George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics (in particular, cognitive linguistics) at the University of California, Berkeley. Although some of his research involves questions traditionally pursued by linguists, such as the conditions under which a certain linguistic constriction is grammatically viable, he is most famous for his ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human thinking and society. He is particularly famous for his concept the "embodied mind".

Table of contents
1 The reappraisal of metaphor
2 About the embodied mind
3 Lakoff on mathematics
4 Political significance
5 Comparison to other thinkers/schools
6 Published books
7 See also
8 External links

The reappraisal of metaphor

Lakoff's original thesis on conceptual metaphor was expressed in his book with Mark Johnson entitled Metaphors We Live By in 1980.

Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff's work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought. He says "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." Non-metaphorical thought is for Lakoff only possible when we talk about purely physical reality. For Lakoff the greater the level of abstraction the more layers of metaphor are required to express it. People do not notice these metaphors for various reasons. One reason is that some metaphors become 'dead' and we no longer recognise their origin. Another reason is that we just don't see what is going on.

For instance, in intellectual debate the underlying metaphor is usually that argument is war:

  • He won the argument
  • Your claims are indefensible
  • He shot down all my arguments
  • His criticisms were right on target
  • If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out

For Lakoff, the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors. The application of one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge, thus offering new perceptions and understandings.

Lakoff's theory has major consequences if correct. It points to the complete re-evalation of the entire Western philosophical and scientific traditions. It has applications throughtout all academic disciplines and indeed within all society. Lakoff has sought to explore the full consequences of this view in his later works.

About the embodied mind

When Lakoff claims the mind is "embodied", he is arguing that almost all of human cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on and makes use of such concrete and "low-level" facilities as the sensorimotor system and the emotions. Therefore embodiment is a rejection not only of dualism vis-a-vis mind and matter, but also of claims that human reason can be basically understood without reference to the underlying "implementation details". (Thus Lakoff would strongly reject a number of formulations of the Strong AI position.)

Lakoff offers three complementary but distinct sorts of arguments in favor of embodiment. First, using evidence from neuroscience and neural network simulations, he argues that certain concepts, such as color and spatial relation concepts (e.g. "red" or "over"), can be almost entirely understood through the examination of how processes of perception or motor control work.

Second, based on cognitive linguistics' analysis of figurative language, he argues that the reasoning we use for such abstract topics as warfare, economics, or morality is somehow rooted in the reasoning we use for such mundane topics as spatial relationships. (See conceptual metaphor.)

Finally, based on research cognitive psychology and some investigations in the philosophy of language, he argues that very few of the categories used by humans are actually of the black and white type amenable to analysis in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. On the contrary, most categories are supposed to be much more complicated and messy, just like our bodies.

A criticism of Lakoff would be that he writes as if he has discovered something unique with the concept of the embodied mind. However, a number of thinkers have considered the mind to be 'embodied', and his argument would be stronger if he referenced their ideas. Physicist David Bohm made a similar argument for embodiment in Thought As A System. John Grinder and Richard Bandler articulated this view in NLP, though referencing them would probably not help his academic credentials.

Lakoff on mathematics

Lakoff argues that the best way to understand what mathematical and philosophical ideas are really about is to consider them in light of the structure of the embodied mind. This has generated some controversy, especially in the philosophy of mathematics. It is as yet unclear whether philosophers not so mathematically inclined are terribly interested in or bothered by Lakoff.

As an example of a controversial Lakovian idea in this vein is that, when considering the significance of mathematics, we should remain agnostic about whether math is some how wrapped up with the very nature of the universe. Early in 2001 Lakoff told the AAAS, "Mathematics may or may not be out there in the world,but there's no way that we scientifically could possibly tell." This claim bothers a number of people, some because they think there really is a way we could "tell", others, presumably, because it implies that mathematics involves a good deal less certainty than one might expect.

Political significance

Lakoff has publicly expressed both ideas about the conceptual structures that he views as central to understanding the political process and some of his particular political views. He almost always discusses the latter in terms of the former.

Moral Politics gives book-length consideration to the conceptual metaphors that Lakoff sees as present in the minds of American "liberals" and "conservatives". Lakoff makes an attempt to keep his personal views confined to one particular section near the book's close. It is not entirely clear whether this work is more relevant to cognitive science or to political analysis.

Lakoff has distributed some much briefer political analyses via the Internet. One article distributed this way is ''Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf'', in which Lakoff argues that the particular conceptual metaphors used by the Bush administration to justify American involvement in the Gulf ended up either obscuring reality, or putting a handy conservative spin on the facts. Presumibly it is contributions such as this that have helped endear Lakoff to some who otherwise wouldn't care less about theories of the mind.

Comparison to other thinkers/schools

Published books

See also

External links