Call it continuing education for brain owners, an instruction manual on how thought works—and how to think better.

THE STUFF OF THOUGHT

LANGUAGE AS A WINDOW INTO HUMAN NATURE

Consider the lexicon, Watson: The words a person uses tell you who that person is.

Language shapes thought; language, at least in some senses, is thought. How words relate to thoughts is the object of semantics, which, writes Pinker (Psychology/Harvard; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, 2002, etc.), “is about the relation of words to reality—the way that speakers commit themselves to a shared understanding of the truth, and the way their thoughts are anchored to things and situated in the world.” Of course, there is one planet but many different worlds, and so there are many different truths. Or are there? Pinker considers many cases, including the one in which George Bush lied—maybe—when he claimed that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Learn, Pinker points out, is a factive verb: It requires a degree of certainty that does not attend to semantically allied verbs such as think, so that when Bush used it, “he was committing himself to the proposition that the uranium seeking actually took place, not that the British government believed it did.” Were we more certain about what goes inside Bush’s brain, we could call it a lie pure and simple, but the brain is a curious thing, capable of equating and uniting “events that have nothing in common,” such as, perhaps, reality and politics. Pinker’s narrative makes for an advanced textbook in semantics and linguistic theory, and none too lightly worn; each page is a challenge, full of packed sentences that require careful reading (“Several experiments have shown that people distinguish causal chains that exemplify different force-dynamic interactions even when they are logically equivalent”). Yet Pinker writes clearly and has an eye for meaningful real-world examples such as the “Prenup Paradox” to bring his points home.

Call it continuing education for brain owners, an instruction manual on how thought works—and how to think better.

Pub Date: Sept. 11, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-670-06327-7

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2007

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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