Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Cognitive Science

Sidebar on Searle

So in theory I’m supposed to be writing on Chomsky, but in practice I seem to keep writing about odd elements that crop up in critiques of Chomsky. Note that criticising Chomsky’s critics isn’t quite the same as defending Chomsky – I still don’t know enough about his argument to affirm or deny it. My goal is simply to get a bit closer to understanding what you would need to criticise, if you wanted to tackle Chomsky’s core theoretical claims…

My current concern is directed to a point that Searle has brought up, in slightly different ways, in both his 1972 and 2002 critiques – a point relating to the… onotological and causal status of linguistic “rules” within Chomsky’s framework. I’ll reproduce a couple of passages to try to communicate what troubles me – and to make it easier for others to decide whether I’m just midunderstanding Searle, or whether Searle is misunderstanding Chomsky – or whether both Searle and I are equally confused…

In the 1972 article, Searle seems to feel that it is a problem for Chomsky’s account that Chomsky cannot say clearly how underlying grammatical rules come to be known by actual speakers of particular languages:

[Chomsky] is not, of course, claiming that a speaker actually goes consciously or unconsciously through any such process of applying rules of the form “rewrite X as Y” to construct sentences. To construe the grammarian’s description this way would be to confuse an account of competence with a theory of performance.

But Chomsky does claim that in some form or other the speaker has “internalized” rules of sentence construction, that he has “tacit” or “unconscious” knowledge of grammatical rules, and that the phrase structure rules constructed by the grammarian “represent” his competence. One of the chief difficulties of Chomsky’s theory is that no clear and precise answer has ever been given to the question of exactly how the grammarian’s account of the construction of sentences is supposed to represent the speaker’s ability to speak and understand sentences, and in precisely what sense of “know” the speaker is supposed to know the rules of the grammar.

If I’m understanding correctly, a similar issue arises in the 2002 debate, in what, to my admittedly inexperienced eye, seems to be a somewhat confused passage relating to the relationship of Chomsky’s rules to the causes of linguistic behaviour:

1. Rules. Chomsky thinks that I suppose the rules of grammar are regulative rules like the rule “drive on the right.” That is not true. In my article, I introduced a reference to driving on the right as an example to show how rules can function causally in behavior; but in the article I also distinguish between “regulative” and “constitutive” rules. Regulative rules regulate antecedently existing activities like driving. Constitutive rules create the very possibility of the activities they regulate, for without the rules there is no activity to regulate. Human languages—like chess, money, private property, and government—are matters of constitutive rules, because to speak English—or play chess—for example, one must follow (at least a large subset of) the rules.

The rules of generative grammar were intended to be constitutive in this sense. The chief difference between me and Chomsky was not over whether there really were constitutive rules of generative grammar, but their relation to consciousness. I thought that unconsciously functioning rules had to be the kind of rules that could be conscious; Chomsky disagreed. Indeed, four of the features of rules in Chomsky’s early work were that the rules functioned unconsciously, were not even accessible to consciousness, were constitutive, and functioned causally. The rules have to be causally real in order to explain linguistic behavior. The speaker’s competence consists in a mastery of the rules and his competence gives rise, though often imperfectly, to his performance. Competence is the competence to perform. And in order to function causally the rules have to be constitutive in my sense, because prior to the rules there is nothing to operate causally on. There is no set of physical properties sufficient to determine all and only English sentences (or games of chess or married couples or governments), because such things exist only within systems of rules.

What puzzles me about these statements is that they seem to imply that, if you posit the existence of generative rules that describe regularities or patterns within observed practice, then:

(1) there is no value to defining such rules, unless you can also explain where they currently “reside” and/or how they come to be “internalised” so that they can then be expressed in practice; and

(2) you must necessarily accord such generative rules an ontological status that allows them to function as causal forces.

For the moment, I want to bracket the issue of whether Chomsky might, e.g., regard the linguistic rules he has identified as causal (Chomsky’s responses, to me, suggest that Searle may be mistaken in this point, but my main concern here is to approach this problem in at a more abstract level, separate from the specific claims of Chomsky’s work, on which I’m not qualified to comment at this point).

The first objection – that it is problematic to talk about generative rules unless you can explain how these rules have come to be internalised – seems an odd critique, mainly because it seems unnecessarily to bind together two distinct objects of inquiry: it’s certainly an interesting question, why regularities of practice come into being and how they are maintained, but it’s an analytically distinct question from what regularities might exist – what patterns we might be able to identify when we abstract from the thicket of rich experience that can obscure practitioners’ awareness that their behaviour demonstrates previously unrecognised order. Having made a case that a particular pattern exists, we can then of course begin to inquire into what causes this particular pattern of practice to occur: whether we can best make sense of the patterns we observe by appealing to notions of innate capacities, internalisation of social rules, etc. But it seems to me quite possible – and perhaps even quite likely – to be correct in our argument that a particular pattern of behaviour exists, while being completely incorrect in our explanation of why this pattern arises. These are two separable issues – whose investigation, I suspect, would generally involve quite different forms of research.

I find it similarly problematic to insist that generative rules, if they exist, must necessarily be conceptualised as ontologically-existent causal forces (rather than, say, as descriptions of empirical regularities, or as themselves the products of other causes, etc.). Certainly in other forms of social research, there are a number of traditions that attempt to map patterns of social practice – a process that can be useful for all sorts of reasons, among them clarifying the complexity of what we may need then to explain on a causal level – that would never assume the pattern has some separate ontological existence, isolated out from the social practices that express it and causing those practices to take a specific form. The search for causes can be understood as a distinct research problem, separate from the search for patterns within social practice. Take the simple, intuitive example of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” regulating market exchange: the proximate causes of market behaviours are incredibly complex and multifaceted. This causal complexity, however, by itself does nothing to undermine the validity of claims that there might be certain aggregate patterns of behaviour that result from these complex causes, patterns that we can define, measure and analyse – patterns that, perhaps, we must define, measure and analyse if we ever hope to tackle the far more complex question of what causes this pattern to arise…

Searle is, of course, criticising Chomsky – not some hypothetical concept of how one might approach the search for linguistic rules. It may well be that, in context, the critique applies as written (or, perhaps even more likely, that I’m missing the point…). My question is whether it is for any reason impossible to apply to the search for linguistic rules a distinction between the search for patterns, on the one hand, and the attempt to explain those patterns causally, on the other?

Searle vs. Chomsky Reprised: 30 Years On…

Folks interested in the Searle-Lakoff-Chomsky exchange discussed below, might also be interested in the following exchange, in which Searle revisits the topic thirty years on.

Searle, John (2002) “End of the Revolution” New York Review of Books vol. 49, no. 3, February 28.

Bromberger, Sylvain (2002) “Chomsky’s Revolution” New York Review of Books vol. 49, no. 7, April 25 (with reply by John Searle).

Chomsky, Noam (2002) “Chomsky’s Revolution: An Exchange” New York Review of Books vol. 49, no 12, July 18 (with reply by John Searle).

I should note that Searle’s initial volley is available only to subscribers, although the other two pieces are open for public view.

I’ve also decided that this extended digression into Chomsky brings out the worst in the reading group: when I pointed the other members to this exchange, and also mentioned that Searle’s piece was available only to subscribers, the following email exchange ensued:

First response: “After a brief review it strikes me as wrong in general to criticise Chomsky in public…”

My reply: “but what goes on between consenting adults in private is perfectly fine…”

Third response: “Unless one of the parties is manufacturing consent…”

Reading Group Sing-Along

In the somewhat unlikely event that anyone desires to follow along with the Reading Group from a distance, I thought I’d pass on the links to what we’ve been discussing. Between last week and this, we spent a bit too long reading somewhat anarchistically, each of us browsing in and around debates over Chomsky’s linguistic writings without settling on much in the way of a preferred common text. In the end, the common text therefore ended up being a fairly light read – a useful bit of intellectual history, embodied in a sprawling, time-delayed discussion between Searle, Gewirth, Lakoff and Chomsky published in the New York Review of Books in the early 1970s.

The specific articles are available online:

Searle, John (1972) “A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics” New York Review of Books vol. 18, no. 12, June 29.

Lakoff, George (1973) “Deep Language” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 1, February 8.

Gewirth, Alan (1973) “The Sleeping Chess Player” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 2, February 22.

Chomsky, Noam (1973) “Chomsky Replies” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 12, July 19.

Searle’s article provides a quite engaging and readable intellectual history, from the perspective of the early 1970s, of the revolution in linguistics that was sparked by Chomsky’s work. Searle summarises, in a fairly general way, what he presents as a Kuhnian revolution in linguistics, in which Chomsky mobilised accumulated empirical anomalies to undermine the credibility of structuralist and behaviourist approaches to linguistics, and to create a space for the new paradigm of generative and transformational grammar. In Searle’s account, however, this revolution has not ended with Chomsky triumphant: instead, Searle portrays Chomsky as sidelined by his own revolution, pushed to the edges by some of his own best and brightest students who, responding to further empirical anomalies, have displaced syntax from the pride of place Chomsky assigns to it, and moved toward a rapprochement with semantics.

Along the way, Searle contests Chomsky’s claim to be heir to an earlier rationalist philosophical tradition, questions Chomsky’s attempt to use his work on syntax to draw conclusions about any innate linguistic faculty or deep structure of the mind, and argues that Chomsky’s work represents an untenable attempt to analyse language severed from its function of facilitating purposive communication. Searle’s critical aim is thus to restrict the reach of Chomsky’s concepts – to argue that Chomsky’s revolution is confined to the study of syntax, and therefore leaves untouched issues of meaning and of language as a purposive, contextual, social practice – issues that Searle, given his own theoretical focus on speech act theory, finds more central.

The other contributions to this discussion are briefer, and less satisfying, but give a sense of some of the contested issues within Searle’s account. Lakoff’s piece makes sweeping, dramatic dismissals of Chomsky’s work – arguing that core elements have been disproven but, unfortunately for our inexperienced eyes, not pointing to some of the works that could substantiate this claim. (Searle’s original article, by contrast, provides a nice potted bibliography to guide a reader through the milestones in the intellectual history of the Chomsky revolution, and was thus quite useful.)

A large portion of the additional commentary revolves around debunking Chomsky’s claim to be heir to a long rationalist philosophical tradition – a critical focus that left at least a couple of the reading group members puzzled, not because we believe it is necessarily incorrect, but because it seems like the kind of claim that can easily be severed from Chomsky’s more analytically central arguments about syntax: Chomsky may think it important to establish himself as the latter-day Descartes but, to be honest, if I were intending to write a critique of Chomsky’s approach, I’d position this as more of a side issue, and focus on more analytically and empirically central claims. We similarly felt that much of the debate over innate linguistic faculties – although undoubtedly important to Chomsky, and certainly worth debating for its intrinsic interest – was nevertheless not as intrinsically bound as Chomsky might believe to his research into syntax.

Our goal for next week is to provide ourselves with a better basis for assessing these perhaps over-hasty reactions. We are reading the third edition of Chomsky’s Language and Mind, which is a collection of essays, the core of which were originally delivered as lectures in the late 1960s, recently republished with some material from 2004. We’ll also be looking at the chapter titled “Public Language” from Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology.

After our meeting next week, we’ll have a long hiatus, as one (two?) of our group members will spend some time travelling to more interesting places (although, if I might suggest, Chicago in the wintertime might not have been the best choice)… We have a general notion that we should use this long break to dive into some more complex material than we can usually cover in our weekly meetings. Whether we remain with our current linguistic focus or shift to other themes remains to be decided. Suggestions would be welcome…

Reading Group Notes

I’ve been meaning to write an update on my reading group but, as we’ve spent these first several weeks getting to know one another and working out what we want to do in a more structured way, we’ve also been reading a bit randomly and, in some weeks, more lightly than we plan to do once the term is over. I do have plans to write something more elaborate on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, but am currently in negotiation with another person who has not been able to attend the reading group (you know who you are… ;-P) about whether this could productively be written as an online discussion, rather than as one of my theoretical monologues. I’ll use this negotation (and my immense ignorance of Wittgenstein, of course) as an excuse not to preempt my discussion of that text.

Wittgenstein aside, the reading group has done a bit of a random tour through a few lighter texts of some relevance to linguistics – a very broad focus on which we’ve settled for the moment because one of our members is currently doing a PhD on the semantic web, and is interested in the intellectual history of some of the issues that arise in this research, while the rest of us feel a somewhat less targeted sense of guilt for not knowing more about the field… ;-P We took a very quick look at Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics – a text with which I think we were all relatively familiar and comfortable (also the text that seemed most enjoyable to my fellow passengers on the train during my commute, judging from the number of people who were evidently reading over my shoulder in transit – my guess is that they were looking at the pictures – which, given what the pictures are, suggests that most people must find train transport during peak hour remarkably dull…), and a few pieces from Whorf, which were also fairly straight-forward texts to discuss.

We then took a week out from our normal routine because I was away at the conference, and returned to have a special “dueling supervisors” session, since we each have supervisors who have written recent books on globalisation, and wanted to see how their works compared…

This week, we took a look at a couple of texts from Chomsky – chosen for their easy availability on short notice (we had a shorter than usual gap between meetings), rather than for their conceptual centrality to Chomsky’s linguistic theory. These included:

– a piece published in Language, vol 31, no 1, (Jan-Mar 1955), pp. 36-45, titled “Logical Syntax and Semantics: Their Linguistic Relevance“. To my very untrained eye, this piece followed a sort of navigating-scylla-and-charybdis strategy: fending off simplified artificial language approaches to linguistics, on the one hand, while also rejecting something like distributional empiricist approaches, on the other.

– a “Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior“, republished with a new intro in Jakobovits and Miron’s edited volume Readings in the Psychology of Language (1967). I enjoyed this piece much for the same reasons that I also enjoyed re-reading Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” with the group a few weeks back: because it offers some wonderful criticisms of forms of dubious academic argument that also trouble me when I occasionally run across them in other works. In this piece, Chomsky’s focus is on Skinner – but his critiques resonate more widely, cautioning all researchers to be very precise about how thoroughly their grand claims are grounded in underlying data. Among the dubious techniques Chomsky criticises are what he sees as Skinner’s tendency to conflate the very specific and well-defined meaning that terms might have within the context of a laboratory experiement, with the terms’ much broader and fuzzier commonsense meaning. This conflation can work to suggest a far wider scope and power for a theory than the underlying laboratory data actually support – a risk inherent, in Chomsky’s words, when “a term borrowed from the laboratory is used with the full vagueness of the ordinary vocabulary”. Chomsky also criticises another pet peave of mine: the tendency to declare a problem solved when, in fact, the theorist has simply given the old problem a new name – an approach that, Chomsky argues, merely “perpetuates the mystery under a new title”.

This doesn’t quite count as reading, but we also enjoyed the YouTube footage of the “Justice vs. Power” debate between Chomsky and Foucault in 1974. (Although, I have to admit, every time I read or see Foucault in an interview context, I’m always struck by the contrast between what he says about his work, and what he actually seems to do in his work. My fellow reading group members are arguing that I am not adequately appreciating the constraints of the sound bite format – and they may well have the correct view of the situation…) The YouTube footage can be found here:

Part One
Part Two

Having dabbled a bit with Chomsky, the group has now found a bit of a focus for itself over the next couple of weeks. We have a few questions we’re trying to answer – and are in search of some appropriate readings to move us in the right direction. We are currently looking for:

– more information about the contemporary consensus/contestation over Chomsky’s concepts, particularly relating to how Chomsky’s generative/transformative grammar concepts intersect with empirical research findings; and

– a series of readings that will give us some decent “touchstones” in the intellectual history of 20th century linguistics – we are thinking here about primary texts, but wouldn’t be averse to being pointed to some good secondary materials. We are particularly interested in getting a better sense of an “insider’s” view of the field – major schools of thought, contestations, consensus.

If anyone can offer suggestions, they would be most appreciated.

You Don’t Know You’re in Trouble When…

Seeking reasons to procrastinate in the face of the mound of marking that sits on my table, I’ve been spending a leisurely Saturday morning reading various studies of cognitive bias. (Note to self: this is probably not the best way to prepare for marking first-year undergraduate work…)

In the process, I stumbled across a very entertaining article by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” (1999, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, No. 6., p. 1121-1134). The article begins with the story of the hapless McArthur Wheeler, who in 1995 robbed two Pittsburg banks in broad daylight with no disguise. Arrested within an hour of the broadcast of the bank security footage, Wheeler expressed shock that he was identifiable on the security tape, protesting “But I wore the juice!” Apparently Wheeler believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would render him invisible to security cameras… (Kruger and Dunning 1999: 1122).

While Wheeler most likely would meet anyone’s definition of “incompetent”, what Kruger and Dunning are primarily interested in are… er… relative incompetents – folks like you and me, who may be quite skilled in some areas, but are likely not so skilled in others. In those areas where we aren’t so competent, Kruger and Dunning ask, do we know that this is the case? Their hypothesis is that, below a certain level – they isolate out the bottom 25% in the specific skills (logical reasoning, grammar, humour) they test – we may be so poorly skilled that we actually don’t know enough to realise how far off the mark we are – we may, in fact, not know enough to recognise competent behaviour, so that we can begin to model it to improve our own performance.

The study is worth a read (any lurking methods students might particularly enjoy the discussion of how to test whether someone is in the bottom 25% in terms of their sense of humour…). I make no specific claim about the broader validity of the study’s findings, but some of the specific results have a certain intuive plausibility: The authors cite, for example, findings that study participants in the bottom 25% tend to overestimate their skill level considerably, and that they do not tend to revise this positive self-assessment, even after being provided with samples of higher-quality work to “grade”. Interestingly, the authors also mention that participants in the upper skill levels tend to systematically underestimate their compentence – until they are given an opportunity to view others’ work, which then allows them to revise their self-perceptions in a more accurate direction.

Both of these observations track reasonably well with my teaching experience. Struggling students often view suggestions for improvement as unfair and as impositions of impossible standards; they need assistance to get a very concrete sense that better work really is possible – and that it is realistic to expect them to produce such work. At the other end of the spectrum, extremely talented students are generally acutely aware of how much more is possible in ideal circumstances – and can come to measure their work against a standard of perfection that would make anyone depressed, causing their self-perception to become inappropriately low… This can actually be a bit more difficult to manage, since you wouldn’t want to lower someone’s sensitivity to how their work could be improved, but an unrealistically harsh judgment of one’s own work can also be counter-productive…

I’ve been experimenting recently with types of assessments that provide students with an opportunity to view and edit one another’s work, in part to address these sorts of issues (and also to decentre the teaching process a bit – particularly in advanced courses where it’s quite reasonable to expect at least some students to know more in many areas that I do). I’m not completely happy with these experiments to date, so I’m continuing to tweak, but I think there is value in providing students at various skill levels with an opportunity to see what kind of work is possible – and also what kind of work is common…

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.