Friday, October 20, 2006

Two Heavyweights Go Toe-to-Toe on Linguistics, Metaphorical Thought, and Politics

When no less an authority than Steven Pinker reviews your book and says this:
There is much to admire in Lakoff's work in linguistics, but Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author's own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject. And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds.
Well, you've pretty much had your ass handed to you on a plate. By the way, that last sentence was a metaphor, and metaphors and metaphorical thinking are the topic of George Lakoff's theories, and by extenstion, his newest book, Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea.

Let's backtrack a little. Here is Pinker's brief summary of Lakoff's work in linguistics, which many think is the cutting edge in the field:
Lakoff's theory begins with his analysis of metaphor in everyday language, first presented in 1980 in a brilliant little book written with Mark Johnson called Metaphors We Live By. When we say "I shot down his argument," or "He couldn't defend his position," or "She attacked my theory," we are alluding to an unstated metaphor that argument is war. Similarly, to say "Our marriage is at a crossroads," or "We've come a long way together," or "He decided to bail out of the relationship" is to assume metaphorically that love is a journey. These metaphors are never stated in so many words, but they saturate our language and spin off variations that people easily understand (such as "We need to step on the brakes"). In each case, people must grasp a deep equivalence between the abstract idea and the concrete experience. Lakoff insists, not unreasonably, that this is an important clue to our cognitive makeup.
But this isn't the half of it. Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, shows that all thought is based on unconscious physical metaphors, with beliefs determined by the metaphors in which ideas are framed. Cognitive science has also shown that thinking depends on emotion, and that a person's rationality is bounded by limitations of attention and memory. Together these discoveries undermine, in Lakoff's view, the Western ideal of conscious, universal, and dispassionate reason based on logic, facts, and a fit to reality. Philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge and ethics, it is a succession of metaphors: Descartes's philosophy is based on the metaphor "knowing is seeing," Locke's on "the mind is a container," Kant's on "morality is a strict father." And political ideologies, too, cannot be understood in terms of assumptions or values, but only as rival versions of the metaphor "society is a family." The political right likens society to a family ruled by authoritarian parenting, whereas the political left prefers a family cared for with nurturant parenting.
In recent years, Lakoff has been courted by leaders in the Democratic party, including Tom Daschle and Robert Reich, to help them with how they present their agenda. The new book, on freedom, is part of his agenda in promoting a progressive politics.

Pinker takes him to task for simplistic thinking in the political realm, while never really dismissing any of his more serious linguistic theory (which seems to be in short supply in the new book). Really, I'd like to hear these guys talk about linguistics all day and leave the political crap to the politicians. But Lakoff thinks that politics is the new frontier of linguistics, and that we have to try to change the politics we are living with by understanding the way people make meaning.

As luck would have it, Lakoff responded to Pinker's review in the New Republic. He begins his rebuttal with this:
For a quarter of a century, Steven Pinker and I have been on opposite sides of major intellectual and scientific divide concerning the nature of language and the mind. Until this review, the divide was confined to the academic world. But, recently, the issue of the nature of mind and language has come into politics in a big way. We can no longer conduct twenty-first-century politics with a seventeenth-century understanding of the mind. The political issues in this country and the world are just too important.
Pinker, a respected professor at Harvard, has been the most articulate spokesman for the old theory. In language, it is Noam Chomsky's claim that language consists in (as Pinker puts it) "an autonomous module of syntactic rules." What this means is that language is 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. 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 we learn more.
Yeah, baby!
Okay, I'm a sad little geek who enjoys this stuff. Be that as it may, it's so very cool to see two serious thinkers go toe-to-toe (another metaphor) on a subject that our children will be studying when they go to college (assuming there are still institutes of higher learning in 20 years).

When Lakoff begins to talk about why this stuff matters in the political world, he starts sounding like someone who would be at home with integral politics:
These questions matter in progressive politics, because many progressives were brought up with the old seventeenth-century view of reason that implies that, if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion — since reason is universal. We know from recent elections that this is just false. "Old-fashioned ... universal disembodied reason" also claims that everyone reasons the same way and that differences in worldview don't matter. But anybody tuning in to contemporary talk shows will notice that not everybody reasons the same way and that worldview does matter.
Indeed. Don Beck -- and Clare Graves before him -- has been saying this for years.

However, Pinker's greatest assault, to which Lakoff doesn't directly respond, involves the distinctions drawn between liberals and conservatives:
Probably not since The Greening of America has there been a manifesto with as much faith that the country's problems can be solved by the purity of the moral vision of the 1960s. Whose Freedom? shows no trace of the empirical lessons of the past three decades, such as the economic and humanitarian disaster of massively planned economies, or the impending failure of social insurance programs that ignore demographic arithmetic. Lakoff is contemptuous of the idea that social policy requires thinking in terms of trade-offs. His policy on terrorism is that "we do not defend our freedoms by giving up our freedoms." His response to pollution is to endorse the statement that "you are not morally free to pollute." One doesn't have to be a Republican to see this as jejune nonsense. Most of us are happy to give up our freedom to carry box cutters on airplanes, and as the progressive economist Robert Frank has put it (alluding to the costs of cleanups), "there is an optimal amount of pollution in the environment, just as there is an optimal amount of dirt in your house."
What about the conservative conception of freedom? Here Snidely Whiplash pauses long enough from beating his children to explain it to us. As transmitted by Lakoff, the conservative conception includes "the freedom to hunt -- regardless of whether I am hunting an endangered species." It acknowledges the need for "a free press, because business depends on many kinds of accurate information." Religious freedom implies "the freedom ... to put the Ten Commandments in every courthouse." Conservatives get their morality from strict obedience to their Protestant ministers, and this morality includes the belief that "pursuing self-interest is being moral," that abortion should be illegal because a woman pregnant out of wedlock has acted immorally and should be punished by having to bear the child, and that everyone "who is poor just hasn't had the discipline to use the free market to become prosperous," including "people impoverished by disaster, who, if they had been disciplined enough, would be okay and who have only themselves to blame if they're not."
The problem is that the misrepresentations are harmful both intellectually and tactically, and will backfire with all of this book's potential audiences. Any of Lakoff's allies on the left who think that their opponents are the imbeciles whom he describes will have their clocks cleaned in their first debate with a Young Republican. Lakoff's book will be red meat for his foes on the right, who can hold up his distortions as proof of liberals' insularity and incomprehension. And the people in the center, the ones he really wants to reach, will be turned off by his relentless self-congratulation, his unconcealed condescension, and his shameless caricaturing of beliefs with which they might have a modicum of sympathy.
Pinker may or may not be a conservative -- although he slams the Bush administration -- but his criticisms here are apt. This is bad politics if it is truly what Lakoff is advocating. No wonder the Dems always seem to screw things up.
On the other hand, Lakoff stays mostly in the realm of linguistics and theory, and defends his book in some detail.
Having read both the review and the rebuttal (and I encourage you to do so, too), I find Pinker sometimes abrassive and Lakoff ocassionally simplistic -- but they're both way smarter than me. Truthfully, I think each position is true but partial. How is that for political speak?
I like Lakoff's idea of frames -- it makes sense in an integral model kind of way. But Pinker is a recognized genius in linguistics, and I have learned a lot from his books over the years. I look forward to these two guys going at it over the next 20 or 30 years. It's discussions like these that move our understanding forward -- I just wish they'd refrain from the name-calling.


MD said...

I know nothing about Pinker, and the only thing I know about Lakoff is that my composition teacher, W.A. Mathieu recommended his book, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. My teacher's own treatise seems sympathetic in general terms with Lakoff's mission to connect so-called abstract principles to the body. Mathieu certainly does that sort of thing to connect abstract musical principles to the body, masterfully so.

Happen to be familiar with this Lakoff book? Just curious.


william harryman said...

Hey MD,

I'm not familiar with the Lakoff book, nor any of his others, but I want to read some of the more purely linguistic stuff. I've been reading Pinker for years, but I had never even heard of Lakoff until stumbling upon the Pinker review.

I too am sympathetic to the idea of connecting metaphoric thinking with somatic experience -- in fact, many years ago, I read a book that made that same connection with myth.

Pinker is firmly in the Chomsky tradition as far as his linguistic work, although I think he has expanded on Chomsky in many ways. The two best books -- to me -- are The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works. I don't always agree with Pinker (especially in How the Mind Works), but I enjoy reading him.


william harryman said...

Oh, forgot to mention that I enjoyed Words and Rules, a more mainstream, popular book on language and linguistics by Pinker.


Unknown said...

I would prefer that politicians continue to speak in 17th Century terms, appealing to "univeral disembodied reason." That won't happen, though, because Pandora's Box has been openned.

So, what do we get instead? Political tribalism where people have a fixed allegiance to the flavor of politics they've been indoctrinated in. I can't see that this is healthy. Why, it sounds a lot like what we have right now.

william harryman said...


I think Lakoff is more concerned -- really -- about identifiying and understanding the mechanisms at work. At heart, he is a linguist. But the Dems need to find a way to rebutt the talking heads on the right, so they're reaching out to pomo linguistic theory -- makes sense. But when it gets stupid, as Pinker seems to think it does, it's always fun to watch him slap it down. I'd never want Pinker to dislike me or my work.