Stephen Pinker heaps much-deserved scorn on armchair theorist par excellence George Lakoff in TNR.
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.
Let us begin with the cognitive science. As many of Lakoff’s skeptical colleagues have noted, the ubiquity of metaphor in language does not imply that all thinking is concrete. People cannot use a metaphor to reason with unless they have a deeper grasp of which aspects of the metaphor should be taken seriously and which should be ignored. When reasoning about a relationship as a kind of journey, it is fine to mull over the counterpart to a common destination, or to the bumpy stretches along the way–but someone would be seriously deranged if he wondered whether he had time to pack, or whether the next gas station has clean restrooms. 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.
Also, most metaphors are not processed as metaphors as all. They may have been alive in the minds of the original coiners, who needed some sound to express a new concept (such as “attack” for aggressive criticism). But subsequent speakers may have kicked the ladder away and memorized the idiom by rote. That is why we hear so many dead metaphors such as “coming to a head” (which most people would avoid if they knew that it alludes to the buildup of pus in a pimple), mixed metaphors (“once you open a can of worms, they always come home to roost”), Goldwynisms (“a verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on”), and figurative uses of “literally,” as in Baruch Korff’s defense of Nixon during his Watergate ordeal: “The American press has literally emasculated the president.” Laboratory experiments have confirmed that people don’t think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.
Lakoff replies at the Rockridge Institute site.
But the best thing you’ll find is Chris at Mixing Memory’s analysis of Lakoff’s reply. Chris has been a one-man Lakoff demolition crew over the past couple years, and absolutely brutalizes Lakoff (and he doesn’t even like Pinker).
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.
It’s a long and excellent post, which you should read if you want to get a good sense of Lakoff’s intellectual tactics.
Razib at Gene Expression also has a good reply.