George Lakoff has published two new political books, Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, and Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision, as follow ups to his Moral Politics and Don’t Think of an Elephant. I haven’t read either of the new books (my New Year’s resolution this year was to not read any more bullshit), but Steven Pinker has, and his review of Whose Freedom? in the New Republic (the review is behind a subscription wall, but you can read it in its entirety below the fold in this Gene Expression post) has sparked a reply from Lakoff, and a debate is born.
I don’t really know where to start on this. Lakoff’s reply is one of the most intellectually dishonest pieces of writing I’ve seen from a cognitive scientist, and if anyone other than Lakoff had written it, I’d probably just ignore it. But Lakoff is not only famous, he’s influential, and more than a few liberal bloggers take him seriously. So I feel compelled to say something. I guess the best way to go about this is to detail their disagreements, and show where Lakoff sinks to all new lows in defense of his position.
According to Lakoff, Pinker is stuck in the 16th century, with a fundamentally Cartesian view of mind (which he gets via Bertrand Russell and Frege — whom I bet Lakoff has never read — via Noam Chomsky). Here’s how Lakoff characterizes Pinker’s 500 year old position:
What this means is that language is claimed to be just a matter of abstract symbols, having nothing to do with what the symbols mean, how they are used to communicate, how the brain processes thought and language, or any aspect of human experience, cultural or personal.
You know, I was under the impression that this view was pretty new, born as it was in the 1950s at the advent of the cognitive revolution, though I’m pretty sure that most of us who adopt this position do think that abstract symbols have something to do with what they mean, even if their form doesn’t. I also don’t recall Descartes ever saying this, but hey, it’s been like 2 weeks since I read any Descartes, so I could be wrong.
Lakoff himself, he tells us, is a cognitive scientist for the 21st century.
I have been on the other side, providing evidence over many years that all of those considerations enter into language, and recent evidence from the cognitive and neural sciences indicates that language involves bringing all these capacities together. The old view is losing ground as more is learned.
The new view is that reason is embodied in a nontrivial way. The brain gives rise to thought in the form of conceptual frames, image-schemas, prototypes, conceptual metaphors, and conceptual blends. The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms. Jerome Feldman’s recent MIT Press book, From Molecules to Metaphors, discusses such mechanisms.
“Providing evidence.” Hahahahah… OK, don’t know about you, but when I read the sentence, “The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms,” I heard brakes screeching. This, my friends, is Lakoff at his most manipulative. In cognitive science, “algorithmic symbol manipulation” is thought to be a form of “neural computation, using brain mechanisms.” Lakoff, however, in order to make Pinker’s position look absurd, makes a contrast out of what is, for symolocists (like Pinker, or me), an identity. Is Lakoff implying that Pinker and other symbolicists are true Cartesian dualists who think that symbol manipulation takes place outside of the brain, in the non-physical soul? I haven’t read Pinker’s work on the soul’s connection to the pineal gland, but apparently Lakoff has.
His deceptiveness doesn’t end there. After telling us that Pinker is wrong because he’s a silly 16th century Cartesian in Chomskyan clothing, Lakoff then wants us to believe that Pinker misrepresents his cognitive science. I know, I know, it’s only appropriate that a man who’s spent his life studying figurative language should engage in this level of irony, but this is just disgusting. Recall that Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory says that virtually all of our concepts are metaphorical. This means that they are structured by metaphorical mappings to other concepts. Ultimately, our system of concepts is grounded in direct, embodied experience, which is not metaphorical. Of this view, Pinker writes:
Thinking cannot trade in metaphors directly. It must use a more basic currency that captures the abstract concepts shared by the metaphor and its topic–progress toward a shared goal in the case of journeys and relationships, conflict in the case of argument and war–while sloughing off the irrelevant bits.
This is an old criticism of conceptual metaphor theory, first voiced (as far as I know) by Greg Murphy in his 1996 paper “On Metaphoric Representation.” There Murphy argues that we need an independent (i.e., non-metaphorical) representation of a concept in order to know which other concepts we can map it to metaphorically, and once we’ve mapped it, what information from the other concepts are relevant for the structuring of the first concept. Take, for example, the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. Before we form this metaphor, we have to know that arguments are sufficiently like wars for the concept WAR to be an appropriate metaphor for ARGUMENT. Then we have to know enough about arguments to be able to sort out which aspects of WAR are relevant to ARGUMENT, and which aren’t. As Murphy says, if I didn’t have an independent concept of ARGUMENT,
I might think that when people argue, they go to high locations, in order to shoot and kill their adversaries. I might think that napalm and missiles are typically used in modem arguments, and that the participants wear uniforms. I might think that the loser of the argument has to pay reparations to the winner, and so on. However, I can assure the reader that I do not think these things. (p. 180)
Instead of actually addressing this argument, Lakoff just says it misrepresents his position. He writes:
Pinker represents the research results on conceptual metaphor as follows: “Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, shows that all thought is based on unconscious physical metaphors …” I have actually argued the opposite
He then gives several references in which, he claims, he says the exact opposite. I will admit that Pinker has worded this poorly. He hasn’t used cognitive linguistic jargon with the phrase “unconscious physical metaphors.” I mean, Lakoff’s theory says that our concepts are structured by unconscious metaphors that are ultimately grounded in physical experience. How on earth could Pinker have come up with the phrase “unconscious physical metaphors?” If only he’d said the same thing, but phrased it in 21st century non-Cartesian/Chomskyan terminology, Pinker would see that the the unaddressed criticism about irrelevant information misses the mark. This is how Lakoff operates, people. He never, ever addresses the criticisms of his work (either empirical or theoretical), he just dismisses or ignores them. He probably does this because to address those criticisms would mean abandoning conceptual metaphor theory for good as falsified, but since I don’t have access to Lakoff’s thoughts, I can’t say for sure.
Next, Lakoff accuses Pinker of getting “the research in his own field of psychology wrong.” His example? Pinker writes:
Laboratory experiments show that people don’t think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.
Lakoff says, not so, and for the first time, cites actual research by someone other than himself. The problem is, the research he cites doesn’t actually say anything about Pinker’s claim. Raymond Gibbs’ books a.) are out of date and b.) don’t really present any empirical work on dead metaphors, and Boroditsky’s work (which I’ve discussed before) a.) doesn’t license conclusions about conceptual metaphors, and b.) concerns only one fairly unique and highly abstract domain, time. Actual work on metaphor in general has, in fact, shown that conventional metaphors (often called dead metaphors) are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically, just as Pinker says. For examples of up-to-date research on the topic, check out these two papers by Dedre Gentner and Brian Bowdle. In them you’ll find experiments showing that over time, metaphors shift from be interpreted through mappings between the two domains (e.g., ARGUMENT and WAR) to categorical statements. In other words, Pinker was right, and Lakoff’s just talking out his ass.
After that, Lakoff gets into what Pinker says about his political theory. I’ll just give one example, and them I’m going to go take a shower, because reading Lakoff is making me feel dirty. Pinker writes:
Lakoff tells progressives not to engage conservatives on their own terms, not to present facts or appeal to the truth, and to ignore the polls. Instead they should try to pound new frames and metaphors into voters’ brains. Don’t worry that this is just spin or propaganda, he writes; it is part of the “higher rationality” that cognitive science is substituting for the old-fashioned kind based on universal disembodied reason.
But Lakoff’s advice doesn’t pass the giggle test. One can just imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff’s Orwellian advice tried to rebrand “taxes” as “membership fees.” Surely no one has to hear the metaphor tax relief to think of taxes as an affliction; that sentiment has been around for as long as taxes have been around. (Even Canadians, who tolerate a far more expansive government, grumble about their taxes.) Also, “taxes” and “membership fees” are not just two ways of framing the same thing. If you choose not to pay a membership fee, the organization will stop providing you with its services. But if you choose not to pay taxes, men with guns will put you in jail. And even if taxes were like membership fees, aren’t lower membership fees better than higher ones, all else being equal? Why should anyone feel the need to defend the very idea of an income tax? Other than the Ayn-Randian fringe, has anyone recently proposed abolishing it? In defending his voters-are-idiots theory, Lakoff has written that people don’t realize that they are really better off with higher taxes, because any savings from a federal tax cut would be offset by increases in local taxes and private services. But if that is a fact, it would have to be demonstrated to a bureaucracy-jaded populace the old-fashioned way, as an argument backed with numbers–the kind of wonkish analysis that Lakoff dismisses.
I’ve made a similar point, using Marcuse instead of Orwell, from One-Dimensional Man (p. 103 in the Second Edition; all emphasis mine):
The ritual-authoritarian language spreads over the contemporary world, through democratic and non-democratic, capitalist and non-capitalist countries. According to Roland Barthes, it is the language “propre á tous les régimes d’autorité,” and is there today, in the orbit of advanced industrial civilization, a society which is not under an authoritarian regime? As the substance of the various regimes no longer appears in alternative modes of life, it comes to rest in alternative techniques of manipulation and control. Language not only reflects these controls but becomes itself an instrument of control even where it does not transmit orders but information; where it demands, not obedience but choice, not submission but freedom.
This language controls by reducing the linguistic forms and symbols of reflection, abstraction, development, contradiction; by substituting images for concepts. It denies or absorbds the transcendent vocabulary; it does not search for but establishes and imposes truth and falsehood. But this kind of discourse is not terroristic. It seems unwarranted to assume that the recipients believe, or are made to believe, what they are being told. The new touch of the magic-ritual language is that people don’t believe it, or don’t care, and yet act accordingly. One does not “believe” the statement of an operational concept but it justifies itself in action–in getting the job done, in selling and buying, in refusing to listen to others, etc.
Spin is definitely one word for what Lakoff is doing, but wores than that, from the beginning of conceptual metaphor theory in Metaphors We Live By, what Lakoff has done is turned language into what Marcuse calls “operational language,” “by substituting images for concepts,” and creating an environment in which thought itself is ripe for manipulation. Lakoff then gives us a political theory in which he shows us how to use this manipulation, and apparently in one of his two recent books, ironically argues that this is about freedom. To be fair to Lakoff, all he’s doing is systematizing a way of thinking that, as Marcuse (following Adorno, Horkheimer, and the rest of the Frankfurst School) says, has been promoted in modern societies for most of the last century, but in doing so, and then promoting it on pseudo-scientific grounds, Lakoff’s not doing us any favors.
How does Lakoff answer this charge? He tells us that he’s not being Orwellian, or using spin, because, well, he says so.
Here is what I actually say about spin and propaganda (Don’t Think of an Elephant, pp. 100-101):
“Spin is the manipulative use of a frame. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or has been said, and it’s an attempt to put an innocent frame on it–that is, to make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good.
Propaganda is another manipulative use of framing. Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control.
The reframing I am suggesting is neither spin nor propaganda. Progressives need to learn to communicate using frames that they really believe, frames that express what their moral views really are. I strongly recommend against any deceptive framing.”
Here again Pinker represents me as saying the opposite of what I actually say.
This is a great way of answering objections. “That’s not true, because I’ve already said it’s not true.” I’m going to use it from now on. Still, just because Lakoff says that his political analysis is not manipulative doesn’t mean it’s not, and Pinker and I have both come to that conclusion independently by evaluating the theory itself. If Lakoff wants to show that it’s not Orwellian, or Marcuses’ “operational language” in practice, he’s going to have to actually present arguments to that effect, rather than using the “Nuh uh” retort.
That’s all for me. You can read the rest of Lakoff’s response for yourself, and come to your own conclusions, keeping in mind that nothing about Pinker’s view of the mind (which, though I dsagree with Pinker’s adaptationism, I largely share) says that emotion can’t influence judgment, or that reasoning doesn’t take place using frames (though Kahneman and Tversky’s frames, which Lakoff cites, and Lakoff’s own frames, are very, very different). I recommend that as you read it, you keep a bottle of hand soap near by. If you’re one of those liberal bloggers who’s been enamoured with Lakoff over the last few years, I hope that after reading his response to Pinker (who, if you’re like me, you probably don’t like a whole hell of a lot), you’ll start to think twice about taking any advice from this man.
UPDATE: When I first started writing this post, I used the title The Devil v. The Devil, but that seemed a bit too silly. It was meant to indicate my distaste for both Lakoff and Pinker. Pinker, unlike Lakoff, has produce at least some good work (even if I disagree with its Chomskyan foundation). His papers on language evolution written with Paul Bloom (here) and Ray Jackendoff (here and here, criticizing Chomsky, strangely enough) are good, and The Language Instinct is a good book (especially the first chapter, where he aptly describes cognitive science as reverse engineering the mind). Still, I dislike most of his work, and I’ve accused him of misrepresenting cognitive science about as often as I’ve accused Lakoff of doing the same. Furthermore, I’m a left-liberal, which puts me much closer to Lakoff’s center-left liberal politics than to Pinker, who often ends up on the right side of the political divide. I point this out to make it clear that my only real stake in the debate between two people I sincerely dislike (at least professionally; I don’t really know either of them personally, though I’ve met them both) is the science, and in this case, Pinker is right on the science, and Lakoff is wrong. Furthermore, instead of presenting intellectual arguments to convince us that he’s right, Lakoff just makes shit up. Granted, Pinker was kind of mean in his review, with statements like, “But someone would be seriously deranged if he wondered whether he had time to pack, or where the next gas station has clean restrooms,” and, “But Lakoff’s advice doesn’t pass the giggle test,.” If you ask me, though, Lakoff should just be glad Jerry Fodor didn’t write the review. As it is, I think he got off pretty easy, because his advice doesn’t pass the giggle test, or any other test, and if we take seriously a strong version of Lakoff’s conceptual metaphor theory (the version that Lakoff himself appears to adhere to), then people do start to look a bit deranged.