14 October 2006

George Lakoff and the Rhetoric of Scientificity

I recently had a discussion with someone who is a tremendous fan of the work of George Lakoff, and who went on and on about how Lakoff's work is revolutionary, and how finally we have a paradigm that allows us to escape from the Cartesian paradigm. I found this discussion extremely irritating. I've read a few of Lakoff's books (Metaphors to Live By, Philosophy in the Flesh, and Moral Politics), and found that the first two books read like the worst type of Freudian symbolism (you know the type, that symbolism that traces every element of a dream back to the body such that the umbrella must be a penis and a doorway or fireplace must be a vagina), while the third book read like an extremely crude and vulgar form of cultural studies. On the one hand, I'm irritated by the idea that these ideas are somehow new. Rhetoricians have claimed, for thousands of years, that pathos is central to effective persuasion. We really needed cognitive scientists to reveal the importance of affect, metaphor, and myth? But there's also nothing new in the idea of embodied thought: These claims were already advanced by Hobbes, Hume, Nietzsche, Freud (perhaps even Hegel), Heidegger, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty.

But what irritates me most of all is how the signifiers "science" and "cognitive science" are used by Lakoff. Here I think we're dealing with an enthymeme. First of all, I don't think we find anything particularly scientific in Lakoff's interpretations (incidentally, Lakoff takes himself to be undermining the tradition of literalism, yet ironically doesn't seem to notice that he treats the lived body as the literal sense or meaning of metaphorical expressions). However, Lakoff wants to argue that his interpretations do not have the status of interpretations, but are founded in cognitive science and neurology. In evoking these signifiers Lakoff wishes to set up a friend/enemy, us/them, binary organized around science/non-science. Consequently, if someone disagrees with Lakoff's cultural interpretations, that person is non-scientific (i.e., an advocate of false beliefs) and must therefore a) reject the thesis that mind is inseparable from body, and b) must therefore be a Cartesian rationalist. Poppycock!

Perhaps this is also why I find reading figures like Althusser so irritating. I'm generally suspicious of those who make ethical, political, and cultural claims based on what they call science. Gould presents an excellent analysis of where this can lead in The Mismeasure of Man.

Has anyone else experienced similar or related frustration with the work of Lakoff?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


October 14, 2006 2:38 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I'm unsure as to why you posted a link to your blog here as it doesn't appear to have much to do with the topic of this post or the issues discussed on this blog. Care to say a bit more?

October 14, 2006 5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But there's also nothing new in the idea of embodied thought: These claims were already advanced by Hobbes, Hume, Nietzsche, Freud (perhaps even Hegel), Heidegger, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty."

This kind of objection received an interesting reply from Thomas Metzinger. When a critic mentioned that claims like his own had already been made by older thinkers, he made an important distinction: "Yes, I agree that philosophers like Hume and even literary authors like Friedrich Nietzsche have made claims with regard to the self that superficially resemble my own. The question, however, is not so much what their claims were, but which arguments they used."

Dennett has shown a fondness for Hobbes and Hume and Nietzsche that fits nicely into this conception of the history of philosophy as a "history of arguments".

I know nothing whatsoever about Lakoff, however.

October 15, 2006 2:16 AM  
Anonymous Mark Crosby said...

Here's Robert Jensen's Aug. 14, 2006 COUNTERPUNCH article, "The Limits of Lakoff's Politics: Outside the Frame"

The MIXING MEMORY blog was decidedly downbeat on Lakoff, from a "symbolicist" perspective, but the author claims Lakoff is "dishonest" for talking about "Pinker's 500 year old [Cartesian] position". Rather, Lakoff is saying that computationalism / symbolicism still rests on fallacies inherited from Cartesian rationalism.

Look at how Chris twists what Lakoff is saying ("the process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation using brain mechanisms") by retorting: "In cognitive science, 'algorithmic symbol manipulation' is thought to be a form of 'neural computation using brain mechanisms'". So? Lakoff's point is that "neural computation using brain mechanisms" is not reducible to "algorithmic symbol manipulation".

Still, Lakoff does seem to be getting pretty sloppy, if not senile, in his old age (playing with Women, Fire and Dangerous Things ;)

Mark (spent the weekend burried in EXPRESSIONISM IN PHILOSOPHY: SPINOZA - now there's a theory of embodied cognition ;)

October 16, 2006 8:06 AM  

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