George Lakoff is famous for being one of the founding fathers of cognitive linguistics, for battling Noam Chomsky, and for arguing that using the right metaphors is the key to winning a political debate.
He’s profiled in an article for the Chronical Review which serves as a fantastic introduction to the man, his work and his controversial foray into politics.
Lakoff is particularly interesting because he advised the US Democratic party on the use of language and in ‘framing’ debates – meaning they are described with metaphors that automatically conjure up positive ideas and concepts that are favourable to the policy under discussion.
Whether you share Lakoff’s politics or not, the story of how he became prized by the party and then embroiled in a backlash over whether this was just gloss and glitter rather than anything of political substance is interesting.
The roots of the cognitive revolution in the social sciences are numerous and wide-ranging, but Lakoff traces his own story to Berkeley in 1975, when he attended a series of lectures that prompted him to embrace a theory of the mind that is fully embodied. Lakoff came to believe that reason is shaped by the sensory-motor system of the brain and the body. That idea ran counter to the longstanding belief ‚Äî Lakoff traces it back 2,500 years to Plato ‚Äî that reason is disembodied and that one can make a meaningful distinction between mind and body.
One of the most influential lectures Lakoff heard that summer was delivered by Charles J. Fillmore, now an emeritus professor of linguistics at the university, who was developing the idea of “frame semantics” ‚Äî the theory that words automatically bring to mind bundles of ideas, narratives, emotions, and images. He called those related concepts “frames,” and he posited that they are strengthened when certain words and phrases are repeated. That suggested that language arises from neural circuitry linking many distinct areas of the brain. In other words, language can’t be studied independently of the brain and body. Lakoff concluded that linguistics must take into account cognitive science.
The field of cognitive linguistics was born, and Lakoff became one of its most prominent champions. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that he began thinking through some of the political implications of framing. Startled by the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, Lakoff set about looking for conceptual coherence in what he saw as the seemingly arbitrary positions that defined modern conservatism. What thread connected a pro-life stance with opposition to many social programs, or a hostility toward taxes with support of the death penalty? Lakoff concluded that conservatives and liberals are divided by distinct worldviews based on the metaphor of the nation as a family.
The fact that throughout Lakoff was trying to apply the cognitive science of language to a practical problem makes for an interesting tension between science, speculation and ambition.
Link to article ‘Who Framed George Lakoff?’.