Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on language, cognition, and social relations, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time and The Atlantic, and is the author of twelve books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature,The Sense of Style, Enlightenment Now, and Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD from Harvard. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, and Enlightenment Now. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He was Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for the New York Times, the Guardian, and other publications. His twelfth book, published in 2021, is called Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.
Steven Pinker was born in 1954 in the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal, Canada. He earned a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology at McGill University and then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1976, where he has spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT. He earned his doctorate at Harvard in 1979, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, a one-year stint as an assistant professor at Harvard, and in 1982, a move back to MIT that lasted until 2003, when he returned to Harvard. Currently he is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology. He also has spent two years in California: in 1981-82, when he was an assistant professor at Stanford, and in 1995-96, when he spent a sabbatical year at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Pinker is an experimental psychologist who is interested in all aspects of language and mind. His doctoral dissertation and much of his early research focused on visual cognition, the ability to imagine shapes, recognize faces and objects, and direct attention within the visual field. But beginning in graduate school he cultivated an interest in language, particularly language development in children, and this topic eventually took over his research activities. In addition to his experimental papers, he wrote two technical books early in his career. One presented a comprehensive theory of how children acquire the words and grammatical structures of their mother tongue. The second focused on the meaning, syntax, and acquisition of verbs, and what they reveal about the mental representation of reality. For the next two decades his research focused on the distinction between irregular verbs like bring-brought and regular verbs like walk-walked. The two kinds of verbs, he showed, exemplify the two cognitive processes that make language possible: looking up words in memory, and combining words (or parts of words) according to combinatorial rules. He has also published studies on the genetics, neurobiology, and critical period for learning language, and collaborating on the development of the Google Ngram Viewer, the Global Language Network, and the Natural History of Song. Most recently, his research has begun to investigate the psychology of common knowledge (I know that you know that I know that you know...) and how it illuminates phenomena such as innuendo, euphemism, social coordination, and emotional expression.
In 1994 he published the first of nine books written for a general audience. The Language Instinct was an introduction to all aspects of language, held together by the idea that language is a biological adaptation. This was followed in 1997 by How the Mind Works, which offered a similar synthesis of the rest of the mind, from vision and reasoning to the emotions, humor, and art. In 1999 he published Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language which presented his research on regular and irregular verbs as a way of explaining how language works. In 2002 he published The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which explored the political, moral, and emotional colorings of the concept of human nature. The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, published in 2007, discussed the ways in which language reveals our thoughts, emotions, and social relationships. In 2011 he published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. This was followed in 2014 by The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. His latest, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, was published in September 2021. A collection of his academic articles called Language, Cognition, and Human Nature was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. Pinker frequently writes for the New York Times, the Guardian, Time, The Atlantic, and other magazines on diverse topics including language, consciousness, education, morality, politics, genetics, bioethics, and trends in violence.
Pinker was the Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and has served as editor or advisor for numerous scientific, scholarly, media, and humanist organizations, including the American Association the Advancement of Science, the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the Linguistic Society of America. He has won many prizes for his books (including the William James Book Prize three times, the Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, the Eleanor Maccoby Book Prize, the Cundill Recognition of Excellence in History Award, and the Plain English International Award), his research (including the Troland Research Prize from the National Academy of Sciences, the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, the Henry Dale Prize from the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and the William James Award from the Association for Psychological Science), and his graduate and undergraduate teaching. He has also been named the Humanist of the Year, Honorary President of the Canadian Psychological Association, Time magazine's Hundred Most Influential People in the World Today, Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers, and is the recipient of nine honorary doctorates. In 2021, the website Academic Influence calculated that he was the second-most influential psychologist in the world in the decade 2010-2020.
Pinker lives in Boston and in Truro with the philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The other writers in the family are his stepdaughters Yael Goldstein Love and Danielle Blau, his sister Susan Pinker, his niece Eva Boodman, and his nephews Carl Boodman and Eric Boodman. His brother, Robert, former senior advisor in the government of Canada, lives in Ottawa.
Eulogy for his mother, Roslyn Pinker, 1934-2023, former Vice-Principal of Bialik High School, Montreal.