How many have you read? Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin
Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist, writer and public intellectual. But such a description understates the breadth and depth of his interests. His research and popular writing span a number of areas that include perception, language acquisition, genetics, evolutionary psychology and political science.
His books dive into the intricacies of research in each area – the patterns in irregular verbs, the declines in casualties from war – and connect the threads in the process: how our use of verbs reflects our understanding of the world, how democracies affect our common knowledge. The result is a bibliography filled with insight and reflection, and conveyed in his characteristic tone: congenial, precise and inspiring. Here's how to get started with it:
The Sense of Style (2014)
If you've read any of Pinker's books already, you'd be forgiven for thinking that good writing must be effortless. But, by drawing from passages in acclaimed books and research from cognitive science and linguistics, Pinker shows that writing is a science as well as an art. This book is practical. It's a guide that contains various tricks and hacks to quickly improve your writing. It's lucid, separating the vital ingredients of prose from the typical and often pointless pieces of advice. It's informative, explaining why a careful choice of words and grammar matters when communicating complex ideas. And it's uplifting.
The Sense of Style demonstrates that fluent writing is not unattainable, but a learnable skill.
The Stuff of Thought (2005)
The Stuff of Thought is an underrated masterpiece. It ties together subjects in Pinker's earlier works – language and cognition – by explaining what our use of language tells us about the way we see the world. There seem to be curious irregularities in the way we use words and various rules have been put forward to explain them, but most don't quite fit. Pinker dissects popular theories into their components and brings you through a process of careful reasoning to resolve these puzzles. Along the way, he unveils how our use of language reflects our perception of space, time, matter and causation. This book is elaborate and each chapter feels exceptional.
The Language Instinct (1994)
Languages are so rich, immense and constantly evolving that they can be a struggle for the adults who try to learn them later in life. Yet children are able to pick them up quickly, often without instruction, and even have the capacity to develop new ones.
The Language Instinct argues this is possible because children have an innate ability to acquire languages, which share an underlying, universal structure that the mind can decipher. Pinker pulls together strands of evidence from history, psychology, linguistics and anthropology to make his case, and it's coherent and convincing. This is his earliest book, but it remains irresistible even today.
The Blank Slate (2002)
Published in 2002,
The Blank Slate can feel like a premonition of the modern culture wars. But Pinker shows that the nature-nurture debate has deep roots in history, and that misconceptions of human nature have been used to justify numerous atrocities. He argues that our behaviour is constrained by innate tendencies, but that it's vital to distinguish the facts from the politics. Likely his most fiery book, it's not surprising that many have found something to disagree with. Yet the underlying message cuts through: individual rights are fundamental to society regardless of the differences between us.
The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011)
In what seems like a departure from the solemn outlook of
The Blank Slate, Pinker argues that we possess the faculties to restrain the inner demons of human nature. With the help of institutions, communication and social norms, humans have seen pronounced declines in violence in societies over history. The Better Angels of Our Nature is possibly the most dramatic and influential book Pinker has written. The details are fascinating, the explanations incisive and the message enduring.
Enlightenment Now (2018)
Pinker zooms out from the historical trends in violence described in
The Better Angels of our Nature to demonstrate how our lives have improved in other domains, from literacy to human rights to how long we live our lives. Enlightenment Now argues that if we want to build a better future we should look towards long-term trends and structural changes in history, learning from the success stories of the past. In grappling with historical trends, this has a much greater focus on the methods of research in social science than his other books, and several chapters, such as those on wealth and nutrition, are particularly inspiring.
As an investigation and a manual, Pinker's latest book has many parallels to the brilliance of
The Sense of Style. The ability to reason is vital to our species: to make sense of the world around us, to persuade, to recognise our own flaws and errors in judgment. Rationality is a deep deliberation on why we seem rational in some situations but hopeless in others. Incredibly thoughtful and accessible, this is the definitive guide to improving your skills of reasoning.