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judgeschreber has commented on (1) product.

Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea by George Lakoff
Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea

judgeschreber, October 20, 2006

I think this debate is incredibly petty and embarrassing--it really shows academics at their worst. Lakoff, in my opinion, should never have tried to move into writing about politics, since, as Pinker rightly points out, any former intellectual rigor he observed previously is thrown out the window in order to make ideological points about a field he is no expert in. In this respect he could have taken a lesson from Chomsky--these are two different worlds with different standards of what passes for rigor, and if you're going to step into this other world, make sure you engage with it on its own terms with plenty of concrete examples and an abundance of footnotes. On the other hand, as Lakoff points out, Pinker's attack results from a poor, caricatured understanding of Lakoff's cognitive linguistics.

I much admire Lakoff's early work that effectively demonstrates the mistake in thinking (ala Chomsky) that syntax is independent of semantics (even staunch supporters of Chomsky such as Ray Jackendoff have come around to the position that meaning does in fact matter for language). I like Lakoff's work on metaphor, but my support has somewhat softened, and I now feel, with Pinker, that although metaphor is important, Lakoff does take it a bit overboard.

On the other hand, I find Pinker's evolutionary psychology utterly irresponsible. I agree with Lakoff that it is in many ways a throwback to social darwinism. It is meant to "shock" by confronting many admittedly irrational positions deriving from the attractive power of "the blank slate," yet it refutes these positions by making equally irrational appeals to the attractive power of darwinism.

Not that evolutionary theory and linguistics/psychology cannot mix well, when applied responsibly and rigorously. Many people are doing great things with an evolutionary approach to mind, including some of my personal favorites: philosopher Daniel Dennett at Tufts; the AI people at MIT who were influenced by Marvin MInsky's "Society of Mind" (in case you've seen it, one of those MIT guys is profiled in Errol Morris' film "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control," and he provides a good, rough account of this evolutionary model of cognition); and my new favorite thinker about linguistics and cognition, Michael Tomasello, a researcher on chimpanzee and human infant intelligence who, in his book "The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition," has a very intriguing argument about the attribution of intention to other beings as a crucial step in the evolution of the human mind.

Anyways, that's my take on the whole thing.
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