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Lakoff 1, Pinker 0
October 27, 2006 8:09 PM   Subscribe

George Lakoff responds to Steven Pinker’s review of Whose Freedom?. Highlights include charges of deception and incompetence on both sides.
posted by anotherpanacea (27 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

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.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:11 PM on October 27, 2006

Hope this is not a derail but--holy crap, Powells has hundreds of New Republic book reviews online. What a feast!
posted by LarryC at 8:38 PM on October 27, 2006

I'll have to respond after I read Lakoff's response but I have to say, after reading the Pinker review recently I thought he pretty well savaged Lakoff's (silly sounding) book with one clean swipe.

I will say that the bit about Pinker having "a seventeenth-century understanding of the mind" from the first and second paragraph is comically erroneous.

Maybe it's Lakoff 1, Pinker 0, but I seriously doubt it.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:38 PM on October 27, 2006

I've read one book by each, and recommend both authors. Pinker's (uh...I forget which book it was...) was entertaining and Lakoff's (Moral Politics) was mind blowing -- I finally understand the mainstream conservative viewpoint thanks to reading it, something that had mostly been a mystery to me.

So my guess (and who am I? nobody at all!) is that Lakoff has (more of) the right of it here.
posted by grumdrig at 8:45 PM on October 27, 2006

From what I can tell, Pinker thoroughly skewers an imaginary book that has the same title as Lakoff's. In other words, he invents an slick straw man and then annihilates it, and Lakoff is left sputtering and irritated because he's been reduced to a cariciacature. It's an academic flame war.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:02 PM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

I will say that the bit about Pinker having "a seventeenth-century understanding of the mind" from the first and second paragraph is comically erroneous.

I don't know, anyone who could agree with Lawrence Summer's views on the mind and gender can't be too bright. Sorry.
posted by delmoi at 10:34 PM on October 27, 2006

Those duels between the Chomskian and Cognitive linguists never get old!
posted by dopamine at 10:35 PM on October 27, 2006

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is really worth a read if you get the chance. It's a bit disheartening at first, accepting that our minds don't function according to classical set theory and logic--but it's not hocus pocus either, not only is it well documented, but his models are capable of logical description--it's just that, as he says, the embedding is non-trivial and requires a more sophisticated mapping.

Pinkerton's off here--he either doesn't, or doesn't want to understand the argument that Lakoff is making.
posted by cytherea at 11:15 PM on October 27, 2006

For those who do not know the background, Lakoff was a Chomskian (in the 1960s) untill Chomsky decided to allow no interalnal dispute. Since then Chomsky has made a habit of branding any of his students that tries to elaborate his vaguely presented theoris as an enemy and an opportunity to cook up a new theory.

Pinker however seems to be an outsider psycholigist and a prostitue, and has a career as long as he continues to suck up to whatever Chomsky says.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:31 PM on October 27, 2006

A pair of nice reads, but it does not come off as a 1-0 match.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:23 AM on October 28, 2006

Pinker does come off as awfully dishonest there, but then again, whenever clever enough minds quarrel, its easiest for ignorami to cheer for whoever spoke last. I'd read the book if I wasn't already overdosing on US politics (and I live in friggin' northeast Europe).
posted by Anything at 7:31 AM on October 28, 2006

(And with my wankishly obscure plural I speak for myself and the likes of me)
posted by Anything at 7:38 AM on October 28, 2006

Lakoff seems ahead often, as he is talking about areas where he has ideas & Pinker doesn't. But his evolutionary psychology jab is just stupid. So each made an ass of himself on the other's turf.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:08 AM on October 28, 2006

Also discussed here. Can anyone confirm that Pinker is a moderate Democrat?
posted by Kwantsar at 9:22 AM on October 28, 2006

I don't know, anyone who could agree with Lawrence Summer's views on the mind and gender can't be too bright. Sorry.

You've obviously not read Pinker's books themselves or understood the controversy re: Larry Summers. I'm sure you've read about it, but it really helps to not take the media's (or blogosphere's) word on such matters without reading what is actually being said by the parties involved. Start here and here (this second link brings you to an excellent debate at Harvard between Pinker and his colleague Elizabeth Spelke).

This response from a blogging cognitive psychologist illuminates Pinker's position and pretty well demolishes Lakoff's. Also some interesting comments re: this debate here (where the title happens to be Pinker 1, Lakoff 0).
posted by inoculatedcities at 10:32 AM on October 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

Great reads both, but pinker losses any fight automaitcally on account of his hair.

I've never understood why Pinker is "a respected professor at Harvard". Has he ever done original research or had an original thought? All I've ever seen from him his poplular books explaining other people ideas.
posted by afu at 10:51 AM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

inoculatedcities: At least at first glance I found some of the points in your third link a bit questionable, but I'll get back once I've had time to ponder further.
posted by Anything at 11:04 AM on October 28, 2006

But his evolutionary psychology jab is just stupid

I wish their were an effective jab for evolutionary psychology.
posted by srboisvert at 11:25 AM on October 28, 2006

"I don't know, anyone who could agree with Lawrence Summer's views on the mind and gender can't be too bright. Sorry."

Ah, God, I don't know why I ever allow myself to be sucked into this debate.

Frankly, unless you're a metaphysical dualist, anyone that dismisses out-of-hand the possibility that there are innate cognitive differences between the sexes is either colossally stupid or ideologicially brainwashed. In fact, this is true for anyone who doesn't think that it's certain there are innate cognitive differences between the sexes.

What reasonable and informed people will differ upon is both the extent and particulars of those differences. The only reason this has become such a controversial topic is because non-scientists arguing in the civil sphere have entrenched themselves into affiliations with the absolutist, theoretical extremes and then extrapolated from their theories into absurdly particular claims about individual human behavior. Each of those claims becomes a political football and everyone entering the arena of play is socially required to be playing for one of the two teams. No nuance allowed.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:33 PM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

As for the arguments of these two men as they are presented in this exchange, I am unimpressed with both of them. I see an egregious amount of loss-of-context occuring in the arguments of both sides.

I will say that Lakoff reframing advice has been overpraised. It's really just common sense. Pushing it beyond common sense is, at best, gilding the lily, and at worst absurdly false. That's not to dismiss its value as common sense, particularly as aplied to the Democratic Party at this place and time. We desperately needed someone to remind us that fighting a battle on enemy turf when you don't have to is utter stupidity. The GOP has for a good while has held the rhetorical ground on which the argument is taking place. Not because they are have been continually a superior power, but because somehow the Dems at some point seemed to forget it could be any other way. But on quite a few particular topics, it simply is the case that one party or another by virtue of their ideology owns the territory.

The example Pinker mocks—Lakoff's suggestion that Democrats reframe taxation from "an affliction" to "membership fees"—is a good example. Pinker is right to claim that any Dem strategists who would take this particular piece of advice must be insane. No one likes to pay taxes. No one likes to pay membership fees. People want things, they don't want to give them up. Taxation will always be onerous (unless it is hidden).

The only real framing that needs be done in political rhetoric is salesmanship. Sell people what they want and convince them it's a bargain. All of the things the GOP peddles which might, at first blush, appear to be "responsibilities" prove to be shiny geegaws no different than the latest model of riding lawn mower. Thus they don't tell us that fighting wars is a necessary evil that is our patriotic duty, they tell us all about the shiny, happy world that will result from it.

You'll never get people to be happy, or even unresentful, about taxes per se. But you can certainly make them happy about a specific thing they are buying with their taxes. Convince them how wonderful it is and how much of a bargain it is. Sure, feeding the hungry and eliminating the homeless will cost money, but imagine not worrying that your child might grow old to find himself starving and homeless. Imagine if the US eradicated hunger and homelessness. How the rest of the world would envy us. As it happens, I personally don't have at hand a policy that realistically could achieve that and be enacted. But you could convince a hell of a lot more people than you might think that such a thing is both possible and cheap (to them). Just like invading and installing democracy in Iraq would be both possible and cheap.

People want to believe in the things they want. You don't need to do any fancing picking of the most favorable metaphors. Just make what you're selling attractive.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:59 PM on October 28, 2006

Who ever wins these kind of debates? When you really try to pin someone down, both positions tend to converge. The only thing that doesn't change is how incorrect they think their opponent is.

Another interesting phenomenon: the tendency of people on the side of the intellectual debate to believe their side has won after a scuffle. After the Pinker-Spelke debates, half the audience was like, "Damn! Spelke really kicked his ass!" and the other half were going, "Point-Set-Match Pinker! How embarrassing for her."

In both cases, the problem comes down to evidence. We need more of it. Debates, almost by definition, are fought on uncertain ground. Neither party has enough evidence to justify the strengh of their claims, but perhaps it will turn out that one of them has better intuition.
posted by Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson at 2:22 PM on October 28, 2006

I don't necessarily like paying taxes, but frankly, I do feel better about paying them when I do think of them as membership fees. That kind of reframing of the debates is exactly what is needed -- if you take your opponent's frame, you've already given him the upper hand.

Lakoff's work on framing is brilliant, in the "find something that when you point it out is obvious, but be the person to point it out" way. He's done far more to the service of humanity in just getting that out (and in helping people understand the ways in which they are manipulated -- and they are being conciously manipulated) than Pinker ever has.
posted by jb at 2:22 PM on October 28, 2006

This'll be a long and quotacious post, sorry.
Ok, first but not foremost, here's Lakoff:
Pinker represents the research on conceptual metaphor as follows: "Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, shows that all thought is based on unconscious physical metaphors." I have actually argued the opposite
Chris from the Mixing Memory post, regarding what follows that quote:
He then gives several references in which, he claims, he says the exact opposite. I will admit that Pinker has worded this poorly. He hasn't used cognitive linguistic jargon with the phrase "unconscious physical metaphors." I mean, Lakoff's theory says that our concepts are structured by unconscious metaphors that are ultimately grounded in physical experience. How on earth could Pinker have come up with the phrase "unconscious physical metaphors?" If only he'd said the same thing, but phrased it in 21st century non-Cartesian/Chomskyan terminology, Pinker would see that the the unaddressed criticism about irrelevant information misses the mark. This is how Lakoff operates, people. He never, ever addresses the criticisms of his work (either empirical or theoretical), he just dismisses or ignores them. He probably does this because to address those criticisms would mean abandoning conceptual metaphor theory for good as falsified, but since I don't have access to Lakoff's thoughts, I can't say for sure.
Looks like he takes a step toward addressing Lakoff's criticism of Pinker's alleged misrepresentation, but I really can't parse a drop out of that paragraph! Can someone, uh, reframe it for me?

But here's the meat of my beef with the blog post. Chris first quotes Pinker:
Laboratory experiments show that people don't think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.
He then goes on:
Lakoff says, not so, and for the first time, cites actual research by someone other than himself. The problem is, the research he cites doesn't actually say anything about Pinker's claim. Raymond Gibbs' books a.) are out of date and b.) don't really present any empirical work on dead metaphors, and Boroditsky's work (which I've discussed before) a.) doesn't license conclusions about conceptual metaphors, and b.) concerns only one fairly unique and highly abstract domain, time. Actual work on metaphor in general has, in fact, shown that conventional metaphors (often called dead metaphors) are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically, just as Pinker says. For examples of up-to-date research on the topic, check out these two papers [Warning: both are PDF] by Dedre Gentner and Brian Bowdle. In them you'll find experiments showing that over time, metaphors shift from be interpreted through mappings between the two domains (e.g., ARGUMENT and WAR) to categorical statements. In other words, Pinker was right, and Lakoff's just talking out his ass.
a.) Raymond Gibbs out of date? To be honest, I previously had no idea who Raymond Gibbs was, but now I sort of do, because both of Chris's own links refer to him, favorably!

b.) Gibbs has no work on dead metaphors? OK. But, how exactly are dead metaphors relevant to the discussion?

Now how about the actual content in the linked papers? I only looked closely at the first one, but it does seem like a decent article. It doesn't really support Chris's assertion that Pinker was right, and Lakoff's just talking out his ass, though. It's actually way more nuanced than what either Pinker or Lakoff are saying at this point. Pinker, in the paragraph in question, basically creates a straw man where all metaphors are either dead or completely new, and then states that experiments show that people don't imagine the underlying concepts when processing these familiar, dead, metaphors. Lakoff, on the other hand, says in his reply that the "exact opposite" is true, which, at least in the light of the Gentner-Bowdle papers, is not exactly true either.

What the first paper says is that concepts in unfamiliar metaphors are first actively compared, and over time, this process extracts their relevant features to a metaphoric category, under which the target concept (e.g "argument" in "argument is war") is thereafter assigned. Once the metaphor is thusly familiarized, no further comparison is engaged, but the connotations from the original comparison are still there! If I talk about "those robbers from Enron", I don't have to picture CEOs with stockings over their faces threatening me with pieces of rebar, but it still has something to do with people's money being taken from them. This is fundamentally different from the arbitrary nonsense-connotations carried by the dead metaphors Pinker wants you to think about.
posted by Anything at 3:55 PM on October 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that Pinker's view does not account for so-called brainwashing. His anti-blank slate assumptions based on separated twins has even led him to dismiss the notion that parents need “…to carry on a routine to shape the personalities of their children.” (CSPAN lecture, aired on Nov 2, 2002). That's nice, but then it shouldn't matter, right? In practice, parents can and do brainwash their children, and one reason they do is because they are told to, by doctrinaire institutions who know that it works. They weren't just pretending to be good parents, they were obeying ancient dogma.
posted by Brian B. at 5:37 PM on October 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

"It seems to me that Pinker's view does not account for so-called brainwashing. "

And it oughtn't given the fact that both the popular notion of "brainwashing" and its older scientific antecedent are both now known to be quite false.

That leaves the more limited notion of socially or specifically imposition of bias to the point of dogma. But who denies the existence of that?

As to childraising, there are a number of relatively recent studies indicating that parental influence regarding larger generalizations about "good" and "bad" outcomes for children and affiliations with (at least some) particular beliefs is far, far less than we commonly assume, perhaps to the point of irrelevance.

These studies could be quite flawed, of course. And any general conclusions one might draw from them ever more flawed. But I think it's important for us to take a rigorous openminded approach to these sorts of almost entirely heretofore unquestioned social assumptions. In this particular case, too, I see far too many motivations for people to need these commonsensical notions about this to be true for me to not be very suspicious of the dominant social view on this matter.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:48 PM on October 28, 2006

But who denies the existence of that?

Ethereal Bligh, this isn't about least denial, but best explanation. Phrasing it as a popular notion of brainwashing, or a larger generalization of "good and bad" outcomes is either assuming a very narrow social phenomenon, or qualifying the specific results to a generalized theory. It's what makes Pinker's conclusions both historically irrelevant and politically dangerous. Pinker is not only a bachelor, but was raised to become an atheist at age 13. These well-adjusted circumstances are so convenient to his theory that I would even guess that this was the case when compared to a standard cult indoctrination.
posted by Brian B. at 7:49 AM on October 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Arthur, Pinker & Spelke both won that debate! Their goal was demonstrating that scientists actually know stuff about gender issues now. Turns out the easy answer to the great question of gender & science is:
1) Send your daughter to an all girls school
2) Give people time to raise kids without destroying their careers
3) Use more on objective performance assessments
posted by jeffburdges at 9:23 AM on October 30, 2006

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