2016 William James Fellow

Steven A. Pinker

Harvard University

Steven A. Pinker is one of the world’s leading writers on language, mind, and human nature. As an experimental psycholinguist, he developed the first comprehensive theory of language acquisition, launched the modern study of language evolution, showed how verb meaning can be a window into higher cognition, probed the limits of neural network models, showed how the interaction between memory and computation shapes the lawful and irregular aspects of language, and deciphered the social dynamics of innuendo and euphemism. As a student of violence, he documented surprising historical declines in every form of aggression and explained them with a novel combination of psychology and history that showed how the violent and peaceable components of human nature have interacted in different ways in different periods.

In visual cognition, he has showed how imagery, attention, and shape recognition are both three-dimensional and specific to a vantage point. As a psycholinguist, he developed the first comprehensive theory of language acquisition in children, used verb meaning as a window into cognition, probed the limits of neural network models, and showed how the interaction between memory and computation shapes the lawful and irregular aspects of language. He launched the modern study of the evolution of language and used evolution to illuminate innuendo, emotional expression, and social coordination.

His books on the language instinct, how the mind works, the stuff of thought, and the doctrine of the blank slate brought together big ideas for the benefit of psychologists and thoughtful laypeople alike. And he developed the first guide to stylish and effective writing that is rooted in psychological science. For this, we honor psychology’s true polymath.