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- "Lakoff" redirects here. For other uses, see Lakoff (disambiguation).
George P. Lakoff (/ˈleɪˌkɔf/, born 1941) is a professor of linguistics (in particular, cognitive linguistics) at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972. Although some of his research involves questions traditionally pursued by linguists, such as the conditions under which a certain linguistic construction is grammatically viable, he is most famous for his ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human thinking, political behavior and society. He is particularly famous for his concept of the "embodied mind" which he has written about in relation to mathematics. In recent years he has applied his work to the realm of politics, and founded a progressive think tank, the Rockridge Institute.
The reappraisal of metaphor
Lakoff began his career as a student and later a teacher of the theory of transformational grammar developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky. In the late 1960s, however, he joined with other former students to promote generative semantics as an alternative to Chomsky's generative syntax. In an interview he stated:
- "During that period, I was attempting to unify Chomsky's transformational grammar with formal logic. I had helped work out a lot of the early details of Chomsky's theory of grammar. Noam claimed then — and still does, so far as I can tell — that syntax is independent of meaning, context, background knowledge, memory, cognitive processing, communicative intent, and every aspect of the body...In working through the details of his early theory, I found quite a few cases where semantics, context, and other such factors entered into rules governing the syntactic occurrences of phrases and morphemes. I came up with the beginnings of an alternative theory in 1963 and, along with wonderful collaborators like Haj Ross and Jim McCawley, developed it through the sixties."
His differences with Chomsky contributed to fierce, acrimonious debates among linguists that have come to be known as the "linguistics wars."
Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff's work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought. He says "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." Non-metaphorical thought is for Lakoff only possible when we talk about purely physical reality. For Lakoff the greater the level of abstraction the more layers of metaphor are required to express it. People do not notice these metaphors for various reasons. One reason is that some metaphors become 'dead' and we no longer recognise their origin. Another reason is that we just don't see what is going on.
For instance, in intellectual debate the underlying metaphor is usually that argument is war:
- He won the argument
- Your claims are indefensible
- He shot down all my arguments
- His criticisms were right on target
- If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out
For Lakoff, the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors. The application of one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge offers new perceptions and understandings.
Lakoff's theory has major consequences if correct. It points to the complete re-evaluation of the entire Western philosophical and scientific traditions. It has applications throughout all academic disciplines and much of human social interaction. Lakoff has explored some of the implications of the embodied mind thesis in a number of books, most written with coauthors.
Scott Adams' book God's Debris is influenced by Lakoff's idea that metaphors are central to the human thought process.
(Further reading: Milton Erickson, the so-called "father of modern hypnotherapy", who was also a strong advocate of metaphor as a means for communication)
About the embodied mind
When Lakoff claims the mind is "embodied", he is arguing that almost all of human cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on and makes use of such concrete and "low-level" facilities as the sensorimotor system and the emotions. Therefore embodiment is a rejection not only of dualism vis-a-vis mind and matter, but also of claims that human reason can be basically understood without reference to the underlying "implementation details".
Lakoff offers three complementary but distinct sorts of arguments in favor of embodiment. First, using evidence from neuroscience and neural network simulations, he argues that certain concepts, such as color and spatial relation concepts (e.g. "red" or "over"; see also qualia), can be almost entirely understood through the examination of how processes of perception or motor control work.
Second, based on cognitive linguistics' analysis of figurative language, he argues that the reasoning we use for such abstract topics as warfare, economics, or morality is somehow rooted in the reasoning we use for such mundane topics as spatial relationships. (See conceptual metaphor.)
Finally, based on research in cognitive psychology and some investigations in the philosophy of language, he argues that very few of the categories used by humans are actually of the black and white type amenable to analysis in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. On the contrary, most categories are supposed to be much more complicated and messy, just like our bodies.
"We are neural beings," Lakoff states, "Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything - only what our embodied brains permit."
Many scientists share the belief that there are problems with falsifiability and foundation ontologies purporting to describe "what exists", to a sufficient degree of rigor to establish a reasonable method of empirical validation. But Lakoff seems to discard both claims entirely. In particular, in an idiosyncratic claim extending those published in "The Embodied Mind", he asserts that falsifiability itself can never be established by any reasonable method that would not rely ultimately on a shared human bias.
Lakoff is, with coauthors Mark Johnson and Rafael E. Núñez, the primary proponent of the embodied mind thesis. Others who have written about the embodied mind include the physicist David Bohm (see his Thought As A System), John Grinder and Richard Bandler in their neuro-linguistic programming, and Julian Jaynes.
The embodied mind and mathematics
According to Lakoff, even mathematics itself is subjective to the human species and its cultures: thus "any question of math's being inherent in physical reality is moot, since there is no way to know whether or not it is." Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez (2000) argue at length that mathematical and philosophical ideas are best understood in light of the embodied mind. The philosophy of mathematics ought therefore to look to the current scientific understanding of the human body as a foundation ontology, and abandon self-referential attempts to ground the operational components of mathematics in anything other than "meat".
Mathematical reviewers have generally been critical of Lakoff and Núñez, pointing to mathematical errors. (Lakoff claims that these errors have been corrected in subsequent printings.) Their book has yet to elicit much of a reaction from philosophers of mathematics, although the book can be read as making strong claims about how that philosophy should proceed. The small community specializing in the psychology of mathematical learning, to which Núñez belongs, is paying attention.
Lakoff has also claimed that we should remain agnostic about whether math is somehow wrapped up with the very nature of the universe. Early in 2001 Lakoff told the AAAS, "Mathematics may or may not be out there in the world, but there's no way that we scientifically could possibly tell." This claim bothers those who believe there really is a way we could "tell." The falsifiability of this claim is perhaps the central question in the cognitive science of mathematics, a field which attempts to establish a foundation ontology based on the human cognitive and scientific process.
Political significance and involvement
Lakoff's "application of cognitive linguistics to politics, literature, philosophy and mathematics" has led him into territory normally considered basic to political science.
Lakoff has publicly expressed both ideas about the conceptual structures that he views as central to understanding the political process, and some of his particular political views. He almost always discusses the latter in terms of the former.
Moral Politics gives book-length consideration to the conceptual metaphors that Lakoff sees as present in the minds of American "liberals" and "conservatives". The book is a blend of cognitive science and political analysis. Lakoff makes an attempt to keep his personal views confined to one particular section near the book's close.
Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between progressives and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model which he calls the "strict father model" and has a family structured around a strong, dominant "father" (government), and assumes that the "children" (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible "adults" (financially and morally responsible beings). However, the "children" are "adults", and so the "father" should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that progressives place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the "nurturant parent model," based on "nurturant values", where both "mothers" and "fathers" work to keep the essentially good "children" away from "corrupting influences" (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other.
Lakoff further argues that one of the reasons progressives have had difficulty since the 1980s is that they have not been as aware of their own guiding metaphors, and have too often accepted conservative terminology framed in a way to promote the strict father metaphor. Lakoff insists that progressives must cease using terms like "partial birth abortion" and "tax relief" because they are manufactured specifically to allow the possibilities of only certain types of opinions. "Tax relief," for example, implies explicitly that taxes are an unpleasant thing, something someone would want "relief" from. To use the terms of another metaphoric worldview, Lakoff insists, is to unconsciously support it. Progressives must support linguistic think tanks in the same way that conservatives do if they are going to succeed in appealing to those in the country who share their metaphors.
Lakoff has distributed some much briefer political analyses via the Internet. One article distributed this way is "Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf", in which Lakoff argues that the particular conceptual metaphors used by the first Bush administration to justify American involvement in the Gulf ended up either obscuring reality, or putting a spin on the facts that was accomodating to the administration's case for military action.
In recent years, Lakoff has become involved with a progressive think tank, the Rockridge Institute, an involvement which follows in part from his recommendations in Moral Politics. Among his activities with the Institute, which concentrates in part on helping liberal candidates and politicians with re-framing political metaphors, Lakoff has given numerous public lectures and written accounts of his message from Moral Politics. His latest political work, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, self-labeled as "the Essential Guide for Progressives," was published in September 2004 and features a foreword by former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 1980. (Second edition of 2003 published with an extended 'Afterword' by authors.)
- George Lakoff and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor University of Chicago Press, 1989.
- George Lakoff. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind University of Chicago Press, 1987, ISBN 0226468046.
- George Lakoff. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press, 1996. (Moral Politics has been published with two different subtitles. See the article about it for more information.)
- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Philosophy In The Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books, 1999.
- George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez. Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. Basic Books, 2000, ISBN 0465037712.
- George Lakoff. Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.
- George Lakoff. "A Cognitive Scientist Looks at Daubert." American Journal of Public Health, June 2005.
- How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions from George Lakoff DVD format
Books that discuss Lakoff
- Harris, Randy Allen. The Linguistics Wars. Oxford University Press, 1995. ISBN 019509834X. (Focuses mostly on Lakoff's and others' disputes with Chomsky.)
- Haser, Verena, Metaphor, metonymy, and experientialist philosophy: challenging cognitive semantics. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2005. (A critical look at the ideas behind embodiment and conceptual metaphor.)
- Kelleher, William J., Progressive Logic: Framing A Unified Field Theory of Values For Progressives. The Empathic Science Institute, 2005. ISBN 0-9773717-1-9
- McGlone, M.S. (2001). Concepts as metaphors. In S. Glucksberg, Understanding figurative language (pp. 90-107). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Richardt, Susanne, Metaphor in languages for special purposes. The function of conceptual metaphor in written expert language and expert-lay communication in the domains of economics, medicine and computing. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main. 2005. ISBN 3-632-53159-1.
- Cognitive linguistics
- Conceptual metaphor
- Cognitive science of mathematics
- Embodied philosophy
- Language and thought
- Framing (communication theory)
- Code word (figure of speech)
- University of California, Berkeley department of Linguistics page on George Lakoff
- George Lakoff's blog
- Edge bio of Lakoff
- "Metaphor and War" (1991)
- "Metaphor and War, Again" (2003)
- Rockridge Institute
- "Thinking of Jackasses: the grand delusions of the Democratic Party", a critical review by Marc Cooper in Atlantic Monthlybn:জর্জ লেকফ
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