October 14, 2006

Lakoff vs. Pinker

Steven Pinker recently reviewed George Lakoff's new book, What Freedom? a sort of follow-up to Don't Think of an Elephant. He torched it.

I'm not a big fan of Lakoff. I think he's often sloppy and slapdash. He's condescending and is closed to any ideas that he does not believe are both new and his own. Here is an example, from Pinker's review:
[Lakoff] claim[s] that conservatives think in terms of direct rather than systemic causation. Lakoff seems unaware that conservatives have been making exactly this accusation against progressives for centuries.

Laissez-faire economics, from Adam Smith to contemporary libertarians, is explicitly motivated by the systemic benefits of the market (remember the metaphor of "the hidden hand"?). Lakoff strikingly misunderstands his enemies here, repeatedly attributing to them the belief that capitalism is a system of moral reckoning, designed to reward the industrious with prosperity and to punish the indolent with poverty. In fact the theory behind free markets is that prices are a form of information about supply and demand that can be rapidly propagated through a huge decentralized network of buyers and sellers, giving rise to a distributed intelligence that allocates resources more efficiently than any central planner could hope to do. Whatever distribution of wealth results is an unplanned by-product, and in some conceptions, not appropriate for moralization one way or another. It is emphatically not, as Lakoff supposes (in a direct-causation mindset) a moral system for doling out just deserts.

Likewise, cultural conservatives, from Edward Burke to David Brooks, play up the systemic benefits of cultural traditions in bestowing unspoken standards of stability and decency on our social life. The "broken windows" theory of crime reduction is an obvious contemporary example. And both kinds of conservatives gleefully point to the direct remedies for social problems favored by progressives ("war on poverty" programs, strict emission limits to fix pollution, busing to negate educational inequality), and call attention to their unanticipated systemic consequences, such as perverse incentives and self-perpetuating bureaucratic fiefdoms.

None of this means that the conservative positions are unassailable. But it takes considerable ignorance, indeed chutzpa, for Lakoff to boast that only a progressive such as him can even understand the difference between systemic and direct causation.
Lakoff's line of thought here is, I have to admit, very similar to an article I wrote for the DFP on why conservatives self-select away from academia—they prefer the direct influence of management to the indirect influence of ideation. I probably should have done more thinking on that one, although my argument was more about personal preference than psychological or mental limitations on the Right. Anyway, I guess Lakoff is a good example of how not to write/think.


  1. Scott2:02 PM

    I think you're a little harsh on Lakoff. I haven't read his new book, but I've read Elephant and a little of his other stuff. Lakoff is certainly guilty of a lot of oversimplications in his writing, but I don't think that invalidates all that he has to say. I think his characterization of the differing mindsets of conservatives and liberals does have explanatory value. It doesn't explain everything though and I don't think Lakoff is good at acknoweldging the places where it does fall short.

    The other main problem I have with Lakoff's work is that he actually posits that these cognitive models are something innate and real in the brain. I think Pinker is very much right here that Lakoff does not provide much substantiation for this gigantic claim.

    The fact that Lakoff's models are not innate, productive things in the brain and the fact that they do not explain every single facet of conservative or liberal though don't mean that it is totally worthless though.

    My 2 cents anyway.

  2. I probably am a little harsh on Lakoff, but I really hated how he drains language essentially of all possibility of creativity in Metaphors We Live By. As an English major and lover of language, he's sort of the Antichrist. Most linguists are, of course, but Lakoff even more so.