George Lakoff and the linguistics wars

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 — Lakoff traces it back 2,500 years to Plato — 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?’.

2 thoughts on “George Lakoff and the linguistics wars”

  1. I was an undergraduate psychology major at Cal in the early 90s, and I took a class Lakoff taught called “Mind and Language”. The required readings for the class were all written by him of course. No other readings were required, or even suggested.
    One day, about half way through the semester, he made this claim in class that the work he had done with Mark Johnson was the very first work to claim that time, space, and causality were the fundamental categories the mind uses to organize knowledge.
    Now, I was also a philosophy minor, and as any good student of sophia knows, Kant said exactly that in Critique of Pure Reason. And I’m sure that Plato probably said it too. So when he paused for questions, I raised my hand and pointed out that Kant had said just what he was claiming to be proposing for the first time. He seemed caught off guard and hastily responded that it was Mark Johnson who was the philosopher and that he (Lakoff) didn’t know anything about the philosophy of it. I was shocked; how could he claim to not know what one of the single more important premises of Pure Reason was?
    A week or so later, he began presenting his interpretations of Eleanor Rosch’s work on concepts and categories. I happened to be taking that very class from her that same semester. What he was explaining about them did not at all mesh with what I was learning about her ideas, directly from the source. I asked her about it, what he says about her ideas in “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things”, and she flat out said he was misrepresenting her ideas and conclusions to further his own ideas. Later that week in Lakoff’s class, I asked him some questions, explaining what Eleanor Rosch herself said were the meanings of some of the ideas of her he was presenting in class. While I don’t remember exactly what he said in response, he was clearly dodging my questions and failed to give any sort of substantive response. As the semester wore on, he would never call on me if any one else’s hand were up during Q&A periods, and even when I was the only one with my hand up to ask a question, he often ignored me.
    At the end of the semester, we had to write a term paper analyzing some aspects of the use of metaphor in language and how it relates to cognition, but the assignment was set up such that we had to presuppose the truth and validity of his claims to do the assignment. He was clearly sifting through us as a source for ideas to further his own work. I was going to write a critical paper of some of his main claims in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, and use not only Rosch’s own answers to my questions about his ideas to rebut him, but other information I had come across as well. When I took the draft of my term paper to the graduate teaching assistant for the class, she read it over and told me that he was going to be grading the term papers for the class himself, and that even if I had written a dissertation quality paper in Linguistics for the class, I would not earn better than a C in the class because my paper took a position critical of his ideas and claims.
    It was a sad awakening for me to the realities of academic politicking. I wanted a good grade, I couldn’t afford to sabotage my GPA so I redid the paper, and towed the line to get the grade I wanted. I was left with an impression that he was one of the most disingenuous and self serving people I have ever had the misfortune to come across in academia. I have no respect for the man what so ever anymore, and I find I can’t take his ideas seriously, or consider them to have any value or merit, even if they actually might because of my experience with how he taught and conducted his classes. He was one of the most intellectually shady people I have ever met in my entire career.
    Unfortunately, he’s taken what were initially a good set of ideas to come out of an exciting time and place (the late years of the cognitive revolution at Cal Berkeley) and tried to make a career off of them, extending them beyond their useful or rational bounds. Much as Chomsky has in many ways. It’s ironic, he used to rail on and one against Chomsky in that class, and now as far as I can see he’s become exactly what he was bashing and criticizing all those years ago. Sad really.
    PDT, PhD
    Psychology Dept.
    School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts
    University of California, Merced.

  2. Thank you PDT, PhD, for that insightful and honest comment. I read part of one of this man’s books once. I cannot remember who recommended it to me. It was the first time I ever troubled to return a book by U.S. Mail to Amazon, making sure that I received a full refund. The man is a charlatan, peddling rank political trash. It is not difficult to see through him, if you read him, notwithstanding his own high opinion of his mastery of manipulative rhetoric. But it is sad such a fraud should be trotted out before young, manipulable college students as if he were an authority figure. A sign of how low academia’s standards have fallen. He’s no teacher. He’s nothing but a self-promoting huckster of propaganda and spin control “techniques” to political buyers deluded enough to think a university platform amounts to a hill of beans. All it usually amounts to is cheap labor for the “teacher” to exploit in his own self-promotional schemes.

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