Mixing Memory

Well, I’ve got Lakoff’s new book, The Political Mind, and I’ve read the first few chapters, so I figured I’d start sharing my thoughts about them. For now, I’ll do it on a chapter by chapter basis, which makes sense, because the chapters are pretty disjointed and, at least after the first few, it’s hard to really say anything general about the book. Really, the sections within the chapters are really disjointed as well, so even chapter-by-chapter reviewing is a little tenuous, but I imagine reviewing each little section would be tedious in the extreme. I guess after a couple posts, we’ll see how this works out and make changes if needed.

Introduction

So, the intro. I have to start by saying that the introduction is really sloppy, repetitive, and if I were a betting man, I’d say it was hastily written after the rest of the book. But it does state the thesis of the book clearly (over and over). That thesis can be summarized as “Old Enlightenment Mind” vs. “New Enlightenment Mind,” or as Will Smith might put it, “Old and Busted” vs. “New Hotness.” Lakoff argues… well, not so much argues as states, over and over again (did I mention it’s repetitive?), that

Most of us have inherited a theory of mind dating back at least to the Enlightenment, namely, that reason is conscious, literal, logical, unemotional, disembodied, universal, and functions to serve our interests. (p. 3)

Now, I’m not qualified to speak to whether this represents actual Enlightenment thought about the mind. I’m pretty sure it’s not entirely accurate, but Lakoff’s mostly right in that, at least in the brain sciences (I don’t know about the general public), this was the legacy of the Enlightenment up until the 1970s or 80s.

By contrast, under the new view of mind which Lakoff claims cognitive science has given us (a claim that’s at least partially true), most thought is unconscious, metaphorical (that parts not so true), emotional, embodied (that may or may not be true, depending on what he means, and since it’s Lakoff, we can be certain he means something that’s largely untrue), situational, etc. In other words, the new view is the exact opposite of the old view.

The book, then, is about the implications of these two views on politics. As he puts it, “We have to consider the mind as a factor–or actor–in politics” (p. 4). The old view of the mind is misleading, and lets conservatives win, while the new view of the mind, if taken advantage of, will provide for a progressive utopia. Or something like that. And how do we bring about this progressive era? Through utilizing our new knowledge of the mind in a “campaign to change brains.”

Now, I find the idea of a “campaign to change brains” a little frightening, with good reason I think. Contrast the following two statements from Lakoff:

Deft politicians (as well savvy marketers) take advantage of our ignorance of our own minds to appeal to the subconscious level. Meanwhile, honest and ethical political leaders, journalists, and social activists, usually unaware of the hidden workings of the mind, fail to use what is known about the mind in service of morality in truth. (p. 10)

In short, the bad guys are manipulating us by changing our brains using knowledge (perhaps implicit) of the new view of the mind, while the honest and the ethical among us are not. A couple of pages later, he writes:

The very idea of ‘changing brains’ sounds a little sinister to progressives–a kind of Frankenstein image comes to mind. I sounds Machiavellian [Ed. "Machiavellian"? Don't you mean Orwellian?] to liberals, like what the Republicans do. But ‘changing minds’ in any deep way always requires changing brains. Once you understand a bit more about how the brais work, you will understand that politics is very much about changing brains–and that it can be highly moral and not the least bit sinister or underhanded. (p. 12)

So in this passage, he says it may seem like the Republicans do it, but it’s not so bad, while in the previously quoted paragraph, he’s told us it’s what the bad guys — and by bad guys, he means the Republicans, of course — do, while the moral among us don’t. This seems at least somewhat inconsistent to me, and as a result, his short and half-hearted attempt to convince us that the campaign to change brains is just a regular ol’ campaign to change people’s minds, and isn’t some nefarious scheme to manipulate people into thinking like Lakoff (or other progressives), doesn’t quite work. Particularly since the whole point of the introduction is that changing people’s minds through facts and reasons doesn’t work.

The rest of the introduction is filled with foreshadowing of what’s to come, along with plenty of signs that it’s going to be sloppy on the science. For example, he repeatedly (I forget, did I mention the first chapter is repetitive?) states that 98% of our thought is unconscious. Now, I’m fond of saying 95% of our thought is unconscious, but at least I’m willing to admit that I pulled that number out of my… unconscious. Lakoff, on the other hand, provides us with an actual cite for this number: a book by a journalist which quotes a neuroscientist using the 98% figure without citing evidence it. Lakoff himself admits that this number is a basically guess, but then uses it over and over again anyway. That’s just not a good sign (foreshadowing of my own: the science doesn’t get much better).

That’s the intro, then. It’s by and large worthless, and if you do buy the book, I’d recommend skipping it and moving on to Anna Nicole Smith (that’ll make sense soon).

Comments

  1. #1 Laird Wilcox
    July 1, 2008

    I read Lakoff’s book and had the feeling that he was really on to something important with framing theory but that he was only concerned with it’s exploitation by the political right when, in fact, it’s equally exploited by the political left as well. I would be more comfortable with a book explaining the manipulative and distorting potential of framing as a psychological device no matter who expoiits it rather than a primer on how to use this form of manipultion and distortion in the service of liberal ideas or to put it another way, it’s not wrong when “we” do it.

  2. #2 Clark
    July 1, 2008

    Whenever I hear Lakoff on all this I always wonder, if his version of framing is all that is needed what is the point of democracy? Isn’t he advocating sophistry of a particularly sophisticated form? Shouldn’t we see that as scary and quite opposed to freedom?

    I certainly am frequently cynical about the ability of voters to vote about important issues or even become reasonably informed on issues. But I’d feel much better were he writing about how to stop the ability to manipulate the masses rather than just advocating manipulating the masses the way he wants. He seems much more like a cognitive science version of Machiavelli than anything.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    July 2, 2008

    Every time I tried to read something by or about Lakoff, a buzzer would go off deep within my mind, and I’d get a persistently nagging feeling: “That doesn’t follow.”

    Lakoff, on the other hand, provides us with an actual cite for this number: a book by a journalist which quotes a neuroscientist using the 98% figure without citing evidence [for] it.

    Lakoff: a Brizendine for politics.