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In defense of Lakoff

As I have written so much about Lakoff before, I feel I should say something – anything – to defend him from the onslaught he’s seen lately on Seed’s scienceblogs here, here, here, here and here.

What I think is important is to distinguish between several different things that Lakoff does. It appears that the word “Lakoff” triggers different frames in different people!

1. Theory of metaphors. As I stated repeatedly before, I am agnostic about his science. I defer to Chris on that issue. It is possible that Lakoff is wrong on his ideas about mind, language and metaphor. Future research will settle that question. I am only mildly interested in it.

2. Psychology of ideology. Lakoff is trying to explain the psychology, and in particular the ontogeny of psychology underlying political ideology, in a way that I find plausible and which is in agreement with a number of existing studies (see this, this, this, this and this, for some examples). Realizing that liberals and conservatives think differently and that the difference is due to upbringing is a very important piece of information.

3. Framing theory. Without going into any particulars of Lakoff’s theory of metaphors, the fact that without Lakoff, liberals would not be aware that it matters what you say and how you say it is enough to build him a monument. He pointed out that “Truth will not let you free” (you also have to package the truth in a way that appeals to the listener and then it is easier to win than the opponent who has to repackage a lie) and that long lists of policy propositions never energized a voter. Important lessons. He also explains why triangulation does not work. Useful stuff, even if he did it for wrong reasons and out of wrong theory. It is a pity that so many people on the left still cannot dstinguish between framing and branding (i.e., sloganeering).

4. Framing practice. When Lakoff tries to coin new phrases it is laughable. But, he never asserted that we should accept those phrases – he only gives them as examples – and insists that professionals (equivalents of Frank Luntz) need to be hired to do the research (focus groups, polls, etc.). He is also the first to tell that it takes decades of work by think-tanks and friendly media for frames to take hold so making fun of his examples of slogans misses his point entirely.

It is interesting that I put my posts on Lakoff in the “Culture Wars” channel, while Chris puts his posts on Lakoff in the “Brain & Behavior” channel, indicating that our interest in Lakoff is quite different. He is interested in cognitive science. I am interessted in winning elections by “understaning thy enemy”.

Also, I have written it a hundred times before and I’ll do it again. Everyone who judges Lakoff by his recent articles and interviews, or by his most recent books – the Elephant and later – is bound to misunderstand him. Lakoff possibly misunderstands himself over the last 3-4 years. Read only Moral Politics. Lakoff should do that sometimes, too. And then, read some other books in order to develop and build up the edifice of which Lakoff built only the scaffolding in Moral Politics.


  1. #1 Deep Thought
    October 9, 2006

    Your advocacy of Lakoff is still fascinating to me, so I apologize for jumping in again. So you admit to being ‘meh’ about the actual science Lakoff bases his argument on (and your reference, Chris, is pretty clear that he thinks Lakoff is wrong), and you even claim that Lakoff himself is confused about what Lakoff says (stunning, really, to tell your readers to ignore what Lakoff has written since the book you like).
    Face it, Bora – Lakoff is the Schleiermacher of Progressive politics.

  2. #2 coturnix
    October 9, 2006

    Who/what is Schleiermacher?

    Lakoff did his job with Moral Politics. We can take it from there if he cannot. No need to deride him – he did good.

  3. #3 coturnix
    October 9, 2006

    Also, if you click on the links, you can see that I’ve been saying this for two years.

  4. #4 Kirk McElhearn
    October 9, 2006

    Moral Politics is a piece of hack-work by a guy who really did have something to say in the past. He wants to be Chomsky – both within linguistics and without – and he just can’t do it. He’s confusing (come on, you even say so yourself), and his ideas just don’t work.

    I think the whole Pinker-Lakoff thing is sad, it shows just how pathetic tenured profs are about their little worlds. They get into public pissing contests rather than simply continue doing whatever work they are doing…

    Finally, you say:

    “Realizing that liberals and conservatives think differently and that the difference is due to upbringing is a very important piece of information.”

    This is so totally wrong… The don’t “think differently”, they simply reason differently and use different words for their ideas, because of the context in which these ideas are presented. And they are both used by the politicians who manipulate them – these politicians are the ones who often enfore the usage of certain terms. This has nothing to do with “thinking differently”; it’s only about using different words for the same thing, just as I might call a sub what you call a hoagie.

  5. #5 coturnix
    October 9, 2006

    They do think differently and we’ll be in deep shit until we realize that.

    And, do not mix his science (which may be bad) with his efforts at branding (which are silly) with his insight on framing (which is useful).

  6. #6 Deep Thought
    October 9, 2006

    I know you’ve been talking about this for two years – I’ve been discussing with you for almost a year.
    So: you admit that Lakoff’s science is bad (indirectly – the person you defer to as an expert on the science in question states he doesn’t read Lakoff anymore because he doesn’t read “junk”); you ask the people you recommend his works to to ignore the last five books he has written because Lakoff gets *himself* wrong; you admit that you find his efforts to apply his own concepts to politics as an advisor to the Democratic Party “silly”…
    And you want us to take him seriously because you agree with one of his ideas. That is, to wit, that Conservatives are irrational because their daddies didn’t hold them enough.
    Let’s apply Occam’s razor, shall we? We have a concensus that Lakoffs science is junk. We also have concensus that his efforts to apply the concepts he derives from his junk science are laughable. We also all agree that all of his politically-oriented books since Moral Politics stink. We also have people ranging from me (a semi-anonymous blogger with a background in philosophy and a degree in theology) to Chris of mixingmemeory to Chomsky who really don’t think to highly of Moral Politics, either.
    I propose that Occam’s razor leads us to believe that Lakoff’s ideas about Strict Father/Nurturing Parent are as error-plagued and wrong-headed as the rest of his work, regardless of how much you like them.

  7. #7 razib
    October 9, 2006

    liberals would not be aware that it matters what you say and how you say it is enough to build him a monument. He pointed out that “Truth will not let you free” (you also have to package the truth in a way that appeals to the listener and then it is easier to win than the opponent who has to repackage a lie) and that long lists of policy propositions never energized a voter.

    liberals must have a really short historical attention span. the sophists made it clear in the 5th century BCE that how you deliver is crucial, and rhetoric was one of the 3 original liberal arts.

  8. #8 razib
    October 9, 2006

    I propose that Occam’s razor leads us to believe that Lakoff’s ideas about Strict Father/Nurturing Parent are as error-plagued and wrong-headed as the rest of his work, regardless of how much you like them.

    i don’t know if occam’s razor applies here. in bora’s defense you can agree with part of someone’s work and disagree with other aspects, though here i am confused as why lakoff is importance since he might have hit something right simply through a random hit. i think a better way to think of it is the conditional probability of credibility, that is, a bayesian framework. all the priors point to devaluing the whole of lakoff’s commentary because so many parts are either false or nonsense.

  9. #9 MattXIV
    October 9, 2006


    YThe problem with Lakoff isn’t that conservatives don’t have different habits of thought than liberals, its that Lakoff’s model of psychology and political ideology conceals more than it reveals.

    Strip away the parental metaphor and you simply get two different government roles – rule-maker and service-provider. No ideology views the government as entirely either one or the other as even basic government functions like public safety contain elements of both. Where the contrast becomes important is when the debate on how to address a topic has one side favoring rule-making in contrast to the other side favoring service-providing. A good example is sexuality, where conservatives favor rule-making to prevent negative consequences while liberals favor service-providing via sex ed and access to contraception.

    From here we get the parental roles frame. While Lakoff doesn’t advocate using this frame, the frame does get a lot of use, and it is this frame which I think Lakoff is mistaking for reality. The problem is that the frame is only a sometimes thing, while reality is an all-the-time thing. Sometimes one side uses the frame, but the other side tries to reject it, like in foreign policy. Sometimes the sides are reversed, like policy towards business. Some issues just don’t fit, like trade policy. Conservatives are more likely to end up on the paternal side of the frame simply because they are less likely to advocate providing services as the solution to a problem.

    If the metaphor did reflect reality, it should be possible to predict the stances and rhetoric of conservative vs liberals on contemporary issues. But when we find conservatives using nurturant rhetoric about bringing democracy to the Middle East and creating an “ownership society” and liberals using strict rhetoric regarding violations of the Geneva conventions, corporate accounting, and wiretap laws, one has to start doubting how fundamental the attitudes the metaphor describes are.

  10. #10 coturnix
    October 9, 2006

    Nurturant is not Coddly. The Strict Parent/Nurturant Parent (and a few other Parents) descriptors are not frames.

  11. #11 political persuader
    October 9, 2006

    When I want to influence the political attitudes of my friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers, I look for anything that might help. When I speak to people using the concepts in Thinking Points, Moral Politics, and Don’t Think of an Elephant, people understand me. They get it.

    Those books and their ideas work for the audience that I address.

    The debate in these comments (and the other ScienceBlogs related to the debate) do not reflect the reality that my audience lives in.


  12. #12 razib
    October 9, 2006

    The debate in these comments (and the other ScienceBlogs related to the debate) do not reflect the reality that my audience lives in.

    you should tell us more about your audience….

  13. #13 outeast
    October 10, 2006

    Hm, I always found Macchiavelli worked for me…

    Seriously, Coturnix, you really believe that ‘liberals would not be aware that it matters [both] what you say and how you say it’ without Lakoff? It may be the case that for you personally he was a revelation, but as Razib points out he was scarcely the first person to have this insight.

  14. #14 Chris
    October 10, 2006

    “A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break a promise.” That’s my favorite quote from Machiavelli. Well, that’s the gist of it at least.

    Anyway, I don’t quite get the defense of Lakoff, either. If we ignore conceptual metaphor theory entirely, and pretend that he never wrote those silly chapters at the end of the second edition of Moral Politics in which he claims to provide psychological evidence that the nurturant parent frame is the correct one (after he’s just told us that truth is relative to the frame we use), what do we have left in Lakoff’s political writings?

    First, what’s right.

    1.) Persuasion and frame analysis. Well, as Razib noted, the art of rhetoric is at least 2500 years old (and Lakoff, like the Sophists, charges a lot of money to tell you how to convince people), and frame analysis, though not as old as rhetoric, has been around since the 70s. Seriously, anyone who’s studied in a communication department knows about frame analysis. It’s just not that deep, even if it is powerful when used correctly. For example, since the Greeks, philosophers and rhetoricians have been telling us that if we debate a person on his or her grounds (using his terms, for example), we’re halfway to losing. Hell, Richard Rorty has made a career of using this excuse to never actually have to respond to any criticism.
    2.) All politics are moral politics. Not exactly a new idea there, either. The ancient Greeks beat him to this one too.
    3.) Conservatives and liberals think differently. Well, duh.
    Anyone who thinks that a person who opposes legalized abortions thinks about abortion in the same way that a person who wants to keep abortion legal is touched in the head. They represent the issues differently, have different premises, and arrive at different conclusions. They don’t use different processes to get there, though.

    So nothing new, or all that deep there. Certainly not anything Democrats have forgotten, even if they haven’t been using their knowledge very well. Now let’s look at what Lakoff has wrong.

    1.) Coming back to conceptual metaphor theory for a moment, it doesn’t appear that anyone actually uses the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent metaphors. They certainly don’t use them to structure their political thinking. That knocks out most of his political writing right there.
    2.) Contrary to Lakoff’s assertions, conservatives haven’t been winning by looking at the big picture while Democrats focus on practical solutions to individual issues. In fact, if the success of someone like Karl Rove as a political advisor is any indication, the exact opposite is true. Rove gets Republican candidates to spend a lot of time talking about a few issues (gay rights, abortion, terrorism, and in 2000, taxes) to the exclusion of just about everything else. He knows, from polling data, that these issues motivate voters, and he excels at getting Republicans to stick to them. If Lakoff gets Democrats talking about the big picture, people are just going to look at them funny.

    So there you have it. The stuff he gets right is not new, and not something that Democrats have forgotten, or that they never knew in the first place. The rest — everything that is Lakoffian about Lakoff — is wrong. I think the Democrats/liberals who listen to him do so because they’re desperate for a quick, easy fix, and he seems to be offering them one (I know, he says it will take a long time, but he doesn’t act like it will). This distracts from the fact that Democrats haven’t offered a unified front, in the way that Republicans had up until 2005, in who knows how long. They lose because they offer mediocre candidates, and can’t decide on a unified message. It doesn’t matter what frames you use if you can’t get together on them. Republicans dominate the public debate not because they use better frames, but because they use their frames so consistently, while Democrats are arguing about what to talk about, that Democrats are forced to use Republican frames in their replies. Even Protagoras or Gorgias could tell you that the Democrats are screwed when that happens.

  15. #15 BRC
    October 10, 2006

    I have to agree with Bora, in the main. I think the larger issue is that Lakoff not become undermined by popular media uses of his work. And I think perhaps the debate about Lakoff’s validity — the one seemingly going on here on the blog — stems from his own jumping in to those forums of media. So yeah, maybe he’s having to deal with translation issues that he may not be dealing with persuavile enough (guiven the fact that this debate exists) — of what it means to speak to an academic audience versus what it means to contribute to public debate. What I mean is, Lakoff’s work on metaphor (1979) and in cognitive philosophy of language is really compelling. His Metaphors We Live By, in particular (the 1979 one, with A. Johnson) is a wonderful book. I[‘ve learned much from him. And I see that work as the foundation for his alter Moral Politics and Elephants and such work.

    But what do you do? Is a blog a forum for public debate? Are blogs only a specific variant of public debate? In the poublic square? And are scienceblogs an even more specific variant of that specific blog forum?

    I see this concern over Lakoff as being one between (on one side) people who like his work and want to see how to make it relevant beyond just Cal Berkely, and (on the other side) people who already don’t favor his work and thus are not interested in making it relevant. Obviously, I’m not saying anything profound here. But, anyway, I do think Bora’s view is more worked out than the replies to him above seem to suggest.

  16. #16 bob koepp
    October 10, 2006

    To my mind (which I don’t think Lakoff could squeeze into any of his so-called theories), the most heartening thing about this exchange is that (a few) people who probably agree with Lakoff on a number of specific political issues can still recognize that his arguments and explanations are junk. There’s hope for objective rationality…

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