mikemykel, October 20, 2006 (view all comments by mikemykel)
If I were to be sentenced to life in solitary confinement
Philosophy in the Flesh would be the book I would most like to take with me. I have been carrying it around and rereading it for several years. The last book of Pinker's I read was Blank Slate and in fact it will probably be the last book of Pinker's that I read. I haven't read Whose Freedom yet but I am saving my nickles and dimes.
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judgeschreber, October 20, 2006 (view all comments by judgeschreber)
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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Trollhaven, October 19, 2006 (view all comments by Trollhaven)
I am commenting on Steven Pinker's attack and Lakoff's defense. Clearly these two have a history and like to talk past one another: Lakoff certainly demonstrates that Pinker's caricature of him was invidious and untrue, but Lakoff did not respond well to Pinker's taunt that it won't work simply to make up catchy new phrases for paying taxes.
On substance, however, Lakoff is way ahead, because cognitive linguistics is a real field, whereas evolutionary psychology is this century's Freudianism--a pseudoscience that is very nearly worthless and veers toward religion when adopted by Darwinian fundamentalists.
Pinker's biggest mistake is connecting the modern Republican Party to any respectable thought from past centuries. This isn't a "conservative" administration, whatever definition you adopt. We are living under quasi-fascism, disguised in plain view because we elected Bush twice. Lakoff has much the clearer view of what the Democratic Party is up against.
But Lakoff's smooth dichotomy into "strong father" and "nurturant parent" is too facile--one of Pinker's few barbs with any real sting is his noticing that Lakoff doesn't say "nurturant mother," which would be more symmetrical but open up several cans of worms. One of those cans is this: while no Republican wants to be more nurturing, almost every liberal succumbs from time to time to wanting to be "tough enough." Another way of putting this is to acknowledge that, right now, the Republicans occupy the dead center of the American ethos. The Republicans do not have to spin the metaphors--they are truly closer to the morality of a majority of the voters. With everything of late breaking the Democrats' way, they are still unlikely to emerge with more than a razor-thin majority in Congress, and I suspect money can still be made betting they don't even achieve that. If they do, you can count on a few defectors joining with the lockstep Republicans more than you can expect to see the Democrats putting up a united front. This is because the Republicans really do stand for something--something despicable, but they do stand for it--and Democrats stand for almost nothing. And you can't make something out of nothing by giving it a different label.
Lakoff is proud of nurturant parent morality, but hardly anyone else is, politically at least. So before he can work his metaphorical magic on behalf of the Democratic Party, the Democrats will have to acquire some principles and then some integrity, and as Lady Bracknell would say, it is rather late in the season for that.
Paraphrasing Gandhi, if asked what I think of the Democratic Party, I say I think it would be a good idea.
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"Review A Day"
"There is much to admire in Lakoff's work in linguistics, but Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics....And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds." Steven Pinker, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
by Laura Miller, Salon.com,
"The strength of Whose Freedom? is that it attributes the left's current foundering not just to a failure of strategy but to a failure of self-knowledge...this makes a lot of sense, and it's easy to start imagining ways that pressing issues could be recast according to Lakoff's formula."
by Howard Dean,
"One of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement."
by Former Senator Tom Daschle,
"Because freedom has always been a progressive concept, it is time for progressives to reclaim the word and its meaning in today's context. Mr. Lakoff shows us how."
Since September 11, 2001, the Bush administration has relentlessly invoked the word "freedom." Al-Qaeda attacked us because "they hate our freedom." The U.S. can strike preemptively because "freedom is on the march." Social security should be privatized in order to protect individual freedoms. The 2005 presidential inaugural speech was a kind of crescendo: the words "freedom," "free," and "liberty," were used forty-nine times in President Bush's twenty-minute speech.
In Whose Freedom?, Lakoff surveys the political landscape and offers an essential map of the Republican battle plan that has captured the hearts and minds of Americans--and shows how progressives can fight to reinvigorate this most beloved of American political ideas.
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