Lakoff 1, Pinker 0

George Lakoff responds to Steven Pinker’s review of Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. Highlights include shocking charges of deception or incompetence on both sides. This is the only paragraph of vitriol-free prose I could find in the review, and since it’s mostly summary I’ll include it here:

Lakoff’s theory is aimed at explaining a genuine puzzle: why the various positions clustering in left-wing and right-wing ideologies are found together. If someone is in favor of laissez-faire economics, it’s a good bet the person will also favor judicial restraint, tough criminal punishment, and a strong military, and be opposed to expansive welfare programs, sexual permissiveness, and shocking art. Conversely, if someone is an environmental activist, it is likely that he or she will favor abortion rights, homosexual marriage, and soak-the-rich taxes. At first glance these positions would seem to have nothing in common. Lakoff argues that the two clusters fall out of the competing metaphors for the family, with the strict father demanding personal responsibility of his wayward children and punishing them when they misbehave, and the nurturant parent showing empathy and emphasizing interdependence.

Of course, Pinker goes on to claim that Lakoff’s model of these clusters is prejudiced and simplistic… which is of course the point. I find the ‘nurturant parent’ a little absurd, myself, but as a metaphorical frame it does explain quite a lot. But Pinker goes on to supply warmed-over arguments fromm Political Philosophy 101, which contrast corruption with perfectibility and limited sight with utopian vision. These are increasingly irrelevant to the neoconservative movement, where utopian vision is decried domestically, but celebrated as good foreign policy, and humans are fallible and greedy unless they happen to claim to be born-again Christians. Take the tragic example of Iraq, for instance, which suffers under the same social engineering and lack of regulation and policing that conservatives claim cannot work here at home.

More interesting are the various academic arguments about cognitive linguistics. From these two articles, you’d think there was no disagreement between the two at all, except that Pinker subscribes to some market-driven version of social Darwinism. In his reply, Lakoff asserts that each of Pinker’s critiques are fully considered by his theory, and that often they are nearly direct quotes. He goes on to ask:

What is one to make of Pinker’s essay? Why would he repeatedly attribute to me the opposite of what I say? I can think of two explanations. One is that he is threatened and is being nasty and underhanded — trying to survive by gaining competitive advantage any way he can. The other is that he is thinking in terms of old frames that do not permit him to understand new ideas and facts that do not fit his frames. Since he can only understand what I am saying in terms of his old frames, he can only make sense of what I am saying as being nonsense — the opposite of what I actually say. That is, since the facts I cite don’t fit his frames, his frames stay and the facts are adjusted to fit them. I don’t know Pinker well enough to know which is true, or whether there is some third explanation.

It’s a rousing example of public intellectuals debating in the public sphere. And it’s fun. Check it out.





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