Can reading a book make you more rational? Can it help you understand why there is so much irrationality in the world? These are the goals of Rationality, Steven Pinker’s follow-up to Enlightenment Now. In the 21st century, humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding—and at the same time appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing? Pinker rejects the cynical cliché that humans are an irrational species — cavemen out of time saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. After all, we discovered the laws of nature, lengthened and enriched our lives, and discovered the benchmarks for rationality itself. Instead, he explains that we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula, and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book—until now. Rationality also explores its opposite: how the rational pursuit of self-interest, sectarian solidarity, and uplifting mythology by individuals can add up to crippling irrationality in a society. Collective rationality depends on norms that are explicitly designed to promote objectivity and truth. Rationality matters. It leads to better choices in our lives and in the public sphere, and is the ultimate driver of social justice and moral progress. Brimming with insight and humour, Rationality will enlighten, inspire, and empower.
Publications by Type: Book
"My new favorite book of all time." —Bill Gates
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium, cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, which play to our psychological biases. Instead, follow the data: In 75 jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.
Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, we now know, has worked. But more than ever, it needs a vigorous defense. The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking—which demagogues are all too willing to exploit. Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation.
With intellectual depth and literary flair, Pinker makes the case for reason, science, and humanism: the ideals we need to confront our problems and continue our progress.
Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later
Adaptations and Essays
New York Times Notable Books of 2018
Reply to a 2019 article in Salon by P. Torres
Reply to a 2019 article in The Guardian by J. Hickel
"Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read... also highly persuasive." —Michael Lemonick, Time
A brilliant inquiry into the origins of human nature.
One of the world's leading experts on language and the mind explores the idea of human nature and its moral, emotional, and political colorings. With characteristic wit, lucidity, and insight, Pinker argues that the dogma that the mind has no innate traits-a doctrine held by many intellectuals during the past century-denies our common humanity and our individual preferences, replaces objective analyses of social problems with feel-good slogans, and distorts our understanding of politics, violence, parenting, and the arts. Injecting calm and rationality into debates that are notorious for ax-grinding and mud-slinging, Pinker shows the importance of an honest acknowledgment of human nature based on science and common sense.
Now updated with a new afterword
“Charming and erudite . . . The wit and insight and clarity he brings . . . is what makes this book such a gem.” —Time.com
Why is so much writing so bad, and how can we make it better? Is the English language being corrupted by texting and social media? Do the kids today even care about good writing—and why should we care?
In this entertaining and eminently practical book, the cognitive scientist, dictionary consultant, and New York Times–bestselling author Steven Pinker rethinks the usage guide for the twenty-first century. Using examples of great and gruesome modern prose while avoiding the scolding tone and Spartan tastes of the classic manuals, he shows how the art of writing can be a form of pleasurable mastery and a fascinating intellectual topic in its own right. The Sense of Style is for writers of all kinds, and for readers who are interested in letters and literature and are curious about the ways in which the sciences of mind can illuminate how language works at its best.
Facebook A Year of Books, Selection for January/February
2014 International Award, Plain English Campaign
Amazon Editor's Picks: Best Nonfiction Books of 2014
Best Books of 2014, The Economist
Earphones Award, AudioFile
Before Steven Pinker wrote bestsellers on language and human nature, he wrote several technical monographs on language acquisition that have become classics in cognitive science. Learnability and Cognition, first published in 1989, brought together two big topics: how do children learn their mother tongue, and how does the mind represent basic categories of meaning such as space, time, causality, agency, and goals? The stage for this synthesis was set by the fact that when children learn a language, they come to make surprisingly subtle distinctions: pour water into the glass and fill the glass with water sound natural, but pour the glass with water and fill water into the glass sound odd. How can this happen, given that children are not reliably corrected for uttering odd sentences, and they don’t just parrot back the correct ones they hear from their parents? Pinker resolves this paradox with a theory of how children acquire the meaning and uses of verbs, and explores that theory’s implications for language, thought, and the relationship between them.
As Pinker writes in a new preface, “The Secret Life of Verbs,” the phenomena and ideas he explored in this book inspired his 2007 bestseller The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature. These technical discussions, he notes, provide insight not just into language acquisition but into literary metaphor, scientific understanding, political discourse, and even the conceptions of sexuality that go into obscenity.
“A monumental study that sets a new standard for work on learnability.”—Ray Jackendoff, Tufts University
“The author's arguments are never less than impressive, and sometimes irresistible, such is the force and panache with which they are deployed.”—Paul Fletcher, Times Higher Education Supplement
“Learnability and Cognition is theoretically a big advance, beautifully reasoned, and a goldmine of information.”—Lila Gleitman, University of Pennsylvania
Language, Cognition, and Human Nature collects together for the first time much of Steven Pinker's most influential scholarly work on language and cognition. Pinker's seminal research explores the workings of language and its connections to cognition, perception, social relationships, child development, human evolution, and theories of human nature.
This eclectic collection spans Pinker's thirty-year career, exploring his favorite themes in greater depth and scientific detail. It includes thirteen of Pinker's classic articles, ranging over topics such as language development in children, mental imagery, the recognition of shapes, the computational architecture of the mind, the meaning and uses of verbs, the evolution of language and cognition, the nature-nurture debate, and the logic of innuendo and euphemism. Each outlines a major theory or takes up an argument with another prominent scholar, such as Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, or Richard Dawkins. Featuring a new introduction by Pinker that discusses his books and scholarly work, this collection reflects essential contributions to cognitive science by one of our leading thinkers and public intellectuals.
"Pinker is an intellectual giant in the field, one of the most important psychologists and thinkers in our day. This compilation is outstanding, a fitting crown on his career so far, although I suspect he has much more to contribute. Even though I'd read a handful of these papers before, there were some that I was unaware of that are gems. Even those I'd read before, I re-read, and got even more on the second reading." -- David Buss, author of Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind
"With wit and acumen, Pinker introduces us to some of his most important scientific contributions. These glimpses into the development of these foundational articles and of course the articles themselves will be of great interest to academics and to his many fans beyond the walls of academia." -- David C. Geary, author of Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Difference
"A gem" —Mark Aronoff, New York Times Book Review
How does language work? How do children learn their mother tongue? Why do languages change over time, making Shakespearean English difficult for us and Chaucer's English almost incomprehensible? Why do languages have so many quirks and irregularities? Are they all fundamentally alike? How are new words created? Where in the brain does language reside? In Words and Rules, Steven Pinker answers these and many other questions. His new book shares the wit and style of his classic, The Language Instinct, but explores language in a completely different way. In this book, Pinker explains the profound mysteries of language by picking a deceptively single phenomenon and examining it from every angle. The phenomenon—regular and irregular verbs—connects an astonishing array of topics in the sciences and humanities: the history of languages; the theories of Noam Chomsky and his critics; the attempts to simulate language using computer simulations of neural networks; the illuminating errors of children as they begin to speak; the nature of human concepts; the peculiarities of the English language; major ideas in the history of Western philosophy; the latest techniques in identifying genes and imaging the living brain. Pinker makes sense of all of this with the help of a single, powerful idea: that language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules. The idea extends beyond language and offers insight into the very nature of the human mind. This is a sparkling, eye-opening, and utterly original book by one of the world's leading cognitive scientists.
"A brilliant, mind-altering book....Everyone should read this astonishing book."—The Guardian
“If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this—the most inspiring book I've ever read." —Bill Gates (May, 2017)
A provocative history of violence—from the New York Times bestselling author of The Stuff of Thought and The Blank Slate
Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence. In his gripping and controversial new work, New York Timesbestselling author Steven Pinker shows that despite the ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism, violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history. Exploding myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly enlightened world.
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Has the Decline of Violence Reversed since The Better Angels of Our Nature was Written?
2014 Article on post-Angels trends in violence
"Witty, lucid, and ultimately enthralling."
—Robert McCrum, The Observer
In this extraordinary book, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading cognitive scientists, does for the rest of the mind what he did for language in his 1994 bestseller The Language Instinct. He explains what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life. And he does it with the wit, clarity, and verve that earned The Language Instinct, worldwide critical acclaim and awards from major scientific societies. Pinker explains the mind by "reverse-engineering" it—figuring out what natural selection designed it to accomplish in the environment in which we evolved. The mind, he writes, is a system of "organs of computation" that allowed our ancestors to understand and outsmart objects, animals, plants, and each other. How the Mind Works explains many of the imponderables of everyday life. Why does a face look more attractive with makeup? How do "Magic-Eye" 3-D stereograms work? Why do we feel that a run of heads makes the coin more likely to land tails? Why is the thought of eating worms disgusting? Why do men challenge each other to duels and murder their ex-wives? Why are children bratty? Why do fools fall in love? Why are we soothed by paintings and music? And why do puzzles like the self, free will, and consciousness leave us dizzy? This arguments in the book are as bold as its title. Pinker rehabilitates unfashionable ideas, such as that the mind is a computer and that human nature was shaped by natural selection. And he challenges fashionable ones, such as that passionate emotions are irrational, that parents socialize their children, that creativity springs from the unconscious, that nature is good and modern society corrupting, and that art and religion are expressions of our higher spiritual yearnings. How the Mind Works presents a big picture, but it is not a personal musing; it is a grand synthesis of the most satisfying explanations of our mental life that have been proposed in cognitive science and evolutionary biology, with insights from disciplines ranging from neuroscience to economics and social psychology. It is also fascinating, provocative, and thoroughly entertaining.
"A brilliant, witty, and altogether satisfying book."
—Michael Coe, New York Times Book Review
Everyone has questions about language. Some are from everyday experience: Why do immigrants struggle with a new language, only to have their fluent children ridicule their grammatical errors? Why can't computers converse with us? Why is the hockey team in Toronto called the Maple Leafs, not the Maple Leaves? Some are from popular science: Have scientists really reconstructed the first language spoken on earth? Are there genes for grammar? Can chimpanzees learn sign language? And some are from our deepest ponderings about the human condition: Does our language control our thoughts? How could language have evolved? Is language deteriorating? Today laypeople can chitchat about black holes and dinosaur extinctions, but their curiosity about their own speech has been left unsatisfied—until now. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading scientists of language and the mind, lucidly explains everything you always wanted to know about language: how it works, how children learn it, how it changes, how the brain computes it, how it evolved. But The Language Instinct is no encyclopedia. With wit, erudition, and deft use of everyday examples of humor and wordplay, Pinker weaves our vast knowledge of language into a compelling theory: that language is a human instinct, wired into our brains by evolution like web-spinning in spiders or sonar in bats. The theory not only challenges convention wisdom about language itself (especially from the self-appointed "experts" who claim to be safeguarding the language but who understand it less well than a typical teenager). It is part of a whole new vision of the human mind: not a general-purpose computer, but a collection of instincts adapted to solving evolutionarily significant problems—the mind as a Swiss Army knife. Entertaining, insightful, provocative, The Language Instinct will change the way you talk about talking and think about thinking. New in 2007: The new “PS” edition contains an update on the science of language since the book was first published, an autobiography, an account of how the book was written, frequently asked questions, and suggestions for further reading.