Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Elephant in the Room

I’ve been reading through George Lakoff’s work off and on over the past several months – moving from his linguistic theory on metaphor and bodily experience, through to his more recent partisan political writings. In his partisan work, such as the articles posted on the Rockridge Institute website or the book Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Lakoff puts forward the case that US Republicans have tacitly grasped key linguistic principles that have enabled them to be far more politically effective than their progressive opponents. Lakoff then sets out to provide a kind of linguistic primer for progressive political activists, arguing that a better understanding of linguistic principles will help progressives translate their ideals more effectively into political action.

Lakoff’s political works are written for a “lay” audience, and thus you wouldn’t expect him to pull his readers through all the intricacies of his academic work. Nevertheless, reading Lakoff’s political writings immediately after his academic pieces (Metaphors We Live By and Women, Fire and Dangerous Things), I was surprised at the limited use Lakoff makes of his linguistic theory, in analysing why particular political ideals appeal when and where they do. A more comprehensive appropriation of his linguistic theory, I would suggest, could make for a more solid basis for grasping recent trends in political discourse – although, arguably, the resulting approach might not be as encouraging for some forms of progressive political action. I’ll try to outline what I mean a bit more clearly below.

Lakoff’s academic work participates in the contemporary search for a theory of meaning that transcends the dichotomy between, on the one hand, subjectivist or “cultural” epistemologies that posit that categories of perception and thought are infinitely mutable and, on the other, objectivist epistemologies that posit that categories of perception and thought are immutable and universal. Lakoff seems largely unaware of the debates over these issues outside of the fields of linguistics and cognitive science. As a result, he spends a reasonable amount of time covering ground that will seem very familiar to anyone versed in social theoretic debates over epistemology, and his descriptions of his intellectual opponents (e.g., his discussions of the correspondence theory of language) can also sometimes appear reductionist and straw-mannish – even to someone like me, who is sympathetic to Lakoff’s epistemological goal.

These quibbles aside, Lakoff’s main empirical claims are:

(1) our categories of perception and thought can be grounded in bodily experience – whether this be our bodily experience of outside nature, inner nature, or the social world; and

(2) even the most abstract and “intellectual” categories of perception and thought make heavy use of metaphor as a means of extrapolating from familiar (bodily) experience to cognitive reasoning.

Lakoff makes clever use of wide-ranging material to substantiate his empirical claims (although, in this respect, he offers more evidence for the ubiquity of metaphor in cognition, than he does for his claims about bodily experience as the initial foundation for cognitive perception: the same examples of bodily experience shaping categories of perception and thought appear in both Metaphors We Live By and Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. This may simply reflect the fact that so few empirical studies have been done. As Kuhn has taught us, however, it never hurts to be cautious about extrapolating from a small body of empirical evidence…)

Personally, I particularly enjoyed passages in which Lakoff discusses the fluidity of categories – citing studies that demonstrate, for example, that, even for apparently simple and straightforward categories like “bird”, people don’t apply the category as a strictly black and white classification scheme: while people will say that a cow and a horse are clearly not birds, and people will also say that a penguin, an ostrich, and a robin clearly are, those same people (if asked) will also say that a robin is a “better” example of a bird than a penguin, and understand and easily perform a task that asks them to rank various kinds of birds in terms of how well they represent the “bird” category. Even the classic example that a “bachelor” is a “single man” – a stalwart of undergraduate linguistic courses because it appears to be such a good example of one word fitting one concept – is less clear-cut than it first appears: is the Pope, then, a bachelor, Lakoff asks? Is an 80-year-old widower a bachelor? When pressed, we realise that, even with the simplest categories, we appear quite comfortable thinking with blurry, imprecise conceptual tools into which we happily compress a wide variety of experiences and sensations.

While these examples may seem to drive toward a subjectivist or culturalist theory of concept formation, this is not Lakoff’s goal. He therefore juxtaposes these “fuzzy category” examples, with other examples that suggest the significant role played by our physiology and bodily experience in shaping our formation and use of conceptual categories. In this vein, Lakoff cites research into colour perception that indicates that, while different cultures have different categorisation systems for colours – some cultures recognise more colours than others, some draw the line between colour families in different places, etc. – nevertheless, if you ask people from various cultures to point to the “best” example of a colour from a broad palette, they consistently point to a swatch matching the closest physiological, or focal, colour. Thus a wide array of differing cultural systems for categorising colour perception, which initially appear a very good example of how convention dictates perception, appear on closer examination a very good example of physiological influence over perception (and also suggest some of the limits to that physiological influence).

Lakoff develops this concept further by exploring various examples of how we extrapolate from our bodily experience to our perception of other objects in the natural world. He argues, for example, that our physical experience of orienting ourselves the natural environment gives us a practical basis for categories such as “up”, “down”, “front”, “back”, etc. These practical, bodily experiences can then be mobilised to organise, among other things, our experience of other objects – making it meaningful for us to perceive that other objects, for example, also have an “up”, “down”, front”, “back”, etc.

This extension of bodily experience to other objects, Lakoff points out, involves the use of metaphor: we perceive an object in the world – a rock, for example – to be somehow like us, to have anthromorphic qualities like a “front” and a “back”. In Lakoff’s account, our bodily experience doesn’t fully dictate all aspects of our cognition: our bodily experience, for example, doesn’t dictate which side of the rock we perceive as the front – Lakoff notes examples of cultures who perceive the “front” of the rock to be the side of the rock furthest from the person looking at the rock (as if the rock were a person facing the same direction as the human perceiving it), alongside examples of cultures who perceive the “front” of the rock to be the side nearest to them. Bodily experience, for Lakoff, therefore does not pre-determine our fundamental categories of perception and thought – we could not deduce an entire cultural system from our knowledge of bodily experiences – but such experience does, as Lakoff describes it, motivate our conceptual categories, in the sense that our fundamental categories of perception and thought are extrapolations from our bodily (physical, neurological, emotional) experiences, which then shape our perception and thought in non-random ways.

In Lakoff’s account, all human beings, regardless of culture, extrapolate from the basic bodily experience of orienting themselves in the physical, inner and social environment, into metaphors for perceiving and thinking about other objects and beings in that environment. Because of the substratum of bodily experience that provides the basic tools for our perception and thought, these metaphoric extrapolations are not random or subjective – and neither are they a fully objective, “God’s eye” form of perception. They are instead an intermediate form of objectivity – grounded in our reality as physical and social beings inhabiting a particular kind of natural and communal environment, neither randomly subjective nor neutrally objective. Lakoff’s alternative epistemology is grounded in this intermediate form of objectivity.

Lakoff’s emphasis on bodily experience can imply that he privileges the interaction of humans with the natural world, over the interaction of humans with one another. I suspect, however, that this slight imbalance in Lakoff’s text comes from his understanding of his interlocutors: Lakoff spends a great deal of time, on the one hand, fighting with authors who (Lakoff claims) believe in a sharp divide between purportedly “higher” intellectual realities that supposedly influence cognition, and physical realities that pertain to “lower” aspects of human existence. Lakoff therefore devotes a large percentage of his books to trying to prove that very abstract categories of thought can actually be traced back to physical actions and experiences, as an antidote to a kind of “ghost in the machine” theory that he believes dominates linguistic theory. On the other hand, Lakoff is also trying to fend off what he perceives as an “anything goes” culturalist theory that posits that there are no limits on the categories of thoughts and perceptions that could potentially arise in a human community. Positioning himself between these foes, Lakoff spends a lot of time talking about physical and neurological experience – and therefore underemphasises the strategic and analytical importance of social experience within his framework.

Social experience is, however, quite central in Lakoff’s works. When he moves from his epistemological quarrels into an examination of the ways in which metaphors pervade everyday speech – including the “elite” speech of academic work – the metaphors he uncovers appear as likely to be metaphors of social interaction, as they are metaphors of physical experience. He thus provides long passages in which he explores metaphors like “good = up” (a metaphor motivated by physical experience), but he also explores metaphors like “argument = war” (a metaphor motivated by social experience). When offering these sorts of analyses, Lakoff does not appear to make strong distinctions between categories of perception and thought that arise in physical experience, and categories of perception and thought grounded in social interaction. He does, however, provide a large role for social practice in influencing which metaphors are likely to resonate and proliferate in a given cultural context – Lakoff appears to visualise a complex interaction, in which metaphors that reinforce and link with other dominant metaphors in a given society are more likely to succeed, because they constantly activate – and thereby reinforce – compatible thought-spaces. Metaphors that can link with only limited networks of related metaphors, on the other hand, face a less optimistic future.

It is this final – social and cultural – aspect of Lakoff’s academic work that he carries into his political writings. In Don’t Think of an Elephant, Lakoff argues that Republicans have been far more successful than their progressive opponents in linking their political metaphors with one another, as well as with powerful, overarching metaphors that resonate widely in the US. Lakoff argues that progressives have been comparatively unsuccessful politically in part because they so frequently invoke Republican metaphors – in the process, inevitably reviving and reinforcing an entire network of metaphors and the overarching thought-space that is thoroughly associated, in the public’s mind, with Republilcan initiatives and values. The progressive strategy, Lakoff argues, is similar to that of the person who commands: “Don’t think of an elephant!” – a command no one could obey, because the very act of understanding the command (grasping what you’re not supposed to think) requires you to violate it. By invoking Republican metaphors – Lakoff cites examples such as progressive attempts to speak about “tax relief” or – even if the intention is to propose alternative policies or to criticise Republican initiatives, progressives inexorably recall the dense network of Republican metaphors to voters’ minds – thereby reinforcing and strengthening a thought-space in which it is difficult for voters to be receptive to progressive ideals.

To break this cycle, Lakoff argues, progressives must stop reinforcing their opponents’ thought space, and begin developing their own constellation of mutually-reinforcing progressive metaphors, connected to their own set of overarching metaphors that resonate widely in the US. Drawing on his work from Moral Politics, Lakoff argues that Republicans have linked successfully to one of the two metaphors about family that pervade US culture – a disciplinary, patriarchal family model predicated on strong regulation of children, who will then emerge prepared for intense individual self-reliance in a competitive adult world. Progressives, Lakoff argues, espouse political values more closely related to the second pervasive family metaphor – a nurturant family model predicated on empathy with children, who will then emerge prepared to engage empathically with others in a cooperative world. Yet, by failing to link specific policies and political ideals to this or any other overarching metaphor (or even to one another, on a metaphoric level), progressives have failed to create a receptive thought-space for their political initiatives. So long as this continutes, Lakoff argues, progressive politics will remain on the back foot.

Lakoff goes on to provide a number of examples of how progressive activists could articulate their policies and ideals in better ways. Many of his examples are quite interesting and suggestive but, for present purposes, I am not interested in this dimension of his argument. Instead, what interests me here is the tacit historical theory that underlies Lakoff’s analysis of the recent success of the Republican Party in the US. Lakoff argues that the Republican Party has been able to mobilise popular support primarily for two reasons:

(1) Republican supporters have invested a great deal of money, over an extended period of time, to develop a cohesive set of mutually-reinforcing political ideals and policies linked to socially pervasive metaphors; and

(2) progressives have consistently undermined themselves by failing to invest comparable time and energy and by borrowing terms from the Republican lexicon.

This historical analysis has the advantage of yielding a clear and relatively straightforward prescription for political action. The question, however, is whether it adequately accounts for the sort of seismic global shift in political culture that, in spite of significant local variations, has seen the balance of political discourse shift from political cultures that were broadly more sympathetic to Lakoff’s “nurturant” welfare state metaphors, to political cultures that are broadly more sympathetic to Lakoff’s “disciplinary” neo-liberal metaphors. Without downplaying the significance of deliberate Republican strategies in the US, the global scale of this cultural shift suggests that something more may be at stake. Although I cannot fully develop this point here, I would suggest that Lakoff’s linguistic theory ironically provides some of the tools we might require to understand this broader shift – but in a way that partially calls into question Lakoff’s own political analysis.

Many social theorists claim that the massive social, economic and cultural transformations that began in the 1970s are somehow related. Analysing how and why they are related, however, remains a largely unresolved task. Theories that emphasise the social or economic dimensions of the transformation often provide a more powerful framework to account for large-scale historical transformations, but also often reduce the cultural dimensions of the change to epiphenomena or explain them away as functional requirements of the new economic environment. Theories that emphasise the cultural dimensions of the transformation, by contrast, often struggle to account for simultaneous transformations across a large geographic scale, by de-emphasising constraints on individual and collective actions. Interestingly, Lakoff’s linguistic theory provides one potential means for beginning to grasp the relations between the social, economic and cultural dimensions of this (and other) transformations, without suurendering an ability to grasp the structured and non-random character of the transformation, or reducing one aspect of the transformation to another.

As outlined above, Lakoff’s liguistic theory proposes that bodily experience motivates categories of perception and thought, shaping and limiting our cognitive processes without, however, predetermining the exact categories of perception and thought we will develop, or how we will extend those categories to encompass specific aspects of experience. At the same time, Lakoff suggests that particular metaphors are more socially viable – more likely to resonate and be deployed by larger numbers of people, in more contexts – the more these metaphors link up to other metaphors in a mutually-reinforcing network of interrelated associations.

Lakoff suggests – but does not himself develop – the potential for a third set of influences on the development of categories of perception and thought: one in which our “bodily” experience of the social environment also shapes our fundamental categories of perception and thought. As I mentioned above, while Lakoff emphasises our bodily experience of the natural world for strategic purposes, he does not appear to draw a strong ontological distinction between our bodily (neurological, physical, emotional) interactions with nature, and our bodily interactions with our social world, for purposes of stipulating the kinds of experiences that can contribute to the formation of our most basic categories of perception and thought, and thus lend themselves to metaphoric extension to a rich variety of situations and experiences.

Analysing our bodily experience of the social environment, however, gives us analytical purchase on a subject that does not feature prominently in Lakoff’s academic writings: history. Lakoff’s linguistic theory, I would suggest, lends itself to the hypothesis that transformations of the social environment – whether we would classify these transformations as social, economic or cultural in the first instance – would generate transformations in our fundamental categories of perception and thought. Since bodily experiences only motivate the formation and application of conceptual categories, transformations to our social environment would not predetermine that specific categories of perception and thought must inevitably emerge – but, at the same time, the impact of such transformations would not be completely random. At the same time, since categories of perception and thought are mental constructs (whatever their bodily origins), they are portable: they are available to be applied, through metaphoric extension, to a wide range of other experiences, many of which might have little to do with the experiences that originally gave rise to them. In this way, it becomes possible to grasp the relationship between, for example, social, economic and cultural dimensions of a broad transformation without, however, reducing one aspect of a transformation to another.

This appropriation of Lakoff’s theory has ramifications, however, for Lakoff’s own analysis of why political ideals resonate when they do. As outlined above, Lakoff argues that progressive political discourse has failed to resonate in the US primarily because progressives keep issuing contradictory directives to the electorate, telling the electorate not to “think of an elephant”. In Lakoff’s argument, the principal variable determining the effectiveness of political speech is whether the metaphors used invoke and reinforce mutually compatible metaphors to constitute a friendly thought-space for the desired policy.

If Lakoff’s insights can indeed be extended to our bodily experience of the social environment, however, it is possible that the elephant is already is the room – that Republican metaphors have succeeded, not only because they have invoked other compatible metaphors, but also because social transformations have themselves motivated the emergence and rise to prominence of forms of perception and thought that have been articulated into Republican policies and ideals. In this scenario, metaphors resonate, not only because they are compatible with other popular metaphors, but also because they reflect forms of perception and thought that are compatible with new social practices. Moreover, because of the portability of mental constructs, a “snowball” effect can result, in which categories of perception and thought are suggested initially by small changes in social practice, which generate small alterations in popular concepts, which in turn make it easier to modify social practice in the direction suggested by the new concepts, which in turn reinforces those concepts further. In this scenario, the elephant in the room can grow quite quickly – through dramatic and mutually-reinforcing transformations of the cultural and social fabric – to the point that, whether we choose to discuss the elephant or not, everyone knows that it is there. In this scenario, political parties who ignore the elephant may find that, far from strengthening their political viability, they are in fact consigning themselves to electoral irrelevance.

In this short piece, I cannot definitively resolve whether the elephant is in the room, or whether it manifests only when we invoke it. For present purposes, I wish solely to point out that Lakoff, however inadvertantly, appears to offer a fairly good set of tools for grasping how a massive historical transformation could occur from small beginnings, without resorting to excessive reductionism, on the one hand, or extreme voluntarism, on the other. Lakoff thus provides the basis for a potentially nuanced concept of the mechanism of dramatic historical change, of the sort that we appear to have undergone with the unravelling of the welfare state since the 1970s – and of the sort that we also appear to have undergone when the welfare state itself spread in the early 20th century. In both cases, I would suggest, these dramatic transformations show signs of being a mutually-reinforcing process, in which small transformations of social practice open the possibility for new forms of perception and thought, which in turn generate pressure further to transform social practice to conform to the potentials suggested by the new forms of perception and thought, and so on. The wide variation in the scope and depth of the transformations in different countries and regions also testifies to the degree to which the outcome of this process is not pre-determined – and suggest the possible importance, for political actors opposed to the direction of a transformation, of sustaining and promoting forms of social practice (including, but not limited to, political metaphors) that reinforce alternative forms of perception and thought. At the same time, this analysis suggests that, once a transformation has progressed beyond a certain point, it may be essential to articulate political objectives in terms that resonate with newer categories of perception and thought – and that thus assist political communities in orienting themselves to their present social context and in making sense of that context in a meaningful way.

This entry leaves a great deal unanalysed, and I intend to return to this general topic (whether in relation to Lakoff, or in relation to other topics) in the near future, in a less schematic way. In the interim, as always, I welcome comments and suggestions.

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20 responses to “The Elephant in the Room

  1. john t jackson October 12, 2005 at 3:19 pm

    Just been reading Spaces of Neoliberalism 2002 that decries the pervasiveness of neoliberalism – from being out there and ‘invading’ to being everywhere with the various authors falling back on its inherent contradictions or spaces that ‘subversives’ can occupy and exploits – like rats in the wall linings – not a metaphor to attract adherents. Third way thinking is dismissed as a more subtle but equally destructive form of neoliberalism. Destruction of …?

    Better is Raco, Antipode 2005, who counterposes sustainable development with neoliberalism complete with various images/metaphors. He ‘hangs his hat’ on Ticknells and Peck’s rollback and rollout versions of neoliberalism which is the base image of many articles in 2005. Raco critiques the UK’s Sustainable Communities: building for the future 2003 and some of its institutional frameworks and projects ‘on the ground’ coming up with a hybrid of elements of SD and neoliberalism -hybrid rats? Not what Tony Blair would want out on the airwaves.

    It is these images/metaphors/ideal types that hang on in the mind – even though Raco says he is using them only as a device to develop his more complex argument.

    Indeed, rats can make lovely pets.

  2. MT December 19, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    “Elephant” is a dumbed down version of Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. You’d probably find that one a lot more satisfying. Maybe you’d like to join me in my movement (“second my motion” would be more accurate) to stop saying “conservative” and start calling those on the right (ala Lakoff’s parenting paradigm) “tough lovers”?

  3. MT December 19, 2005 at 4:40 pm

    Sorry. I was too quick to diagnose your dissatisfaction with Lakoff! I see you got round to citing “Moral Politics” later in your post.

  4. MT December 19, 2005 at 5:02 pm

    I think Clinton may have had right when he said “it’s the economy, stupid.” I think it might be impossible to talk about shifting course without addressing globalization and whether a state that protected itself enough to make big changes could survive (would probably help if the U.S. didn’t have to be able to afford oil and the military to defend our supply). Have you read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation? That speaks to “economic nationalization” in the U.S.. (and effects on urban landscape).

  5. N Pepperell December 19, 2005 at 6:23 pm

    It’s the risk I take when I write such a long post on the blog… ;-P I should maybe clarify that I don’t want to criticise Lakoff too harshly for what’s essentially a motivational work – I mainly used the popular work (which has been making the rounds on campus here) as an excuse to introduce some of the implications of Lakoff’s linguistic theory.

    I have to confess that I haven’t yet read Fast Food Nation, although I have a copy sitting on my shelf, waiting patiently (unfortunately alongside a couple dozen other titles) for me to get to it…

  6. Robert December 5, 2006 at 8:03 pm

    Let the ‘Belated Addendum’ begin…

    Nice post. Personally, I would lean toward the idea that the elephant ‘manifests only when we invoke it.’ I must add (quickly) that I realize that this position is at odds with what I understand to be your PhD goals. I take it that you are attempting to fuse the more ‘tangible’ geo-spatial elements of socio-economic transformation (i.e. from planning) with the indefinite substance of ‘critical theory.’ Looking, as it were, for correlations that would indicate that ‘there might be a non-random relationship between the things that we do, the sort of society we create, and the kinds of cultural or intellectual categories by which we then try to make sense of our practices and our society.’

    Having said I think it would be constructive if we were to flesh out the implications of what it is Lakoff has proposed. He does this himself in two books of interest: ‘Philosophy of the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought’ (1999) – (again) with Mark Johnson, ‘Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being’ (2000) – with Rafael Nunez.

    What do you say? Up for it?

  7. N Pepperell December 6, 2006 at 1:07 am

    Although I’m occasionally confused for a planner in the workplace, ;-P I’m not actually one by training. There has, of course, been a spike in interest in the spatial configuration of structural transformation across many disciplines for at least the past fifteen years – but, just between the two of us, this movement has largely passed me by… ;-P

    I was actually recruited for this particular PhD project because of my experience as a sociologist, and my interest in the way in which planning as a professional discipline has a nice canary-in-a-coal-mine relationship to historical transformations in the 20th century – my interests, in other words, relate more directly to temporal shifts than to spatial ones – I just happen to be studying the temporal shifts that have periodically transformed a profession that is itself concerned with spatial issues. Confusing enough? ;-)

    I have a far stronger background in critical theory than in planning (given my lack of experience in planning, this is not a strong claim about my grounding in critical theory…) – although my background relates to a form of critical theory that I probably wouldn’t characterise with a term like “indefinite substance” (although this kind of thing can get complicated – it’s very difficult to work out a good vocabulary for talking about forms of “objectivity” that are historically specified – that may not exist in all times and places, but are nevertheless quite real in their effects when and where they do exist, which is, essentially, how I understand the object of critical theory…). So, depending on what you want to express by the term, I might or might not be someone who discusses things you’d describe by a concept of indefinite substances…

    Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Lakoff. I have read the work on mathematics – although very briefly (I was having a bit of a library recall war with someone over the text, and couldn’t hold onto it for long enough for a thorough read), but not the work on the embodied mind (although this concept is of course discussed throughout Lakoff’s writings). It may be that a reading, or a more thorough reading, of these works would substantially change my reaction. If your question is whether I’d be up to reading and discussing these two works, the answer would be yes – but not now!!! (I’m doing some very intensive writing, so I have to regulate my outside readings a bit aggressively at the moment…)

    In terms of what I have read thoroughly, I can make a couple of quick comments at least, to see if this might take us somewhere productive.

    What struck me in the Lakoff works I’ve read, was a kind of tension between what I suspect are two levels of analysis in Lakoff’s work – two levels that he treats as unproblematically continuous and intrinsically related, where I’m not certain that I accept either the continuity or the relatedness. I suspect that there might even, at least with reference to certain kinds of problems, be a bit of tension between them.

    When this kind of tension characterises an author’s work, what often happens is that people will seize on one of the elements in tension, and drop the other – I think this is effectively what Lakoff has done in his more advocacy-oriented works, and what you are doing in pointing to the notion that the elephant manifests only when we invoke it. The element you’ve focussed on is the dimension of Lakoff’s work that discusses how metaphors channel thought – and our awareness of potentials for political action – in particular directions, such that a change in metaphor can bring new practical potentials to light.

    The other element in Lakoff’s work – the actual use he makes of the embodied mind literature – relates to the ways in which thought is grounded ultimately (but very, very abstractly) in physical experience. Lakoff uses this aspect of his analysis strategically to fend off a kind of “anything goes” relativism, on the one hand, and a kind of “God’s eye view” absolutism, on the other. I think I could make a case (although I’d need more time and space than I’ll use here) that he doesn’t “need” this level of his analysis for where he goes with the analysis of metaphor. I think I could also make a case that he doesn’t fully explore the potentials of the embodied mind concepts for thinking about how categories of thought might be affected by the experience of historically specific practices. Instead, when he wants to think in historically specific terms, he jumps to an analysis of fairly concrete metaphorical expressions, and leaves behind some of the concepts he unfolds when discussing the embodied mind.

    I’m actually agnostic about whether any of the embodied mind claims are true – what interested me was what the embodied mind claims might say about the “fluidity” of metaphorical categories, if we take them seriously. When Lakoff analyses metaphor, he talks about two causal factors that make specific metaphors resonant: (1) how well linked those metaphors are to other metaphors, and (2) a sort of practical politics of promoting and reinforcing specific metaphors. The embodied mind material, though, suggests that there must be at least one other factor that influences resonance: the compatibility of specific metaphors with physical experience. In Lakoff’s more academic writings, this compatibility with physical experience is actually a stronger, more fundamental causal constraint – metaphors can’t arise that are incompatible with this level of experience, although physical experience by itself underdetermines the specific metaphors that arise – opening the way for other kinds of causation.

    Physical experience, in Lakoff, is not restricted to interaction with natural environments. It includes the embodied experience of social environments and internal psychological states. If Lakoff takes this claim seriously, this ought to imply that significant transformations of social life will generate pressures for the transformation of metaphorical structures – a possibility that he doesn’t, however, explicitly analyse. This gap interests me, because I think it is in fact possible to track shifts in resonant metaphors historically – and they track reasonably well with other kinds of transformations… My feeling is that we need to understand more about the complex relationships between these levels of historical causation, before we can jump to the conclusions Lakoff draws in his advocacy work…

    This is all very tentative, of course. My concern is that, if I’m right, Lakoff may not be directing political action in the most productive possible direction… And I suspect he could do something more interesting, within his existing conceptual framework… But I would say that, because I’m interested in historical transformations… ;-P

  8. Robert December 6, 2006 at 10:22 am

    I get the impression that Lakoff allows himself to make jumps from his abstract spatial (physical) grounding of metaphor to more complex ideas about politics by employing the idea of a sort of metaphorically bastardized gestalt reasoning. This is a comfortable (although intentionally ambiguous) jump for him as his ontology rests on a sort of psychophysical isomorphism. Filling in the ‘gaps’ (or more precisely ‘mapping the changes’) he leaves to those that can identify this type of reasoning in historical discourse – not really his background. Either way, I keep coming back to an idea that Lakoff’s theory serves as a comfortable ‘grounding’ for Foucault’s approach to the ‘subject’. Cannot Foucault’s approach be restated as the ‘tracking of shifts in resonant metaphors’ that you’ve identified?

  9. N Pepperell December 6, 2006 at 11:45 am

    I don’t have time for a long reply, but I’ll use a “drive by” post to turn your questions back on you, and seek a few more details.

    I suspect that Foucault has a few approaches to the “subject” lurking around in his work… ;-P So the first question is how you understand Foucault’s position on this issue.

    I also agree that Foucault could be read as tracking shifts in resonant metaphors – although Foucault himself can sometimes be a bit catty on the issue – and Foucault also generally doesn’t operate solely at the level of metaphor, but is also interested in the practice of individual and collective life. I also have my own sense of how one might use the embodied mind dimensions of Lakoff’s work to do some very interesting things with this (more interesting, to me at least, than what Lakoff actually does with metaphor at a more concrete level), but I’d be interested in hearing your take on how you see these things meshing.

    And: I agree that it’s fair for Lakoff to leave the historical hard yards to someone who specialises in it – at least, I agree with this until he himself begins making sweeping historical claims in his political writings… ;-P At that point, I think he has earned the burden of thinking more systematically through the various levels of historical causation he outlines in his framework… Otherwise, I’d also be inclined to let him off…

  10. N Pepperell December 7, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    Help may be on the way!

    Just wanted to mention, since I’ve been a bit too scattered for a longer reply, that LMagee, at least, has been inspired by this discussion to recommit to looking at Lakoff (perhaps against Pinker) in more detail. So the reading group will still do its Derrida-Searle tangent for the next couple of weeks, but will move back in a more cognitive science-y direction after that…

    Another drive-by post, I’m afraid… So no new substance from me yet…

  11. Robert December 7, 2006 at 11:43 pm

    This will be a ‘drive by’ post too… this is the direction I’ve taken…

    Foucault perceived of the subject as constituted by doxa. The Greek term is apt given that the basic idea is in no way ‘new.’ By his own admission he was continuing the work of Nietzsche. Moreover whilst linking the individual to doxa is the ‘highlight’ of the contribution of both authors, they have also sought to dismiss the idea of universals and disembodied reason by exposing changes in doxa. Jump in and rip this paragraph to shreds if you must ;)

    I see Lakoff as providing a unique way in which to embed reason in the subject. He does this, as discussed through the idea of conceptual metaphor. Conceptual metaphor is a good way of describing the formation of doxa. The multi-dimensional metaphorical gestalts, the preference for coherence rather than consistency in metaphorical conflation, not to mention the irreducible ‘bird’ and ‘car’ categories all work well to answer how the constituted individual cannot be ‘aware’ of the entirety of his constituted parts.

    I also think the old school institutionalisms (a la Veblen) would get a lot of mileage out of metaphor in grounding their institution forming ‘habits.’

  12. Robert December 7, 2006 at 11:45 pm

    That’s institutionalists

  13. N Pepperell December 8, 2006 at 6:46 am

    *sharpening the scissors*

    I’m not *that* prone to shredding things, am I? ;-P

    But seriously: I think you’ve hit on something that is quite interesting and important in both authors – the only difference between may be that, since this is a topic I’m particularly interested in (how certain things become “doxic” – and what happens, socially and psychologically, when things cease to be “doxic”), it may just be that I’ve seen more authors try to do this, so I may not be foregrounding it as clearly when I write – this doesn’t mean that I think there’s anything at all wrong with drilling in on this aspect of their work. (And, in fact, when I was writing my proposal, which needed to be addressed to people who weren’t particularly interested in social theory, I’m pretty sure that I used Lakoff – and also Bourdieu – in pretty much exactly this way, as these were authors with whom I could expect people to have at least some familiarity.)

    I’m also working within a framework that is unsympathetic with the notion of objective universals – I criticised Lakoff for implying in his work that he was particularly special for wanting to overthrow this notion, but I’m not at all unsympathetic to the end goal. You’re right that this was also Foucault’s goal, although I’m not sure they are trying to achieve this goal in the same way: I would expect Foucault to be more hostile to the notion of universals than Lakoff, although both share the rejection of any “God’s eye view”. Lakoff, coming out of a more scientific, more physicalist, tradition, will be more interested in the things humans have in common – their shared physical experiences – even though he also spends a lot of time on the things they may not have in common, as well. I think you’re picking up on this difference, actually, when you say that Lakoff is “providing a unique way in which to embed reason in the subject” – I’m not really sure one could make such a statement about Foucault, at least without a few scare quotes scattered about… ;-P

    I also share your curiosity about “mechanisms” – what is it about humans that makes it possible for us to absorb these sorts of tacit sensibilities and belief systems. I like thinking about this kind of thing. Arguably, though, we don’t need to know the answer to this question, in order to do interesting empirical and theoretical work starting from the observation that we do – through whatever mechanism – absorb tacit sensibilities, which are not always the same for all people, at all times, and all places. (This statement is not, though, a critique of your position – or, if it is, it’s at least as much a critique of mine…)

    My curiosity – and I should note that this, really, is just a curiosity: I haven’t made up my mind on the issue – is whether Lakoff gives us a more interesting and useful set of concepts and tools for thinking about these things, than other approaches do. (I am also curious about the basic empirical adequacy of Lakoff’s claims – he has put forward some propositions that are potentially testable – which is a good thing, but which also highlights the need to look into the empirical adequacy of his theory, as well.)

    Many approaches toss out the “god’s eye view”. Some do so in a relativistic way – I think Lakoff is trying to move beyond this, and I think he’s right in trying to do so. But there are other non-relativistic approaches – as well as approaches that understand themselves as relativistic, but that can easily be appropriated for non-relativistic causes – that also reject the search for “god’s eye” objectivity. So one task is to begin to compare these various traditions, and see what each might give us, and where each falls down – maybe some combination of different approaches (as you’re suggesting with Foucault and Lakoff) might be ideal. We then need, though, to figure out clearly the basis that allows us to make the combination we desire (so, in combining Lakoff and Foucault, for example, we’d need to acknowledge the somewhat different epistemological and ontological claims made by each author, so that we could then mount a case, if a case can be mounted, that these differences aren’t actually all that important for how we’d like to use them, or that one or both authors were incorrect in specific epistemological or ontological claims, etc.).

    It also matters what our strategic goal is: are we engaged in contemplative philosophy – trying to understand how the world is? Are we engaged in critical theory – trying to understand how the world could be changed? Are we engaged in “self-reflexive” critical theory – trying to understand how we could become aware that the world could be changed in specific ways? etc. Some approaches that would be fine for one purpose, will fall down on others.

    But no basic points of disagreement between us, I think – I’m basically just a bit more agnostic about specific issues that you might be, at the moment. But I tend to cultivate a kind of… er… satisficing agnosticism in any event: in other words, I’ll “act” on whatever the best working theory I have constructed at the time – while retaining something like conceptual “brackets” around elements of various theories that I’d like to test or examine in more detail…

    I’d like to hear more, though, on why you are specifically interested in the question of “doxa” – where, strategically, do you think this question can take you? (I’ve already said, of course, that I “agree” with the question – but I certainly don’t have a monopoly on the reasons someone might be interested in the question.)

    I’m also interested to hear why you focus on “how the constituted individual cannot be ‘aware’ of the entirety of his constituted parts”? Again, many theoretical traditions do hinge on this point, but there are different motivating theoretical interests.

    At a meta level, I suppose I’m asking, not what you can do for theory, but what you hope your theory can do for you? ;-P

  14. Robert December 8, 2006 at 9:27 am

    These are only broad stokes on the canvas.

    I hail form an ‘economics’ background – yes, my secret shame! ;( I find that systemization can, at times seem inherently appealing. Lakoffs’ ideas have allowed me, in the ‘contemplative’ sense, to think more ‘confidently’ about fusing together thought and perception. Not, however in the limiting universal way that 50’s behaviouralism championed. What I particularly like about Lakoff is that he provides an ‘open-ended’ system. His metaphorical categories can be reduced (down), they provide a basis for conflation (up). This is a ‘good’ way to design a system. Douglas North defined ‘institutions’ in this way. Lakoff also indicates that this ‘level’ of classification may be something that is innate (e.g. his bird / car categories).

    Further, they are grounded in the individuals’ ‘sense-perception’ (externally relative) which allows for an incorporation of objectivity in the broadest sense. This is where I would ‘link in’ Nietzsche, the Sophists and Foucault. The genealogical method relies on a broad (often unspoken) objectivity in order to be coherent.

    Interestingly thought for Lakoff is ‘tied’ together by what he refers to as ‘coherence’ (internally relative). This last point I feel is the ‘mechanism’ of change, but only in the sense that is the ‘cog’ directly responsible. It works within a system. This is what I feel Foucault and Nietzsche were ‘getting’ at, but would never end up ‘seeing’.

    It is not my intention to detract from the ‘enlightened work’ that those who I have named have undertaken. The flaw is most definitely with me as I subject the wooden ideas of others to my interpretive lathe.

    I feel that Lakoff provides a link between the contemplative/critical ‘streams.’ By relegating a lot of the ‘activity’ in the coherence of metaphorical thought to the unconscious he also leaves the ‘light on’ for ‘self-reflexive’ critical theory.

    What can this theory do for me? Within the institutionalist school in economics there is an infinite regress problem regarding institutions and individuals. Which came first – the rules or the players? Many within the ‘school’ have embraced evolutionary (principally random and niche finding) mechanisms to explain institutional development, but this does not of course solve the initial problem. Many find themselves in trapped within another ‘self-created’ or more precisely ‘self-reduced’ dichotomy. The tools Lakoff provides may inch understanding in this area forward again by wrenching the ‘captains’ wheel from the ‘clutches’ of game theory and the ‘reductionistas’. Firstly by incorporating the idea of thought being externally relative, Lakoff provides an open-ended system at the level of the individual (no more assumptions about rationality, bounded or otherwise). The key word here is system. Secondly, Lakoff provides a method by which to interpret how the rules are conceived (metaphorical understanding) and why / how perception of them would change over time (the internal coherence angle).

  15. N Pepperell December 8, 2006 at 11:53 am

    Don’t feel ashamed of economics! (I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I have for some time intended to do a series a posts working through aspects of classical liberal philosophy, and had intended this also to encompass a bit of recent economic theory – read for its social theoretic implications…) Economics has the virtue of having preserved a strong theoretical orientation – alongside its empirical investigations – and the study of economics, I think, is actually a pretty good way “in” to broader issues in social theory. (I realise not many people use the discipline that way – but not many use sociology or history that way, either… There’s always a much smaller number of people ferreting around with foundational theoretical questions, than there are doing “ordinary science” within a discipline…)

    You’re basically talking about the form the venerable “structure-agency” problem takes within a particular branch of economic theory. The basic problem spans disciplinary boundaries – it just masquerades under slightly different names in different places. Interestingly, perceived solutions to this problem also tend to span disciplinary boundaries – in the sense that similar approaches to the problem tend to appeal in particular times, even without direct and explicit cross-disciplinary fertilisation of ideas…

    If this is a core interest, by all means you can try to appropriate Lakoff for this purpose, but my guess is that there are many other approaches that would be worth reading alongside – you may, of course, have already done this, and settled on Lakoff as your best available approximation for what you’re after…

    In terms of your substantive points, I experience a certain evil glee at this statement:

    The genealogical method relies on a broad (often unspoken) objectivity in order to be coherent.

    I like it – and I’m probably inclined to agree – but, unless I’ve misunderstood you (which is quite possible – I’m having to respond quite quickly here, so apologies for any confusions on my end), on its face, this is a fairly controversial claim. You did say “broad strokes”, so it’s fair enough not to ground this claim here – but, if you’re articulating this kind of claim to an audience sympathetic to Foucault, my guess would be that you’d need to do a lot of legwork to convince people of your claim. On the other hand, if you’re not planning to address an audience sympathetic to Foucault, a Foucaultian framework might not be the most direct way into your questions…

    On Lakoff: you’ve focussed on “coherence” as a possible target and mechanism for change – and I think this is right. My meta-critique of Lakoff is, essentially, that his non-partisan works essentially offer two targets and mechanisms for change: coherence (which can, presumably, be attacked by the sorts of think tanks and rhetorical strategies he advocates in his partisan works), and physical experience (which might require attacking “structural” elements or dimensions of social practice, as well).

    These two targets operate at what I tend to call two different levels of historical causation – and my sense is that Lakoff’s partisan works understate the role of the “structural” in, to use his term, motivating the experience that particular metaphors are persuasive in the US in recent history. I suspect, in other words, that he focusses on a more concrete level of historical causation, which doesn’t actually let him understand how – for example – homologous policy shifts occur in other countries whose underlying political metaphors are fairly dissilimilar to those expressed in the US…

    To get back to Foucault, I suspect – fairly strongly, actually – that, if you wanted to understand major epistemic shifts, you’d actually need to look more at the level of relationships between (in Lakoff’s framework) bodily experience and categories of perception/cognition, than at the level of metaphoric coherence. But this isn’t a point I could establish here well enough to expect to persuade anyone who wasn’t already so inclined… ;-P

  16. Robert December 8, 2006 at 2:58 pm

    A little legwork then…

    The perception of difference is the key for the genealogical method. I like to use the term ‘contrast.’ The objectivity of the genealogical method lies in the ability to perceive contrasts in thought. Much has been written on Foucault’s juxtaposition of difference at the beginning of Discipline and Punish. I feel Foucault betrays this assumed (yet fervently denied) objectivity by keeping his examples within France. As he is going to great lengths to show that the subject is not aware of the change in his/her constitution this works on one level. On another, he is redrawing boundaries. These boundaries would not have been as coherent if the particular regicide had been contrast with the a similar 19th century prison in say London (within a few hundred miles of Paris) and even less so if we applied the idea that British and French ‘subjects’ could separated on a stronger basis (genetic/racial whatever). My point is that keeping the contrast within the same city/culture/nation Foucault can proceed to erase the boundaries (Lakoff uses the term ‘containers’) of traditional approaches to being, without loosing his audience. Foucault also seeks to highlight that he is not the prophet of the ‘new’ or more accurate container mentality. He is the master of contrast. He wants to show that the ‘subject’ reasons through contrast and that, crucially, it is unpractical for the subject to be aware of this. Nevertheless, Foucault is aware and his method betrays his notion of objectivity.

    Contrast is the key to both the understanding the relationship between bodily experience and categories of perception, and the more conscious aspects of metaphorical coherence.

    A crude example of the former: The notion of the up/down spatial orientation is significant because ‘up’ is different from ‘down’ in a qualitatively unconscious way. (Therein also lies your ‘realism’) The conscious interpretation is of the ‘difference’ rather than the qualitative aspects. Lakoff tends to be misleading when he uses terms like ‘systematic correlates with our experience.’ Yes, we correlate in the sense that we group like with like based on our experience, but it is the understanding of difference that separates the ‘correlates’ and allows for the concept of causation.

    A crude example of the latter: One of Lakoff’s favorite metaphors – Argument is War. The ‘is’ embodies the notion of difference. The ‘argument’ and the ‘war’ are more or less inconsequential. This inconsequentiality is what I think Foucault was driving at and why traditional metaphysics is such a ripe target.

    Feel free to point out if I am stuffing a certain French corpse with straw.

  17. N Pepperell December 8, 2006 at 6:32 pm

    He wants to show that the ‘subject’ reasons through contrast and that, crucially, it is unpractical for the subject to be aware of this. Nevertheless, Foucault is aware and his method betrays his notion of objectivity.

    Yes – this still won’t endear you many Foucaultians, but Foucault is often criticised for this, if I’m understanding you correctly. (The series of very early posts on the blog on Bent Flyvbjerg discusses in a sort of outline sketch way one example of someone who appropriates Foucault without understanding that this can be an issue.) The vocabulary I tend to use for what you’re after is “standpoint of critique” – and is a particular theoretical problem for “materialist” (in the original sense of “secular”) theories, particularly if they have any desire to link up with potentials for social transformation: once you give up the notion of some kind of metaphyical “outside”, how can you then explain the perspective from which you can offer criticisms of contemporary society?

    A number of approaches theorise a society in such a way that the actual theoretical categories capture solely how that society reproduces itself. The theorist often then adopts a critical stance toward that process of reproduction. And, often, the analysis stops there – there isn’t a recognition that theory-of-social-reproduction + critical-stance leaves a vital question unanswered: how is it that the theorist is mysteriously immune to the process of reproduction? I suspect it’s fair to tar Foucault with this brush in at least some of this works.

    So you’d like to step to Lakoff as a means for explaining the theorist’s non-identity with the social context they criticise – you believe Lakoff provides a way to explain your critical standpoint.

    I have a couple of reactions – some of which depend, again, on what you need your theory to “do”. I’ve actually been having an extended cross-blog conversation with Larval Subjects on a related issue (there are now several posts across both blogs at this point – I suppose the easiest starting point, if you wanted to backtrack the discussion, would be to use the conversations category here, and look for the earliest post where I’m speaking to Sinthome). Sinthome has been trying to lay a theoretical foundation – from within a very different theoretical tradition (and, in some ways, in opposition to Foucault – or at least in opposition to common appropriations of Foucault) – for asserting that no subject can ever be completely subsumed by any social context.

    My argument in that discussion has been that, while I have no doubt this theoretical goal can be achieved, I’m not sure where this takes us – why this goal, by itself, is important. My sense is that most people who want to establish the incapacity of the subject to be subsumed by context – or who want to assert a strong ontological status for “difference” – or similar – are trying to do this because they believe it is important in order to establish the possibility for some kind of political practice aimed at the transformation of the social order. Even if this is not your goal, there will be some specific goal – either practical or conceptual – something your theory is trying to “do” for you – otherwise, it becomes a matter of indifference whether you use Lakoff, Derrida, Habermas, or any of the dozens of other theorists who offer competing ways to separate the subject from its context…

    So we’re back to the issue of asking not what you can do for theory, but what you hope your theory can do for you ;-P

    My guess would be that your answer would relate to your point above, about how Lakoff gives you some access to “realism”. One important question would be why you believe “realism” is an important thing to access: what strategic role, within the theoretical system you hope to create, does “realism” provide, that alternative concepts wouldn’t provide? The answers then may push you closer to, or further from, Lakoff as your theoretical basis for thinking about critical standpoint…

  18. Robert April 3, 2007 at 9:34 am

    I find that many of my comrades are increasingly receptive to this kind of discourse. Thanks for the framework – I think its brilliant.

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on the genisis of my own ‘roughtheory’ project.

    http://www.bunkumtheory.blogspot.com

    Holster the garden shears though, and mabye proceed only with the scissors :) We are still only new to this.

    Cheers

  19. N Pepperell April 3, 2007 at 10:47 am

    LOL! Hey there – is this the same “Robert” who was commenting here in December? If so, our reading group did actually discuss Metaphors We Live By again, inspired by your questions – but then life overcame us (and then somehow there was a small detour through Hegel…) and we couldn’t find anyone to write a new discussion thread. I’ll have a look at your site – all sharp implements left behind at home, I promise :-)

  20. N Pepperell April 3, 2007 at 11:00 am

    By the way – and amusingly, given your “how to post a comment” post – I can’t seem to post at blogspot blogs from work. Either that, or your metal detector got me. It was only a very small pair of scissors… honestly… I swear…

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