We been framed

Steven Pinker gets off some good zingers at George Lakoff.

If Lakoff is right, his theory can do everything from overturning millennia of misguided thinking in the Western intellectual tradition to putting a Democrat in the White House…Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, shows that all thought is based on unconscious physical metaphors, with beliefs determined by the metaphors in which ideas are framed. Cognitive science has also shown that thinking depends on emotion, and that a person’s rationality is bounded by limitations of attention and memory. Together these discoveries undermine, in Lakoff’s view, the Western ideal of conscious, universal, and dispassionate reason based on logic, facts, and a fit to reality. Philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge and ethics, it is a succession of metaphors…Citizens are not rational and pay no attention to facts, except as they fit into frames that are “fixed in the neural structures of their brains” by sheer repetition.

Hmph. I don’t believe it. (Nor does Pinker.) Thinking can depend on emotion without completely ruling out reason based on logic, facts, and a fit to reality – can, and has to, and does.

Finally, even if the intelligence of a single person can be buffeted by framing and other bounds on rationality, this does not mean that we cannot hope for something better from the fruits of many people thinking together–that is, from the collective intelligence in institutions such as history, journalism, and science, which have been explicitly designed to overcome those limitations through open debate and the testing of hypotheses with data. All this belies Lakoff’s cognitive relativism, in which mathematics, science, and philosophy are beauty contests between rival frames rather than attempts to characterize the nature of reality.

That captures what I’ve always disliked about Lakoff’s ‘framing’ stuff – its anti-thought, anti-cognitive, anti-intellectual, pavlovian advertising approach. Never mind substance, never mind rational thought about substance, never mind actually thinking about what political candidates say, just offer slogans to counter Their slogans, reflexes to trump Their reflexes, and let it go at that. Meet baby stuff with baby stuff. No thanks, I’d rather do better than that.

Lakoff tells progressives not to engage conservatives on their own terms, not to present facts or appeal to the truth, and not to pay attention to polls. Instead they should try to pound new frames and metaphors into voters’ brains. Don’t worry that this is just spin or propaganda, he writes: it is part of the “higher rationality” that cognitive science is substituting for the old-fashioned kind based on universal disembodied reason.


Lakoff’s faith in the power of euphemism to make these positions palatable to American voters is not justified by current cognitive science or brain science. I would not advise any politician to abandon traditional reason and logic for Lakoff’s “higher rationality.”

Yeah. Lakoff’s euphemisms are a tad on the obvious, self-undermining side, also (as Pinker notes) the self-congratulatory side (they almost boil down to ‘just call us The Nice People and all will be well’). His popularity with the Democratic party is 1) suprising and 2) a bad sign.

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