Mixing Memory

Pinker v. Lakoff

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Clark
    October 8, 2006

    I’ve enjoyed reading Pinker even if I find when he waxes in on things I’m more knowledgeable about he typically is misrepresenting things fairly badly. (Especially in The Blank Slate) But he gets me thinking and I always enjoy his arguments from various kinds of brain damage.

    I’ve not read any Lakoff and whenever I read the (many) blog posts slamming him someone always speaks up and says they are misreading him. But no one ever clarifies how he is being misread.

    The issue on metaphors is interesting though. I know what you portray as the Lakoff/Pinker dispute is also the Ricouer/Derrida dispute. I remember you doing a series on metaphor some time ago. Did you address this issue of the dead/literal.

  2. #2 coturnix
    October 8, 2006

    Is it telling that your post is in the “Brain and Behavior” channel, while mine is in the “Culture Wars” channel?

  3. #3 razib
    October 8, 2006

    if lakoff is wrong on the science, then liberals should be furious. if you present “scientific” models from which to derive prescriptions then you better actually have some science to back it up.

  4. #4 Clark
    October 8, 2006

    I think liberals favored Lakoff because he was telling them something that superficially explained why conservatives were doing so well. (i.e. the Limbaugh or Rove effect) However I think we’ll find in this upcoming election that this doesn’t explain conservative success and that Republicans will lose because of this. Rather I honestly think ideology has a lot more to do with things.

    But maybe I’m naive. While I don’t tend to think the “masses” are terribly bright I think that en mass they can stumble upon truths for that culture.

  5. #5 Chris
    October 8, 2006

    Clark, I didn’t really discuss the “career of metaphor” stuff, because the best work wasn’t accepted for publication until after I wrote that series. I’m thinking of writing an independent post on it, though.

    Lakoff’s view of metaphor is, in a way, very Austinian. He sees metaphorical concepts as parasitic. I believe, in his “debate” with Searle, Derrida argued pretty strenuously against this.

    Razib, one of the reasons I’m so pissed is that I think Lakoff’s ideas will do more harm to liberals than good, if liberals take them seriously. Framing is good, but when you try to do it with conceptual metaphor theory, all you get is silliness (like the taxes as dues bit).

  6. #6 Denis
    October 8, 2006

    The Language Instinct is a good book (especially the first chapter, where he aptly describes cognitive science as reverse engineering the mind).
    I remember that Pinker describes it in “How The Mind Works”, not in TLI

  7. #7 Chris
    October 8, 2006

    hmm… I was pretty sure that was in the Language Instinct, in the introductory chapter, but I could be wrong. I thought i was stealing it from him before How The Mind Works was published. Anyway, it’s a great description.

    I suppose I could just look when I’m in the lab on Monday.

  8. #8 hugo
    October 8, 2006

    Just a clarification question:

    >Actual work on metaphor in general has, in fact, shown that conventional metaphors (often called dead metaphors) are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically,

    you mean that when we understand a conventional metaphor, our first interpretation is the literal one? I’d be surprised, that’s why I want to make sure you mean that. Or do you mean that in the case of conventional metaphors, the metaphorical reading has become so entrenched that it’s now the first interpretation (it as become ‘literal’)? I’m a bit confused here.

  9. #9 Chris
    October 8, 2006

    Hugo,
    I mean the second one. The metaphor takes on a literal meaning of its own. Sorry, I definitely wasn’t clear in the post about what I meant by literal.

  10. #10 hugo
    October 8, 2006

    ok, thanks

  11. #11 John Roth
    October 8, 2006

    I’m not sure how to say this, so I’m just going to hit it.

    You’re missing the point completely on the symbol manipulation issue. The reason I say this is that it’s the basic problem with language and artificial intelligence: in AI, it’s all symbol manipulation, and that approach has flopped totally. It’s the basic problem with Chomsky as well: his original program was almost totally symbol manipulation, and his statement that language is recursive is simply absurd; natural language allows a good deal of embedding, but as soon as you try real indefinite recursion people can’t understand it without having to diagram it out in some fashion.

    I’d like to draw your attention to two recent papers (I don’t have references, these are from comments elsewhere). One was a fairly standard reaction time study that totally demolished the notion that the brain analyzes metaphor in a two step process: there was no appreciable difference in the times to understand metaphoric and non-metaphoric statements.

    The other was a study on brain damaged people that isolated the process of understanding metaphor to a specific area: the left angular gyrus if I remember correctly. This was about a year ago.

    What I take home from that is that most of the speculation on how metaphor works since Aristotle has been left flapping in the breeze, and it’s going to take detailed analysis to see what can be salvaged and what needs to be taken out with the trash.

    This is why I think that criticism of how Lakoff is using the term “metaphor” is beside the point. It’s a tempest in a definitional teapot that I’d rather not deal with.

    I’m totally with my rather simplistic view of what I think Lakoff is getting at: if you want to understand statements about movement, you’ve got to understand how the brain represents movement in the non-linguistic sub-stratum. Chomsky tried to go from a precisely defined point A (syntax) to point C (the non-linguistic substratum) via a precisely defined set of transformations without understanding the latter. He’s now on what, his fourth major revision of his model?

    On the political issues: I agree that Lakoff’s analysis is faulty in many cases. Possibly most cases. Part of that is, I think, due to his hanging onto “strict father” and “nurturing parent” as the two basic frames, and part of that is other issues. Doug Muder sheds some light on that with “inherited obligation” and “negotiated committment” (his Red Family, Blue Family paper), but it’s just as partial if not more so. Suzette Hayden Elgin also had some interesting comments on the issue.

    We honor pioneers not because they were right across the board but because they got us started in a new direction. Much of what Lakoff is saying is, I think, right on. It just doesn’t happen to be either his detailed linguistic analyses or his analyses of specific issues.

    John Roth

  12. #12 Chris
    October 8, 2006

    John,

    Since the 1980s, when connectionism and PDP models became popular, there’s been a debate about the viability of symbolicist models. Symbolicist models certainly haven’t come out unscathed, but I think it’s safe to say that neither side has won outright, either. Since we’ve done pretty well at modeling just about everything, including meaning, I think it’s more than a bit of an exageration to say that we’ve flopped, or as Lakoff says, that we pretty much ignore meaning altogether.

    The papers on metaphor to which you refer aren’t really very recent. The reaction time study was first done by Gluckburg, Gildea, and Bookin in the early 80s (published in 820), and the neuropsych paper to which you refer is, I believe, Giora et al., published in 2000. There has been a lot, and I mean a lot, of really good work on metaphor since the 1970s, and while the focus has been on noun-noun metaphors (e.g., “My lawyer is a shark”), I think we’ve got a pretty good idea of what metaphors are, where they fit in a state-space that defines the realm of comparison (including things like analogy, literal similarity, relational similarity, etc.), and a working knowledge of how they work. More than that, we have a damn good idea of how concepts and categories work, and while there are still many debates about the form of their representation, I don’t think there’s any empirical reason to take seriously metaphorical representation.

    Once you take that into account, Lakoff’s political advice becomes worthless except to the extent that he makes us realize what should be obvious: in order to convince people of something, you have to understand how they think.

  13. #13 razib
    October 8, 2006

    btw, i know it might be accepted in some circles that Pinker is on the Right, but here is what pinker said to reason in 2004:

    2004 vote: Kerry. The reason is reason: Bush uses too little of it. In the war on terror, his administration stints on loose-nuke surveillance while confiscating nail clippers and issuing color-coded duct tape advisories. His restrictions on stem cell research are incoherent, his dismissal of possible climate change inexcusable.

  14. #14 Agnostic
    October 8, 2006

    Symbolicist models certainly haven’t come out unscathed, but I think it’s safe to say that neither side has won outright, either. Since we’ve done pretty well at modeling just about everything, including meaning, I think it’s more than a bit of an exageration to say that we’ve flopped, or as Lakoff says, that we pretty much ignore meaning altogether.

    Oh no, why did Lakoff have to mire us in yet another symbol vs PDP war! I boldfaced what you said above since it should be stronger — like, “especially meaning,” as the symbolicist models are the only game in town for compositional semantics. Now, how ideas are connected to each other for the purposes of metaphor, that may not be so “algebraic,” but in order to assign a model-theoretic interpretation to a syntactic structure, all you need is set theory, logic, and a few new algebraic operators if you want. In contrast, there’s no strictly PDP model that does compositional semantics. Even the PDP models of syntax are bad, unless cleansed of their strongly distributional character (a point Marcus drives home in The Algebraic Mind).

    Where the non-symbolic models appear to work best is for random associations like parts of phonology (although even there they don’t handle novelty well, a huge defecit). But for the more rule-looking processes, especially recursive & hierarchically structured ones like syntax or semantics, well, of course rule-looking models work best. So it’s not a question of which is better, but which is better at which domains. It turns out that more domains that cog scientists typically study are best modeled by symbolicist models.

    And syntax is recursive in just about any model, including the non-Chomskyan ones. The lack of indefinite recursion in reality is best left to the processing part of language (it’s too much of an informational / attentional overload). Building in the lack of indefinite recursion would be like building in a list of all sentences we can’t construct. It would be superfluous.

  15. #15 Chris
    October 8, 2006

    Well, the argument that connectionist/PDP models can’t do compositional semantics is old (Fodor and Pylyshyn in the 80s), but with all of the advances in networks in the 90s, especially Elman’s modeling and Smolensky’s theoretical stuff on grammar and language acquisition.

    Still, at some point, you need symbols.

  16. #16 Bill Benzon
    October 8, 2006

    1. FWIW, I tend to think that natural language is the simplest symbolic process in the brain. And if it is not a symbolic process in some profound way, then the notion of symbolic process has little meaning. So I figure I’m one of many thinkers who sees the need for both symbolic and non-symbolic operations in the brain.

    2. I suspect that there is a profound idea lurking in the cognitive metaphor literature, but I don’t think Lakoff & co. have isolated it.

    3. I’ve read a fair bit of Lakoff’s work (actually, started reading it back in the 1960s generative semantics phase), but was unable to finish Philosophy in the Flesh. All those metaphors on metaphors have left contact with cognitive psych and neuro-psych. It’s mostly literary criticism stated in different terms, and not particularly good literary criticism. What I’ve read about his political work seems very iffy to me. Whatever merit that work might have doesn’t have much to do with cognitive psych.

    Note that I am a literary critic by training and have nothing against literary criticism. But much of what Lakoff is doing in the “history of Western thought” chapters of Phil Flesh could have been done back in the 1950s, though in different terms. This whole “nation as family” riff is old-hat as well. The substantive content is not new, it’s just decked out in new terms.

    4. On reverse engineering, I learned about “black boxes” when I took an intro psych course at Johns Hopkins in the late 1960s. I believe that the reverse engineering idea in psychology goes back at least to D. E. Broadbent in the 1950s.

  17. #17 Anthony
    October 9, 2006

    I think Lakoff’s original analysis of American politics in “Moral Politics” was pretty sound, and that Lakoff ought to go back and re-read it, because most of what he says lately on politics is unsound based on the premise of his book. Briefly, Lakoff says there are about 5 main types of family patterns (which are fuzzy sets), and track into politics. Liberals are the “nurturant parents” while conservatives are the “strict fathers”. However, liberals caricature conservatives as “abusive/authoritarian fathers”, while conservatives caricature liberals as “indulgent-permissive parents”.

    In the last few years, Lakoff has mostly been retailing the caricature of conservatives, which potential swing voters mostly don’t buy. If liberals are to be effective, they must acknowlege that conservatives and “moderates” generally see conservative political theory as “strict father”, not as “abusive/authoritarian”, and that attacking conservatives as “abusive/authoritarian” makes so-called progressives look like the spoiled children brought up in “indulgent-permissive” households.

  18. #18 Kirk
    October 9, 2006

    This whole thing is a waste of pixels. (Not your article, but the whole dispute.) I read Pinker’s ridiculous review of the Lakoff book in the New Republic. Asking Pinker to review that book is like asking a creationist to review a book on Darwin (or vice versa).

    Lakoff is a loony – he’s trying to take Chomsky’s place as the liberal linguist du jour, and his ideas are, for the most part, ludicrous. You’ve pointed out some of them, but I read his “big” book on the “framing” question, and it was just foolish. (Yes, I have experience in the field…)

    As for Pinker, his hatchet-job of Lakoff in the press in impardonable as well. I don’t consider him much more than an acolyte of Chomsky (whose work I find to be vastly overrated), but the New Republic’s asking him to review that book was an editorial error.

    Let them both go back to their ivory towers and play with themselves.

  19. #19 NuSapiens
    October 9, 2006

    Interesting subject matter. So in a sense politics could be understood as a war of metaphors or symbols, to see which have the deepest and strongest appeal to people?

    One deep symbol is the “bad black face,” which has been quite successful in the recent War on Terrorism by being combined with the “bad Jew face” symbol from Europe. Who wouldn’t want to kill Osama Bin Laden, when he looks like a cross between the archetypal Jim Crow and Jud Suss?

    The Western fear of the veil taps into related emotive color imagery: a masked person is scary. A masked woman is even more scary, especially when the mask is black.

    Images have a much stronger impact than words. Right wingers use images very very well. Left wingers get lost in words.

    War images are great because they emotionally trump other images. Both the US war hawks and anti-US Islamists use war images very effectively. Al-Qaeda initiates are supposedly shown videos of Muslim corpses, crying old ladies, etc.

    Interesting stuff. Some neurologist should look into cognitive consequences of Islam’s ban on religious imagery. Do comparative MRIs of Hindus vs Muslims for instance.

  20. #20 Dirk
    October 9, 2006

    I do think Lakoff comes off better in this spat. Yet Lakoff generally makes this bizarre claim that no one before, well, Lakoff perceived a relation between language and perception, or that no scholar ever considered that logic had some relationship to biochemically-based thought processes. Russell himself suggested this, as does Wittgenstein, does he not–the Picture Theory of Meaning and so forth in the Tractatus; the behaviorists were not that far from that perspective.

    It is a deception to claim all these abstract rationalists ignored the possible “embedding” of language and logic, when even early anal. philosohy such as Russell’s hinted at that view, regardless of whether he used “frames” or not. But anal. philosophers were, given their positivistic roots, wary of making claims about “schema” or other non-perceivable mental events: Lakoff doesn’t seem bothered by that lack of access to another’s thoughts. Schemas are inferred–not proven; Lakoff routinely overlooks that basic problem of verifying psychological entities/concepts. Nonetheless I do think at some point a psychologist–either pro. or armchair– does have some grounds to infer schema (tho’ not sure on the more Freudian/metaphor material of Lakoff’s); additionally, Lakoff’s analysis of Schwarzenegger’s victory in the Recall–and how the right does frame as well as “spin” language and imagery– was not completely worthless. Unfortunately neither the Chomskyan school or Lakoff are really up to the neurological task of demonstratig the bio-chemical processes of syntax.

  21. #21 Clark
    October 9, 2006

    Chris, it is Ricoeur who takes an approach superficially closer to Austin. You’re right that in the Searle-Austin debate in Limited Inc. Derrida does touch on these matters although it’s not his main critique as I recall. Without looking it up I seem to remember that the Ricouer/Derrida debate on Metaphor came before his engagement with Searle. (I could be wrong – I’m not at my library to check)

    I’d blogged somewhat about Ricouer and Derrida on Metaphor some time ago but I don’t think I touched upon the issue of dead metaphor too much. I should add that while there are some similarities between Ricouer and Austin there are tons of differences. Further I think the actual difference in position between Derrida and Ricouer is actually fairly subtle.

  22. #22 Benp
    October 10, 2006

    What’s symolocists ? Sorry I googled the word and don’t get anything, and I’m a french guy so… I don’t know !

  23. #23 Chris
    October 10, 2006

    Ben, sorry, I probably spelled it wrong in the post. It’s symbolicist. If you google it, you’ll find a lot of references (I got about 1000). It’s the new word used to describe people who adhere to the classical model, or what used to be called computationalism. Cognitive science is, at the moment, more or less divided between connectionists and symbolicists, though they work together now more than they used to. I call myself a symbolicist because I think that there are too many epistemological problems with connectionism, and because I believe that, ultimately, connectionism is too limited. Also, I work with symbolic models (e.g., the Structure Mapping Engine).

    Of course, connectionist models ddo one thing that symbolic models tend to struggle with: they model time-courses really well.

  24. #24 Joshua
    October 10, 2006

    Nothing too constructive to add here except that I am so, so, so sick of all this postmoderist insanity.

  25. #25 Chris
    October 10, 2006

    Joshua, Clark’s mentioned two “postmodernists,” though only briefly. What else do you find to be “postmodernist” here?

  26. #26 Clark
    October 11, 2006

    Just for the record what I consider “postmodern” in the normal application of the word doesn’t fit how I read Derrida, Ricouer or Heidegger. Most of what goes under the rubric of “postmodernism” I dislike immensely. However what gets promulgated under the name of some philosophers and what those philosophers wrote isn’t always the same thing. I should add that my primary interest in these figures arises out of semiotics.

  27. #27 Chris
    October 11, 2006

    Clark, I agree, which is why I used the scare quotes. I figured he was referring to Lakoff as postmodern, which is an epithet I’ve heard pretty frequently in Lakoff discussions (including on the old blog, I think), so I was hoping he’d elaborate. Calling Lakoff postmodern is silly, of course.

  28. #28 Clark Goble
    October 11, 2006

    Ah. I thought he was talking about my comment. I’d never heard Lakoff called a postmodernist. Although I suppose superficially the issue of framing pops up in both.

  29. #29 Joshua
    October 11, 2006

    I have a very colloquial understand of postmodernism, I will admit. I’ve honestly searched for a solid explanation of what it is, but I’ve never been able to find one. The term only makes sense to me in reference to a set of artistic movements, a rejection of objective reality, and the obsessive focus on the idea of the “narrative”. Lakoff fits my conception of the term. If Lakoff isn’t a postmodernist, I’d love to hear what he actually is.

  30. #30 gspezio
    October 12, 2006

    Don’t miss Robert Jensen’s recent incisive expose of Le Professeur Lakoff’s framing foolishness at http://www.counterpunch.org/jensen08142006.html.
    Long suffering Lakoff hawked his so-called cognitive science bamboozle to overflowing crowds in Northern California last year. Almost to a fault most folks were titillated with the depth of it all. Woe is me.

  31. #31 Steven Poole
    October 12, 2006

    Thanks for this review, it’s very useful. I’m often asked what distinguishes my own work from Lakoff’s, and (apart from the fact that I make no claims to science) it is that I don’t recommend fighting framing with more framing. I find Lakoff’s concept of an “honest” frame vs a dishonest one particularly incoherent. What’s more, do you suppose that if someone whispered to Lakoff that Plato also thought that reason had to work alongside emotion he would instantly abandon the idea as horribly old-fashioned?

  32. #32 bee
    October 12, 2006

    Kirk- what are you saying? You can act like a big dog and piss all over but that is not to be confused with reasoning. (metaphor in action my friend) What did Pinker say that was incorrect? I see very little. He did make a few jabs but why not given the effort he spent reviewing a politcal treaty cloaked as science.

  33. #33 gspezio
    October 13, 2006

    bee, anybody who doesn’t fawn before Pinker and Lakoff can’t be all bad. Lakoff is a particular horror. He feigns science and fouls his own nest. His pretentious framing science is beneath contempt. What concerns me is that so many otherwise intelligent people people fall for such ineffectual new-age cheerleading. Kirk’s “waste of pixels” is a very reasonable observation. Robert Jensen (above) is all too gentle as he devastates Lakoff’s magical linguistic mind change strategy. Remember Willis Harman, the noetic sciences nut, and his childish Global Mind Change? His book is still being published with a basic but essential adaptation. All the great mental transforming that was just around the corner in the twentieth century has been rescheduled for the 21st century.

    Poor muddleheaded David Korten (The Great Transformation) is all the rage these days as he shazams a coming tranformation (any day now) of conciousness and the entire material world while quoting Riane Eisler’s Goddess gossip as a source of scientific wisdom.

    Do you think that the right is alarmed at this new age herd foolishness of the political left?

  34. #34 gspezio
    October 13, 2006

    bee, anybody who doesn’t fawn before Pinker and Lakoff can’t be all bad. Lakoff is a particular horror. He feigns science and fouls his own nest. His pretentious framing science is beneath contempt. Remember, good framing is not evil manipulative framing – my peeyar good, your peeyar sucks. What concerns me is that so many otherwise intelligent people people fall for such ineffectual new-age cheerleading. Kirk’s “waste of pixels” is a very reasonable observation. Robert Jensen (above) is all too gentle as he devastates Lakoff’s magical linguistic mind change strategy.

    Remember Willis Harman, the noetic sciences nut, and his childish Global Mind Change? His book is still being published with a basic but essential adaptation. All the great mental transforming that was just around the corner in the twentieth century has been rescheduled for the 21st century.

    Poor muddleheaded David Korten (The Great Transformation) is all the rage these days as he shazams a coming transformation of conciousness (yup, any day now) and the entire material world leading to an earth community of nurturing souls. He quotes Riane Eisler’s
    goddess gossip as the critical foundation of his social change theory. Maybe David will be able to bed some waffling feminists.

    Do you think that the right is alarmed at this new age herd foolishness of the political left?

  35. #35 Stephen M (Ethesis)
    October 13, 2006

    “it’s been like 2 weeks since I read any Descartes, so I could be wrong.”

    Made me smile. The rest of it made me sad.

    I hope for better and for peace.

  36. #36 Jonathan
    October 14, 2006

    Very interesting piece. I would only point that, for what it’s worth, Descartes is a 17th Century philosopher, not a 16th century philosopher.

  37. #37 Chris
    October 14, 2006

    Oops, you’re right. Thinking 1600s, writing 16th century. I’d change it, but since I wrote it a week ago, I’ll just leave it with the comments noting that I goofed.

  38. #38 Jerry Feldman
    November 1, 2006

    Lakoff cites ( not quite correctly) my new book as summarizing the evidence for an explictly neural theory of language and thought. You and your readers might want to visit the web site:
    http://www.m2mbook.org

  39. #39 MarkT
    October 2, 2007

    I appreciate the intellectual honesty of anyone who will disagree with the analytics of someone with whom he shares a political perspective. That is a real contribution. Thanks.