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George Lakoff
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George Lakoff

George P. Lakoff is a professor of linguistics (in particular, cognitive linguistics) at the University of California, Berkeley. Although some of his research involves questions traditionally pursued by linguists, such as the conditions under which a certain linguistic constriction is grammatically viable, he is most famous for his ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human thinking and society, as well as unorthodox views of the scientific process, and its central position in the culture of developed countries as an assumed neutral point of view.. He is particularly famous for his concept the "embodied mind".

Table of contents
1 The reappraisal of metaphor
2 About the embodied mind
3 Controversial extensions to the embodied mind thesis
4 Lakoff on mathematics
5 Political significance and involvement
6 Comparison to other thinkers/schools
7 Published books
8 See also
9 External links

The reappraisal of metaphor

Lakoff's original thesis on conceptual metaphor was expressed in his book with Mark Johnson entitled Metaphors We Live By in 1980.

Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff's work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought. He says "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." Non-metaphorical thought is for Lakoff only possible when we talk about purely physical reality. For Lakoff the greater the level of abstraction the more layers of metaphor are required to express it. People do not notice these metaphors for various reasons. One reason is that some metaphors become 'dead' and we no longer recognise their origin. Another reason is that we just don't see what is going on.

For instance, in intellectual debate the underlying metaphor is usually that argument is war:

For Lakoff, the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors. The application of one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge, thus offering new perceptions and understandings.

Lakoff's theory has major consequences if correct. It points to the complete re-evalation of the entire Western philosophical and scientific traditions. It has applications throughtout all academic disciplines and indeed within all society. Lakoff has sought to explore the full consequences of this view in his later works.

About the embodied mind

When Lakoff claims the mind is "embodied", he is arguing that almost all of human cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on and makes use of such concrete and "low-level" facilities as the sensorimotor system and the emotions. Therefore embodiment is a rejection not only of dualism vis-a-vis mind and matter, but also of claims that human reason can be basically understood without reference to the underlying "implementation details". (Thus Lakoff would strongly reject a number of formulations of the Strong AI position.)

Lakoff is, with Rafael E. Nez, the primary proponent of the embodied mind thesis.

Lakoff offers three complementary but distinct sorts of arguments in favor of embodiment. First, using evidence from neuroscience and neural network simulations, he argues that certain concepts, such as color and spatial relation concepts (e.g. "red" or "over"), can be almost entirely understood through the examination of how processes of perception or motor control work.

Second, based on cognitive linguistics' analysis of figurative language, he argues that the reasoning we use for such abstract topics as warfare, economics, or morality is somehow rooted in the reasoning we use for such mundane topics as spatial relationships. (See conceptual metaphor.)

Finally, based on research cognitive psychology and some investigations in the philosophy of language, he argues that very few of the categories used by humans are actually of the black and white type amenable to analysis in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. On the contrary, most categories are supposed to be much more complicated and messy, just like our bodies.

"We are neural beings," Lakoff states, "Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything - only what our embodied brains permit."

A criticism of Lakoff would be that he writes as if he has discovered something unique with the concept of the embodied mind. However, a number of thinkers have considered the mind to be 'embodied', and his argument would be stronger if he referenced their ideas. Physicist David Bohm made a similar argument for embodiment in Thought As A System. John Grinder and Richard Bandler articulated this view in Neuro-linguistic programming, though referencing them would probably not help his academic credentials.

Controversial extensions to the embodied mind thesis

Many scientists share the belief that there are problems with falsifiability and foundation ontologies purporting to describe "what exists", to a sufficient degree of rigor to establish a reasonable method of empirical validation. But Lakoff seems to discard both claims entirely:

In particular, he asserts, in an idiosyncratic claim extending those published in "The Embodied Mind", that falsifiability itself can never be established by any reasonable method that would not rely ultimately on a shared human bias - that mathematics itself is subjective to the human species and its cultures: thus "any question of math's being inherent in physical reality is moot, since there is no way to know whether or not it is."

Lakoff on mathematics

Lakoff argues that the best way to understand what mathematical and philosophical ideas are really about is to consider them in light of the structure of the embodied mind. Therefore, the philosophy of mathematics ought to look to the current scientific consensus understanding of the human body as a foundation ontology - abandoning self-referential attempts to ground the operational components of mathematics in anything other than "meat". This has generated some controversy. It is as yet unclear whether philosophers not so mathematically inclined are terribly interested in or bothered by Lakoff.

As an example of a controversial Lakovian idea in this vein is that, when considering the significance of mathematics, we should remain agnostic about whether math is some how wrapped up with the very nature of the universe. Early in 2001 Lakoff told the AAAS, "Mathematics may or may not be out there in the world,but there's no way that we scientifically could possibly tell." This claim bothers a number of people, some because they think there really is a way we could "tell", others, presumably, because it implies that mathematics involves a good deal less certainty than one might expect.

The falsifiability of this claim is itself a central question in the cognitive science of mathematics, a field which attempts to establish a foundation ontology based on the human cognitive and scientific process.

Political significance and involvement

In addition, body philosophers, and anti-globalization movement have been heavily influenced by Lakoff's work, perhaps as much as by that of fellow linguist Noam Chomsky. Lakoff's "application of cognitive linguistics to politics, literature, philosophy and mathematics" has led him into territory normally considered basic to political science.

Lakoff has publicly expressed both ideas about the conceptual structures that he views as central to understanding the political process and some of his particular political views. He almost always discusses the latter in terms of the former.

Moral Politics gives book-length consideration to the conceptual metaphors that Lakoff sees as present in the minds of American "liberals" and "conservatives". Lakoff makes an attempt to keep his personal views confined to one particular section near the book's close. It is not entirely clear whether this work is more relevant to cognitive science or to political analysis.

Lakoff argues that socialist parties or "the left" of the political spectrum was concerned with what he called "nurturant values" associated with female sexual caution, child-raising, defense of homes, but was generally unaware of this focus whereas conservative parties or "the right" were much more able to exploit "the logos" or male fascination with beauty, violence, and moral certainty. Although the thesis was not new, and had been raised also by Jane Jacobs in her "Systems of Survival", Lakoff claimed that it was strongly influencing U. S. federal politics, to the point where identical policies were rationalized in two different ways for audiences of different interest groups. And, in claims remniscent of George Orwell, that English usage in late-20th-century politics reflected a deliberate attempt by "the right" to impose its views by repeating idioms and altering terms of reference in debate.

Lakoff has distributed some much briefer political analyses via the Internet. One article distributed this way is Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf, in which Lakoff argues that the particular conceptual metaphors used by the first Bush administration to justify American involvement in the Gulf ended up either obscuring reality, or putting a handy conservative spin on the facts. Presumably it is contributions such as this that have helped endear Lakoff to some who otherwise wouldn't care less about theories of the mind.

In recent years, Lakoff has become involved with a liberal think tank, the Rockridge Institute, an involvement which follows in part from his recommendations in Moral Politics. Among his activities with the Institute, which concentrates in part on helping liberal candidates and politicians with re-framing political metaphors, Lakoff has given numerous public lectures and written accounts of his message from Moral Politics.

Comparison to other thinkers/schools

Published books

See also

External links