the straight man any longer……..

    Mattel apologizing to the Chinese comes quickly to my mind…….

    or would it really matter any way??…LOL

    BTW TED is pretty cool way to meet alot of people that you would not normally get the chance to chat with….I met Peter Gabriel in the lobby and got to talk to him about world politics……it also is very pricey as I can’t afford it now-LOL



  14. Jim Bergsten commented on Sep 26

    ’twas a time when you only needed “good hair” if you wanted to be a rock star.

    Or TV personality.

    Then CEO. Trial lawyer. Car salesman.

    Now, it seems you need “good hair” to be an author. Or academic.

    Sigh. Makes you want to just give up.

  15. Hamburger commented on Sep 26

    Sounds like Pinker finally got around to reading Lakoff and Johnson, Langacker, Goldberg and many other anti-Chomskyans, i.e. those who do not subscribe to Chomsky’s innateness hypothesis, which, AFAIK, Pinker has not rejected. Among the anti-Chomsky linguists, nothing Pinker says is new. I wonder who he cites in the References of his new book.

  16. worth commented on Sep 26

    Wondering what language has to do with the raffle that is the stock market? Well, given that U.S. inflation is some number, say 3% annually, and the production of industrial nations such as the U.S. increases at some number, say 3% annually, and that the borrowing rate paid by the U.S. gov’t to large borrowers is some number, say 4%, where exactly do people base their expectation/hope of making 8, 10, 12% returns “on average, over the long haul?” Where is that extra 3-4 fold increase in capital (on an annual basis, without even bringing compounding into this thought experiment) coming from?

    From LANGUAGE! Investment industry and government stats telling us that it’s always been so, and will always continue to be so! “Language” is just a crutch for the math-impaired, end of story.

  17. Eclectic commented on Sep 26

    Roger Ciao!

    No… I used to know this guy named Roger Ciao… I swear!

  18. bjk commented on Sep 26

    Pinker is an Aristotelian but doesn’t know it. All of the categories he discovers in language are Aristotelian, including concepts like whole/parts, substance, and causality. And Aristotle, like Pinker, begins with language.

  19. Jay Walker commented on Sep 29

    What an interesting talk. Thanks Barry.

    The Confused Capitalist

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