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Daily Archives: August 11, 2008

Who Framed George Lakoff? – ChronicleReview.com

In the so-called “linguistics wars” I find myself most impressed by those who, like Michael Halliday, root their linguistics in anthropology and sociology rather than in neural science or genetics. While I am aware that the old parable of the elephant applies, my principal reason for my preference is pragmatic; as a teaching tool and as a means of critique of actual language in use — “critical literacy” for example — that approach to language study is most useful. It provides the best framework for thinking through who says (and sometimes does) what, to whom, when, where, why and how? 

Lakoff200 Who Framed George Lakoff? is one of the weekend offerings on Arts & Letters Daily. Lakoff [right] is within the camp of linguists I find useful, even if he presents as a “brain-based” linguist. From a teaching perspective, I have found the likes of Chomsky and Pinker fairly useless — I speak of the linguistics, in the first instance, not the political commentary.

Naturally, I also relate to this:

George P. Lakoff  is falling asleep. It is a bright summer afternoon in San Francisco, and Lakoff is nursing a latte at a small table near the entrance of a bustling, sun-dappled cafe. “This is what happens when you are 67,” he explains sheepishly after dozing off midsentence. A stocky man with a wide smile and a well-trimmed white beard, Lakoff doesn’t seem tired so much as beleaguered…

I have occasionally referred to Lakoff before, and his 1995 study Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust has long been on my Links Page.

Here, according to “Who Framed George Lakoff?”, is the gist of where he is now:

…In his new book, Lakoff takes aim at “Enlightenment reason,” the belief that reason is conscious, logical, and unemotional. Harnessing together work from several fields, particularly psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics, he mounts a polemical assault on the notion that people think rationally — which, he argues, is fundamentally at odds with how the brain actually functions.

Approximately 2 percent of the millions of pieces of information the brain absorbs every minute are processed consciously. The remaining 98 percent are handled by the unconscious brain. The mind, in other words, is like a tiny island of conscious reasoning afloat in a vast sea of automatic processes. In that sea, which Lakoff calls “the cognitive unconscious,” most people’s ideas about morality and politics are formed. We are all, in many respects, strangers to ourselves. Lakoff’s book grandly describes what he believes are the revolutionary implications of his findings: “a new understanding of what it means to be a human being; of what morality is and where it comes from; of economics, religion, politics, and nature itself; and even of what science, philosophy, and mathematics really are.” (He singles Chomsky out as “the ultimate figure of the Old Enlightenment.”)

It is the political ramifications of Lakoff’s theory that preoccupy him these days. An unabashed liberal (he insists on the label “progressive”), he says that Republicans have been quick to realize that the way people think calls for placing emotional and moral appeals at the center of campaign strategy. (He suspects that they gleaned their knowledge from marketing, where some of the most innovative work on the science of persuasion is taking place.) Democrats, Lakoff bemoans, have persisted in an old-fashioned assumption that facts, figures, and detailed policy prescriptions win elections. Small wonder that in recent years the cognitive linguist has emerged as one of the most prominent figures demanding that Democrats take heed of the cognitive sciences and abandon their faith in voters’ capacity to reason…

…Lakoff acknowledges that both academic and political cultures are slow to change. But he is optimistic, pointing to the way in which the growth of cognitive psychology has undermined the rational-actor model that long dominated economics. In his own field, Lakoff predicts that “brain-based linguistics” will soon become the new standard — indeed, eclipsing Chomsky.

And despite his setbacks, Lakoff is not giving up on politics. He is still confidant that his ideas can make a difference to Democrats. When he wrote Thinking Points, his handbook for progressive activism, he sent the first copy to Barack Obama. “I don’t know if he read it,” Lakoff says, as a wide grin flashes across his face, “but a number of people have observed that if you look through Thinking Points, it is the Obama campaign.”

See also George Lakoff on Edge.

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