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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

George Lakoff Frames Progressive Morality: Part II


Salvation in Science

In Part 1 of this series, I briefly rehearsed the problem George Lakoff is addressing in his book, Moral Politics : How Liberals and Conservatives Think. In this installment I want to take a quick look at the methodology behind his applications. I will attempt to provide a fair description of cognitive linguistics, but in the nature of the case, it will be difficult for me to keep my biases out of even a brief overview. Cognitive linguistics essentially denies the reality presupposed by traditional logic by reducing “mind” to body. This stirs up a very old debate, but to my way of thinking it leads inexorably to total absurdity. So, in order to formulate a coherent description of this discipline I have to suppress my immediate intuitions about some of its main features. Reading over what I have written, I’m not sure I have done this with complete success. I highly recommend reading through some of the links provided here.

Instead of religion or tradition, Lakoff brings cognitive science and linguistics to rescue progressive liberals from their self-imposed inefficacy. The basic strategy Lakoff offers is summarized in his Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives (2004), and the theory behind the strategy can be found as developed in three key works: Metaphors We Live By (1980), Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987), and Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought(1999).

Cognitive linguistics combines the study of language usage and the mental processes involved in concept formation. The discipline proposes a different way of thinking about thinking. It rejects the commonly held notion that our language and our conceptions about the world have clear boundaries. The traditional analysis of concepts looks for necessary and sufficient conditions that must be satisfied in order for a candidate to belong to a class. For example, a particular pet is a dog if it is “four-legged”, “gives birth to live young”, “has canine teeth”, etc. Cognitive linguistics, on the other hand, suggests we do not identify things according to sets of conditions, but rather by matching them to ideal types.

Concepts seem to allow different grades of membership. Labradors and Retrievers have a gold membership in the concept "dog", while Chihuahuas and Pekinese have a bronze membership. Some dogs are just more dog-like than other dogs. Cognitive Linguists have tested the responses people have in identifying certain objects of a class. They have demonstrated that some members of certain classes are more readily identified as belonging to that class than other members. The best exemplars of a class are known as prototypes. The more closely an object matches the prototype, the more quickly we identify them. Conversely, the more dissimilar an object is, the longer it takes to identify them. This variation in response time is known as the "prototype effect".

This has led to Prototype Theory in Cognitive Linguistics. Prototype theory suggests we develop a set of prototypes in our brains against which we compare the stimuli of the external world. Successful identification depends upon how well the object matches up with our prototype. This theory was supposed to explain the phenomenon of prototype effect better than the traditional notion of identification by necessary and sufficient conditions.

However, problems with prototype theory have surfaced. Two of the counter-evidences involve odd numbers and goldfish—of all things. These problems are among the reasons Lakoff has avoided Prototype Theory proper in his own work; however, he does have a similar version of it with his Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs). ICMs are thought-governing conceptual figures. They are unconsciously formed and deeply influence the way we think about things.

According to Lakoff, individuals derive their ICMs of political morality from family dynamics. Lakoff has proposes two types of family dynamics, the Strict Father dynamic and the Nurturant Parent dynamic. These will be considered individually in the next part of this series, but before doing that we should take a careful look at the inaugural step of Lakoff's analysis of political morality. He argues that the form of morality that governs our political behavior is modeled on the family. Political morality is government by the Nation As Family metaphor. According to Lakoff:
"Part of our conceptual system, whether we are liberals, conservatives, or neither, is a common metaphorical conception of Nation As Family, with the government, or head of state representing the government, seen as an older male authority figure, typically a father." (Moral Politics, p. 153)
He goes on to clarify that, for both liberals and conservatives, the Nation As Family metaphor consists in the following:

· The Nation Is a Family
· The Government Is a Parent
· The Citizens Are the Children

This is a large pill to swallow if you are conservative in your thinking. Lakoff's only qualification to this all-encompassing view of morality in politics is that it doesn't determine what kind of family our nation will be in the mind of a particular individual. Lakoff is either unaware of the conservative hostility toward “government as parent” or he is suppressing this knowledge for the sake of his argument.

Are conservatives deluded in thinking they can escape the Nation As Family metaphor in their thinking? The traditional conservative's ideal of limited government is not understood in terms of a family structure. In what kind of family do the children elect only those parents who promise to preserve their liberty by perpetrating a minimum of interference in their lives? Ironically, that seems more like a conservative stereotype for liberal parenting. This incongruity is a product of attempting to analyze conservative politics according to the Nation As Family metaphor. Lakoff has clearly overextended the psychological significance of using phrases such as "Founding Fathers" and the like.

Lakoff fails to draw the distinction consistently between morality and political theory. Reading his work analytically, one cannot avoid the conclusion that his modeling of morality is made to fit his political theory. In the next part, I will show how one feature of the Strict Father metaphor is a blatant confusion of cognitive analysis and Progressive politics. The Nation As Family metaphor is certainly more congenial to socialist/egalitarian political ideals than it is to free enterprise and the ideals of Libertarians and social conservatives.

It is worth noting that Lakoff admits that he defers to John Rawls on issues of theory. Rawls derives an operational definition for Justice by positing an imagined state of affairs where people structure a society, but do not know in advance what socio-economic position they will occupy in the finished product. For many, if there is a chance you’ll wind up on the lowest rungs, you’ll do something to ensure the well-being of the lowest rung. Robert Nozick, among others, has criticized Rawls' theory of justice for being ahistorical. It is fine for academicians to speculate about what kind of society we would develop if none of us knew in advance what position we would hold in it, but this state of enlightened ignorance is never the case in actual history and we never get to create a society from scratch.

The issues of justice will always derive from things as they actually are, not as we would like them to be and imposing our ideals on real situations is usually unjust, regardless of the presumed just ends to which we apply them. Lakoff's analysis suffers from the exactly this sort of academic idealistic theorizing. Upon initial contact, his arguments have a persuasive air to them and those predisposed to his political ideology are likely to be persuaded, but they leave the rest of us wondering if his models really fit the reality they are meant to explain and predict.

In spite of the questionable relevance of Lakoff’s structural metaphor and the apparent academic idealism, it is important, for the sake of argument, to grant him this founding premise of moral concept formation so we can take a critical look at the actual ICMs he proposes for political morality. According to his research, Lakoff has discerned two basic models which he argues correspond to liberal (or progressive) and conservative value systems. Liberals tend toward a Nurturant Parent model of morality and conservatives prefer a Strict Father model. I will take a closer look at these in the next part of this series.

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