Sunday, September 03, 2006

What's to Hate about George Lakoff

While I have not entirely made up my mind on the subject of whether basic grammar knowledge is innate rather than acquired, I tend to find nativist arguments on other subjects pretty convincing. In particular, it's difficult to imagine how knowledge of mathematics, causation, space or time could be learned. Though I am certainly open to the possibility of an explanation, I am not actively expecting to hear one any time soon.

With this in mind, George Lakoff's book Where Mathematics Comes From would seem to be a good thing for me to read. And indeed, I have recently started it.

Since I will no doubt be reviewing it on this blog shortly, I thought it worth laying my cards on the table about George Lakoff and his ideas.

Lakoff is an IU alumnus. He got his PhD here sometime in the 60s and went on to a nice career at Berkeley. My first semester here, he was invited to speak as part of the distinguished alumni series, and I both saw him talk and attended an informal meeting with him put on by the department.

I formed what you might call a negative impression.

First of all, he has a tendency to avoid questions that pose difficulties for his theories. During his talk, which largely centered on how understanding of metaphor can explain political beliefs (though that wasn't the subject given by the abstract), he mentioned a belief that the reason Classical Liberalism (of course, he called it "conservatism" - but what he clearly meant was small-government minarchism of the kind that I support) was taken seriously for so long is because of the masculine metaphorical force in human history. Clearly he meant something along the lines of Joseph Campbell, but he decided to call it "metaphor" - to make it seem like a novel insight, one presumes. If humanity would think in terms of more feminine/maternal metaphors, he said, then support for welfare-state policies would be stronger. Well, maybe - though I prefer to believe that rational women are just as capable of seeing the merit of Classical Liberalism as are men, though I'm admittedly biased here. But it does sort of beg the question: given that over half of the human population is female and that nearly everyone has postiive memories of their childhood time with their mothers, how is it that politics has managed to get the metaphor so wrong? I asked Lakoff this question in the Q&A session, and he dodged it. Though I can't obviously quote verbatim from memory, the answer was something like "well, of course the masculine force exists too." Yes, George, we know that, thank you. The relevant points are still not addressed: namely how did it become dominant and what is the basis for your apparent preference for the feminine "metaphor" (abusing the term in his manner) over the masculine one?

I don't generally appreciate having my questions brushed off - a preference I suspect I share with the overwhelming majority of humanity.

Second of all, his belief in the efficacy of his worldview is downright smug. There is a professor in our department who has a child with Asperger's Syndrome. It goes without saying that this is a matter of some emotional sensitivity to the family. Perhaps one should blame the professor in question entirely for bringing up the subject. Why he did, I don't personally understand, but in any case, this professor asked Lakoff at the informal departmental brunch what he thought of it. Lakoff replied by suggesting that the professor in question have his son sit in front of a mirror.

For cryin' out loud!!!

The professor has had professionals dealing with this and has himself been dealing with this problem for some time. Additionally, his son has no doubt had the experience of standing before a mirror. it is implausible in the extreme that George Lakoff can simply apply his high-powered Theory of Everything in a matter of 30 seconds and point the way to the Emerald City!!! But what gets me is the presumption. Does Lakoff honestly believe that his one insight into the role of metaphor in language has this kind of curative power over mental disorder? Please! I don't think I've seen a more gratuitous display of an overactive ego in my life.

Finally, though (and the only point that is actually relevant to my upcomming review) - I am disinclined to believe in his theories on intellectual grounds. Lakoff strikes me as being something of a Skinnerian reductionist. He so wants to believe that metaphor can bridge the cognitive-empirical gap that I believe he has started stretching the term to the point where it loses meaning. If his talk on politics is any indication, "metaphor" will be taken explain any and all synthetic or analytic cognitive process(es) regardless of the degree of their underlying similarity. Postulation of inborn cognitive structures outside of analogy will be avoided to any degree possible. Naturally, questions will remain unanswered about how one compares one "thing" to another. We probably won't even get an explanation of what a "thing" is. And thrown in for good measure will be the tired assumption that any non-reductionist approaches are in some way "magic."

Those are my biases. We will see if he is able to overcome them. The book is highly regarded by people I respect, so the possibility that I have formed unfortunate and inaccurate impressions of him is far from remote.


At 7:21 PM, Blogger noahpoah said...

At the 'have him look in a mirror' bagel breakfast, Lakoff also said that phonology is mirror neurons.

That's also stupid.

At 8:44 PM, Anonymous sadly said...

Lakoff doesn't even approach a valid level of analytic thought, let alone philosophy. His books are unreadably trashy, his assumption that his "insight" was going to revolutionize anything seriously in the highest intellectual fields is as much a symptom of a gloating ego as what unhelpful garbage he has churned out on politics and in the pop media. I may refute his premises elsewhere in detail for the misguided, but I cannot claim to relish such an effort.


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