* * *
This essay reviews Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought (Penguin 2007), which offers insights from cognitive science just where it overlaps the most with law – how we use basic cognitive categories like intent, space, time, events and causation. The Stuff of Thought might offer insights into a broad range of issues in legal theory. Legal theory could make more use of such cognitive science concepts as chunking, recursion, and the primary qualities of an object. Other topics likewise resonate in thinking about the law: The book suggests that metaphor is an important cognitive tool, but less constraining than might be thought. Linguistic analysis of verb classes and polysemy suggests that words have surprisingly determinate meaning. Our apparent innate sense of causation (drawn from an analysis of language) sheds light on the legal treatment of causation. Lastly, The Stuff of Thought describes the role of indirect speech, whereby people convey information without revealing their state of mind – which often allows social interaction to proceed smoothly. Default rules in the law, we suggest, often play an analogous role.
The essay then explores the cognitive aspects of stories (following literary theorists like Mark Turner who have linked cognitive science with narrative theory), suggesting a recursive definition of story, and another angle to the trolley problem. Looking at the cognitive role of stories permits a fuller view of legal reasoning, learning, and remembering. This fits well with recent scholarship, such as work on origin stories, and law and genre theory.