Mixing Memory

Lakoff in the NYT

There’s a review of George Lakoff’s new book, The Political Mind, in today’s New York Times. You can read the review here. Some key excerpts:

Neuroscience shows that pure facts are a myth and that self-interest is a conservative idea. In a “New Enlightenment,” progressives will exploit these discoveries. They’ll present frames instead of raw facts. They’ll train the public to think less about self-interest and more about serving others. It’s not the platform that needs to be changed. It’s the voters.

I have to say, I’ve always thought there was a not-so-vague Orwellian quality to Lakoff’s work, and if that paragraph is at all faithful to this new book, then I now know that I was right. And besides, how the hell would neuroscience show that “pure facts are a myth.” And if it did, what would the status of neuroscience itself be?

The basis of Lakoff’s theory is simple: the mind is the brain. Any connection that forms between your thoughts also forms between your neurons. As you internalize a metaphor, a circuit in your brain “physically constitutes the metaphor.” This parallel development continues as mental complexity increases. “Narratives are brain structures,” he proposes.

I wish I had some idea, any idea, what the hell that means. I know for a fact (though not a pure fact, as those are apparently neurally impossible, whatever a “pure fact” might be) that this paragraph is an accurate description of Lakoff’s work, though, because he and others have been saying that conceptual metaphor theory is, now, the neural theory of metaphor, even though what that theory is exactly no one has said, and no peer reviewed research on the neural theory of metaphor exists as of yet. But hey, if you want to convince people of a theory that has no scientific basis, write a book for non-scientists. And if you’re really egotistical, write a book for non-scientists in which you tell them how they should act to win elections and change people’s opinion about the important issues of the day based on unproven (and in fact entirely speculative) science.

And if there are some CMT folks out there, yes, I know of Narayanan, which I believe Ray Gibbs calls an “existence proof” of the neural theory of metaphor, it’s neither an empirical test nor a peer-reviewed publication. I’m not even sure how it’s relevant to the neural theory of metaphor as a theory a.) of metaphor or b.) of neural organization. Perhaps you can explain it to me.

And finally:

From this, Lakoff’s agenda follows. In place of neoliberalism, he offers neuroliberalism. Since voters’ opinions are neither logical nor self-made, they should be altered, not obeyed. Politicians should “not follow polls but use them to see how they can change public opinion to their moral worldview.” And since persuasion is mechanical, progressives should rely less on facts and more on images and drama, “casting progressives as heroes, and by implication, conservatives as villains.” The key is to “say things not once, but over and over. Brains change when ideas are repeatedly activated.”

I’ve defended Lakoff in the past, arguing that he’s not trying to manipulate people, but convince them, but again, if this is accurate, it sounds like I was wrong.

Anyway, should be a fun book, especially if it’s as nonsensical as the review. I’m going to see if I can get a copy tomorrow. Maybe we can all read it together.


  1. #1 Coturnix
    June 22, 2008

    It’s on my amazon wishlist. I can buy it and we can read it together. I heard him on NPR a couple of weeks ago, but these exerpts you provide are much more extreme than what I heard.

  2. #2 razib
    June 22, 2008

    you can search inside on amazon to see if the excerpts are taken out of context.

  3. #3 Brian Mingus
    June 22, 2008

    I saw Lakoff give a talk on this book at a church (!) in Denver the other week. Nothing about it was mind blowing, but if you only get one thing out of this book it should be his examples. His argument is really that the right has mastered the technique of deriding the word “liberal” and naming things, such as the “War on Terror,” in clever ways that bias the brains that perceive them into operating in that contextual frame. The Q&A was most enlightening, as many local political activists asked him for suggestions for how to name their pet political projects. Don’t call it something bland like the “Housing Act,” he says, call it the “Housing Protection Act.”

    Ultimately your criticism of him before having read the book is unwarranted. If you don’t think you can reduce politics to cognition, and thus neurons, you must be mistaken. That doesn’t mean I agree with even most of what he says. Just that he has some very important points to make that pretty much nobody else is thinking about.

  4. #4 Brandon
    June 22, 2008

    I’m game (although it will probably be a bit longer before I can get the book). Judging from the Amazon excerpt (and the subtitle, and one of the Amazon reviews) there are some claims being made about Enlightenment thought that would need close examination.

  5. #5 Colugo
    June 22, 2008

    I thought that Philosophy In The Flesh was interesting but the treatment of politics was shoddy and simplistic. But this seems to be much worse.

    “Neuroliberalism” appears to be a highly illiberal idea.

    When people are convinced that they truly are on the side of the angels, that they are ideologically inerrant, they are capable of embracing all kinds of tactics.

  6. #6 Paul Murray
    June 23, 2008

    Yes, facts are represented in the mind as neural structure. So what? Facts (and metaphors) can also be represented on a printed page, in a variety of languages – not to mention fonts. Knowing this does not help us, particularly. One cannot hold back the tide by writing those words on a bit of paper.

    As for politics being nothing but opinion, this is typical anthropocentric triumphalism. Politics based on ideas like that usually comes crashing down when people expect politics to deal effectively with real-world problems, such as oil running out, the world heating up, or other peoples’s armies shooting back at you.

  7. #7 Colugo
    June 23, 2008

    There are a lot of bunk psychological theories on the alleged affective-cognitive bases of liberalism and conservatism. Like this:


    “There is plenty of data that shows that Right-wingers are happier, more generous to charities, less likely to commit suicide – and even hug their children more than those on the Left. … Most surprising of all is reputable research showing those on the Left are more interested in money than Right-wingers.”

    Whether these models posit that conservatives or liberals are sicker/meaner/stupider than the other, there seems to be a lot of this kind of junk psychology in the last few years.

  8. #8 Brian Mingus
    June 23, 2008

    Junk psychology? You mean to posit that there are no measurable differences between American liberals and conservatives?

    You must think all psychology is junk, then.

  9. #9 Matt
    June 23, 2008

    I think your critique of Lakoff is accurate from the standpoint that you are viewing him. I generally don’t consider him to be a cognitive scientist. I consider him to be a philosopher that knows about cognitive science.

    So we shouldn’t debunk his theories on the grounds that they are unscientific. In fact, he always draws from peer-reviewed science. He just offers an interpretation of those results. We need people like him, since science is coming to the point where if you offer an interpretation, then you are shunned.

    Only after we have an interpretation can we try to test whether it is correct. (Also, I recently did some 10 blog posts on his book Where Mathematics Comes From starting here . As you can see I do not always praise him).

  10. #10 Derek James
    June 23, 2008

    This just sounds like a retread of Lakoff’s Whose Freedom?, which I did unfortunately read, and the blog entry is right. It’s not-so-vaguely Orwellian. It’s overtly Orwellian. Lakoff basically says that conservatives are better manipulators, and the way to beat them is to become even better manipulators than they are. To this end, he proposes eye-rolling ideas like calling taxes “membership dues”.

    The implicit assumption is that the general public is too stupid to understand that liberal political ideals are just way better than any others, so they need to be tricked into supporting them through the kinds of psychological manipulations that marketers use (repetition, positive associations, rebranding, etc.).

    I found Lakoff’s views elitist, insulting bullshit. The book was written with a wink and a nod to fellow intellectual liberals about how to best corral the stupid sheep into their ideological pen. This new book just sounds like more of the same.

  11. #11 Chris
    June 23, 2008

    Matt, I know that he uses peer reviewed literature in his work, but he uses it selectively (of course, everyone does, but he’s particularly bad about it), and he says things that are simply untrue. It’s not the fact that he’s interpreting that bothers me; it’s the fact that his interpretations bear no resemblance the the literature he’s supposedly interpreting. A great example of this would, of course, be the epilogue to Moral Politics, in which he uses developmental research to argue that liberal views are factually correct! It’s such a stretch that I was embarrased from him.

    In his more basic, theoretical positions (namely, CMT, the neural theory of metaphor, and his resulting framing analysis), his interpretations are either wrong or too vague to evaluate. For example, it’s undoubtedly true that metaphors that we hear over and over again are in some way permanently encoded in our neural structure (even if only through associations). But no one, and I mean absolutely, positively, no one, has the slightest idea how they’re encoded. And this is particularly salient for CMTers like Lakoff, since they don’t even have a model of how they’re encoded, represented, or retrieved, at any level.

    Honestly, at this point, pretty much everything Lakoff writes is either trivially true or nonsense. There is no in between.