This is premium Pinker, and while he ranges across the social sciences his primary focus here is on language, where he is unparalleled. His goal is to examine the nature of language and tease out the aspects of human nature that language embodies and elucidates. Note that the very concept of `human nature' is anathema to many of the postmodernists. Have no fear, because Pinker doesn't. He relishes the opportunity to burst the bubbles of political correctness, particularly with the use of hard facts and common sense.
His task here is complex, since language is so complex, but his writing is always lucid and to the point. He takes verbs, for example, and examines the ways in which they can and cannot be used, the functions that they can and cannot serve and the forms of human reasoning which they undergird. This can be heady stuff but it reads beautifully as we watch a mind that is both rigorous and playful catch us in the act of being, quintessentially, ourselves.
He is at his best when he is pulling together the insights of linguists, evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists--something he does with ease and clarity. After he proceeds step by step and chapter by chapter he sums it all up in a concluding chapter that is a model of transparent complexity.
Although the materials are different, this book is like Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, its goal being the identification of those aspects of ratiocination that are uniquely human. The difference here is that Pinker draws specifically (and extensively) on the materials of language, draws more conclusions than Kant and does so in accessible and often amusing prose.
Pinker is one of a handful of centrally-important public intellectuals in America. Don't miss his latest (and if you've missed such important, former books as The Blank Slate--you know now what to request for Christmas).
Steven Pinker is a quite energetic fellow and an apparent sponge for quite a breadth of subjects and people's views. This seems not to leave a great deal of room for modesty, and he has thus created some controversy in academic circles around his thoroughness on the one hand and his penchant for publicity on the other, somewhat as Carl Sagan used to be regarded in the academic astronomical world. Aware of the controversy surrounding him, I had not looked as his earlier books. I then had the opportunity to hear him speak in public about the current work, and this experience persuaded me to have a look.
The book's central premise is that universal patterns of human thought can be adduced from common patterns observed in many natural languages. The bulk of the book is about the patterns, and the connection back to conclusions about the innateness of various ways of looking at the world sometimes takes the back burner. But what is useful about the book is that he does it in a way that is not as complex and convoluted as the previous sentence. The book is quite heavy with endnotes and references, and at times he seems to be looking to score points in a debate among academics that is going on in the background. I do not know enough about the field to understand the subplots. The net effect to me was a perhaps avoidable distraction.
I would suggest reading the last chapter (number 9) first or else after chapter 1 - it is short and sweet and lays out what he claims to have established in the rest of the book. Chapter 2 will be heavy going for those without prior exposure to formal grammars or current views of linguistics, but much of the later argument is not lost by skimming if it gives the impression of endless hair-splitting. The interesting behavioral meat comes in chapters 7 and 8, so skip ahead to them if necessary as an alternative to abandoning the book in midcourse.
When I don't know a great deal about the central subject or premise, I tend to calibrate the author's credibility by what he tosses off that I do know something about. Thus, at the start of chapter 2 (page 25), he compares what he is setting out to do in analyzing English verb constructions with the film and book "Powers of Ten" by Charles and Ray Eames. He compares his adventure "Down the Rabbit Hole" with theirs, and implies that he is going to take us down sixteen orders of magnitude of complexity. Well, the Eames book covers 41 orders of magnitude (the sponge had a slight leak), and I think it would be generous to grant that he goes as much as two orders of detail into his analysis. (Even as much as one might be arguable.) This certainly calibrates Pinker's view of himself, but it also leads me to wonder how many of the 690 endnotes and/or what they claim to cite have been hastily slapped into place. This will matter greatly to academics, and for the rest of us should only be taken as a variant of "caveat emptor".
One curious piece of understatement comes on page 85, where he writes of an example "very much in the news" about understanding gender differences. When former Harvard president Larry Summers made his ill-fated remarks in January 2005, it was Pinker's earlier work (or at least the endnotes therein) that he felt he was citing, and Pinker came early and often to Summers' defense. That he addresses this here (and somewhat out of context) with a whimper rather than a bang is a bit curious.
Overall, then, this is an accessible book by someone who is likely to be discussed quite a ways into the future, much as his mentor and colleague Noam Chomsky has been. It is certainly worth taking a look if you have an interest in this general area.