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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

George Lakoff Frames Progressive Morality: Part V

To Dream the Impossible Dream

This is the fifth installment of a series on George Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics. Part 1 explains the general problem Lakoff is attempting to solve. Part 2 offers a brief overview of Lakoff’s general methodology. Part 3 looks at his specific application to morality. Part 4 considers some of the philosophical problems associated with Lakoff’s work. In this post, I will try to show how Lakoff’s reliance on metaphors as the grounding principle of morality leads to an instability that cannot sustain his political preferences.

The reduction of all our categories of thinking to metaphorical products of the human brain has further consequences that Lakoff cannot avoid, despite all his efforts. When we deal in metaphors, we are dealing in what analytic philosopher, Donald Davidson, calls "the dreamwork of language"1, i.e., the logic of metaphor is like the logic of dreams. The term 'metaphor' serves Lakoff's attempt to reject absolutes while avoiding relativism.

Lakoff seeks to preempt the obvious criticism against his system by confirming that the use of metaphor is not a license to say just anything. In order for a metaphor to function in communication it has to be understood (or at least accepted) by others as saying something about the world. There are limits to what a metaphor can express. As Davidson says, "A metaphor implies a kind and degree of artistic success; there are no unsuccessful metaphors." The success of a metaphor is recognition by others that it applies to something real.

However, Davidson goes on to argue that metaphors-in-themselves do not have special meanings. Distinguishing between the meanings of words and their use, Davidson says that the metaphoricity of metaphors derives from way the words are used. Metaphors don't mean anything other than the literal content of the words they involve. Taken as a proposition, a metaphor is, of course, usually false, but it invokes a range of meaning and response in the hearer (or reader).

If Davidson is correct, this is highly problematic for Lakoff's applications. Metaphor may have limits, but that is not to say that Lakoff's metaphors are limited to his explanations. Davidson ends his essay on metaphor with a suggestive evaluation of those who elucidate metaphors for others.

"Many of us need help if we are to see what the author of a metaphor wanted us to see and what a more sensitive or educated reader grasps. The legitimate function of so-called paraphrase is to make the lazy or ignorant reader have a vision like that of the skilled critic. The critic is, so to speak, in benign competition with the metaphor maker. The critic tries to make his own art easier or more transparent in some respects than the original, but at the same time he tries to reproduce in others some of the effect the original had on him. In doing this the critic also, and perhaps by the best method at his command, calls attention to the beauty or aptness, the hidden power, of the metaphor itself." (Davidson, p. 264)
This is an apt description of Lakoff's project.2 The problem is that he is just one interpreter of the metaphors. Even the discovery of the conceptual metaphors is a work of interpretation, as is the work of discerning their applications, but none of this interpretation exhausts the potential of the metaphors.

Lakoff is aware of this, but he believes that his models can show "the links between forms of political reasoning and forms of moral reasoning." (Lakoff, p. 17) This is important ideologically because in the concluding part of the book he argues for the superiority of the Nurturant Parent model and since that model is linked to Liberalism, Liberalism is superior to Conservatism. For Lakoff, his metaphoric descriptions lead to policy prescriptions. This argument would completely collapse if it could be shown that the links between his models and the forms of political reasoning are accidental, or however it is defined, non-essential.

Given Lakoff's anti-metaphysical, naturalist bent, I don't see how he can avoid refuting his own conclusions. He wants to rid his worldview of metaphysical entities that trouble him (i.e., moral norms) and retain just enough metaphysics to keep his system afloat (i.e., "links" between "forms"). Or are these just metaphors too? If they are, then they are certainly not "objective structures of the universe" and, therefore, are not necessarily determinative of the phenomena they model or determined by it.

The Liberal Strict-Father Intellectual
This is not just a potential tension of principles within Lakoff's work. He himself demonstrates the non-essentiality between forms of moral reasoning and institutional ethics with one of the exceptions he offers to test the rule. The "Liberal Strict-Father Intellectual". He admits that is is "possible for someone to be a strict political liberal, applying only the nurturance model in his politics, while being a conservative in other aspects of life."

Liberal intellectuals who apply a Strict Father model within the confines of their institutional discipline are a familiar example of this kind of variety within the class of Liberals. The axis for this difference lies in the structure of the two institutions: the State and Academia. Without much explanation, Lakoff simply accepts that Strict Father morality is appropriate, for some, in Academia, but denies this for politics. Why?

I can only guess that this is because the University As Family metaphor is not a prevalent frame. But, remember, the Nation As Family as a governing metaphor is suspect (if not heretical) from a conservative perspective. The exception does not prove the rule in this case. It makes the rule look rather arbitrary. Lakoff is obviously starting from his preferred politics to arrange the metaphors in his favor.

Which ICM ought we to apply in politics?
Of course, he believes this is just what conservatives have been successfully doing since Reagan. In Don't Think of an Elephant, Lakoff warns progressives from falling under the spell of certain Enlightenment myths,
"the first one goes like this: The truth will set us free. If we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they'll all reach the right conclusions." (p. 16- 17)
Lakoff goes on to counsel progressives that "just speaking truth to power doesn't work." This advice suggests a low view of rationality in political discourse. Lakoff seems to model socio- economic discourse according to a "Politics is Power" metaphor. He certainly thinks this is true of neo-conservativism, but his followup advice, "you need to frame the truths effectively from your perspective" only serves to reinforce the idea that, for Lakoff, the frame is the truth.

If one were to assume that Lakoff is right, it means that politics is the art of lying in a world where there is no definite truth. Again, Davidson's analysis of metaphor is suggestive in this regard:

"What makes the difference between a lie and a metaphor is not a difference in the words used or what they mean (in any strict sense of meaning) but in how the words are used. Using a language to tell a lie and using it to make a metaphor are, of course, totally different uses, so different that they do not interfere with one another, as say, acting and lying do. In lying, one must make an assertion so as to represent oneself as believing what one does not; in acting, assertion is excluded. Metaphor is careless of the difference." (p. 259)

If moral standards are not objective structures in the universe, then the only normative force they have is what we are willing to give them. It wouldn't even matter if Liberalism was characterized by a Nurturant Parent metaphor that was a more accurate model for physical well-being than Strict Parent. So what? The apparent accuracy of the model is only metaphorical itself, so it has no normative value. It has only a persuasive value and to the extent that Lakoff is trying to convince anyone of a normative value, he is representing himself as believing what he does not.

The problem for Lakoff is that if everyone learns what's going on behind the curtain of rhetorical spin, neither models nor applications matter. In fact, it becomes only a matter of sophistry to make the worse seem the better. His position is essentially that of the ancient Sophists with some added technicalities regarding linguistics and psychology.

To illustrate, let's reverse the governing metaphor for a few given political positions.

The Welfare State and Government Regulators as Strict Father
On the one hand, Strict Fathers demand moral boundaries and despise illegitimate authority, but on the other hand they do believe in Moral Order and Moral Authority. What could be more Strict Father than the paternal attitude "father knows best"? As long as state-funded social welfare is not regarded as illegitimate, then the unwillingness or reluctance to allow voluntary agencies to handle our social welfare needs must stem from this paternal attitude. Citizens (the children) must be forced to do the right thing. They cannot be relied upon until they have reached a certain stage of maturity. Clearly, our society is not characterized by this level of maturity; therefore, the rule of law must enforce charity.

Nurturant Parents for the Death Penalty
There is nothing in the Nurturant Parent model that requires the idea of equality to be exalted above the concrete reality of lawlessness. In fact, according to Lakoff's worldview, we are better off staying closer to natural phenomenon that allowing ourselves to be governed by abstract ideas. So if we remove the metaphor that isn't accurate, then we don't have to regard those who commit crimes against the community as needing rehabilitation. In fact, our nurturing attitude toward the community may in some unfortunate cases lead us to the unpleasant requirement of executing hardened murderers.

Feminists Against Abortion
If Nurturant Parents for the death penalty isn't all that convincing consider the argument of certain feminists against abortion. There are feminist groups that take a stand against abortion. One group makes a valid point against the practice of abortion which has little to do with privacy or life. Abortion preserves the patriarchal structure of our society that allows employers to pay women less or even terminate their employment if they don't terminate their pregnancy. In essence, abortion creates the illusion that woman can be just like men if they choose, but, of course, if they don't choose to act like men in the workplace, (i.e., if they don’t pretend they don't get pregnant), then they can be treated like women, that is, as second-class employees.

Obviously, if abortion maintains a Strict Father's society, a Nurturant Parent would be against it. The model does not determine in advance which features of a political issue are relevant to its resolution. Once the issues are given in terms of particular sub-issues, they might be interpreted in terms of Lakoff's models, but there is nothing to prevent redefining the issue to reverse the position to which the model is associated. There is nothing in Lakoff's worldview that necessitates maintaining a position in a particular way. After all, there are no objective structures of normativity in the universe.

One thing this suggests is that even if there are metaphors that influence our thought, they are not the final basis of our moral judgments. There is something more ethically fundamental and objectively normative that determines the shape of our conceptual models and it cannot be physical well-being.

In the next and last part of this series, I'll take a look at Lakoff's framing from the perspective of Machiavelli's counsel to rulers.


1. Quotations from Donald Davidson are all from his 1978 essay "What Metaphors Mean" in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford University Press.

2. Lakoff could side-step Davidson's analysis of metaphor by arguing that his term 'metaphor' doesn't have the same meaning. There would be some legitimacy to this since Lakoff's term is technical with a theoretical definition and Davidson is addressing a lexical definition. However, just having a difference doesn't extricate Lakoff's theoretical definition from Davidson's critique. Lakoff would have to demonstrate how his definition can escape Davidson's criticism without invoking the essentialism Lakoff explicitly denies. It is worth nothing that Davidson himself identifies Lakoff as having a definition of metaphor he opposes.

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