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Commencement Addresses

The Stuff of Thought

  • Date: 12/15/2007
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • In the September issue of The Economist magazine, the obituary typically reserved for a notable global person was devoted instead to Alex, a remarkable African Grey parrot who had demonstrated the ability to learn "complex tasks that it had been originally thought only primates could master."
    ("Alex the African Grey," The Economist, September 20, 2007)

    By the time of his death at age 31, "...Alex had (developed) the intelligence of a five-year-old (human), a vocabulary of 150 words and had not (yet) reached his full potential..."
    (Alex, Ibid)

    During your time at Akron, surely you learned that although language is primarily a human capacity, scientists have studied how other species communicate and how some may even learn to communicate with us as Alex did.

    Of course, human language has evolved over millions of years. And since many animal species demonstrate communicative abilities and some even have learned some of our language, it should not surprise us that we have language vestiges from the past and may find it difficult to adopt newer concepts with which we have little experience.

    In his recent book, The Stuff of Thought - Language as a Window into Human Nature, Steven Pinker gives us what he calls "...the view from language - what we can learn about human nature from the meanings of words and...how they are used..."
    (Pinker, Steven, The Stuff of Thought - Language as a Window into Human Nature, New York, 2007)

    "How might the proverbial Martian scientist - in this case a Martian linguist - characterize our species, knowing only the semantics and pragmatics of our language?"
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    In Steven's words, let me "...provide a word's-eye view of human nature...phenomena that have the best chance of saying something about people in general because they are found in historically unrelated languages all over the world."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events. ...they pick out some aspects of a situation and ignore others, allowing the same situation to be construed in multiple ways."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    That is why, perhaps, eye-witness accounts are seldom the same.

    "People thereby can disagree about what a given situation really is even when they agree on how matter has moved through space."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "Human characterizations of reality are built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: acting, going, changing, being, having. One event may be seen as impinging on another, by causing or enabling or preventing it. An action can be initiated with a goal in mind, in particular, the destination of a motion (as in loading hay) or the state resulting from a change (as in loading a wagon). Objects are differentiated by whether they are human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate, solid or aggregate, and how they are laid out along the three dimensions of space. Events are conceived as taking up stretches of time and as being ordered with respect to one another."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "Humans have a primitive concept of number, which distinguishes only one, two and many, though they can also estimate larger quantities approximately. They use this coarse way of quantifying not just when tallying objects (as in singular, dual and plural) but also when locating things in space (as in at, near, and far) and when locating things in time (as in the present, the recent past and the remote past)."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "Humans see some things as just happening and others as being caused. Causality is assessed not just by correlating things in time or by pondering what would have happened if things were otherwise, but by sensing an impetus that is transferred from a potent agent with a tendency toward motion to a weaker entity that would rather stay put. Variations on this mental cartoon of pushing and resisting give rise to intuitions of helping, hindering, preventing, and allowing."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "No human is an island. Humans stock their minds with mental artifacts such as names and other kinds of words, which are products of the minds of other humans. Some of these artifacts are ubiquitous in a given society at a given time, and collectively make up what we call a culture, one part of which is its language."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "Humans don't just entertain ideas but steep them with emotion. They stand in awe of deities, their parts and possessions, and the supernatural realms they control. They are terrified by disease, death and infirmity. They are revolted by bodily secretions. They take a prurient interest in sexuality in all its variations. They loathe enemies, traitors, and subordinate peoples. As unpleasant as these thoughts are, people willingly inflict them on one another, sometimes to intimidate or denigrate them, sometimes to get their attention sometimes to show that they can willingly endure the thoughts. As humans make it through the day, they react emotionally to its ups and downs, especially its frustrations and setbacks, and sometimes advertise these reactions to others."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "Humans are touchy about their relationships. They maintain a ‘face' which emboldens them to stake out claims in negotiation and conflict. They are sensitive to their social rank, and also to their solidarity and empathy with others. With some of their fellows - typically kin, lovers, and friends - humans share resources, freely extend favors, and feel ties of empathy and closeness, which they blur with an intuition of being one flesh. With other people, they jockey for dominance, or show off their status, entitling them to the exercise of power or influence. With still others, they trade goods and services on a tit-for-tat basis, or divide things and responsibilities into even portions."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "People invest their relationships with a moral coloring. They feel embarrassment when they breach the logic of a relationship with an inadvertent act, and feel contempt for others who breach it deliberately. Human relationships are ratified by mutual knowledge, in which people know that others know that they know that the relationship is of a certain kind. This makes humans especially sensitive to public acknowledgement of an act that violates the logic of a relationship, such as a threat, an offer, a request, or an insult. Nonetheless, humans often risk these breaches, sometimes to get on with the business of life, sometimes to renegotiate a relationship. As a result they engage in hypocrisy and taboo, designed to preserve the mutual knowledge that maintains a relationship even as they transact business inconsistent with it."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "Any inventory of human nature [whether this one from the vantage point of language, or others from biology, anthropology or whatever] is bound to cause some apprehension in hopeful people, because it would seem to set limits on the ways we can think, feel, and interact."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    "The view from language shows us the cave we inhabit [Remember Plato's allegory of the cave?] and also the best way out of it. With the use of metaphor and combination, we can entertain new ideas and new ways of managing our affairs. We can do this even as our minds flicker with the agonists and antagonists, the points and lines and slabs, the activities and accomplishments, the gods and sex and effluvia, and the sympathy and deference and fairness that make up...the stuff of thought."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    And what this tells us is that "Left to our own devices, we are apt to backslide to our instinctive conceptual ways. This underscores the place of education in a scientifically literate democracy, and even suggests a statement of purpose for it (a surprisingly elusive principle in higher education today). The goal of education is to make up for the shortcomings in our instinctive ways of thinking about the physical and social world. And education is likely to succeed not by trying to implant abstract statements in empty minds but by taking the mental models that are our standard equipment, applying them to new subjects in selective analogies and assembling them into new and more sophisticated combinations."
    (Pinker, Ibid)

    And that is the "stuff of thought" that's worth thinking about.

    Your experience at The University of Akron has helped you develop a fuller picture on human nature. You have gained the knowledge necessary to mold the future by making informed decisions that create new and exciting opportunities.

    And as you now move forward, it is my best hope is that you will treasure what you have learned, nurture it, and continue to learn some more. Your continued learning will create a better future for yourself and a better and fuller perspective of human nature as you apply your knowledge to the world around you and for our common good.

    * Taken from the title of the book, The Stuff of Thought - Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker, Penguin Group, New York, 2007)
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