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.