Steven Pinker on the Consequences of Semantics in Politics


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Saddam Hussein in Iraq Television. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Saddam Hussein on Iraq Television. Image by 172.

Saddam’s Nuclear Weapons – Did Bush Lie?

“The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

This statement was George W. Bush’s State of the National address in connection with the alleged appropriation of 500 tons of uranium from Niger.  As we all know, in hindsight, no nuclear weapons were found in Iraq.

But did George W. Bush actually lie?

British Intelligence did believe this claim, says Pinker, although he cautiously describes it as “a reasonable belief but not a conclusive one.”

Reframing: Invading Iraq or Liberating Iraq?

George Bush either accepted too readily the findings of British Intelligence – or, perhaps, he decided to take a calculated risk. Was he dishonest?  Perhaps we can decide through looking at the language used. The verb “to learn” is a factive verb, similar to “know” but not like “think.” Through experience, we come to realise that although we learn new things and believe them, further evidence can challenge them at any time.  In that case, we have to relearn our beliefs and reassess our theories.

In our lives, we tend to know/learn/remember and yet, much of the time, we remain uncertain about the accuracy of our assumptions. So – the question is, not whether the British Government believed that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. The issue was that George W. Bush said that he had “learned” this intelligence.

In later years, George Bush’s critics were quick to appeal to the way the President’s address was worded.

Pinker believes that an understanding of semantics helps us to a shared understanding of what is true or false.  The important thing is that we need to decide this “… independent of whether the person being discussed believes a thing to be true or false.”

The question was whether George Bush was committed to the belief that this event actually happened, and not whether the British Government believed it did.

Human Fallibility

“Humans are verbivores,” says Pinker. “We live our lives on words.”

Then, with typical directness,  he points out: “We can be mistaken.” 

Steven Pinker’s Theories on Language and Cognition

Pinker’s theories follow and build upon those of the analytic philosopher, Saul Kripke, (born 1940) whose “frames” and “modal logic” are considering as groundbreaking.  Kripke gave three lectures in the 1970s, later combined into a book, Naming and Necessity, which inform Pinker’s work.  Saul Kripke used common knowledge to analyse the indirect speech of innuendos.

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Dept. of Psychology at Harvard University. He has also taught in the Dept. of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.


Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought – Language as a Window into Human Nature. (2009). Penguin Books.

Pinker, Steven. What Our Language Habits Reveal. Accessed November 10, 2013.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate. (2002).  BCA/Penguin Books.

Harwood, Jeremy. Philosophy, 100 Great Thinkers. (2010). Quercus.

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