Pinker and Lakoff

A few years back, I bought a copy of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. At the same time, coincidentally, I was reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. I enjoyed both books immensely and both encouraged me to pursue the relevance of research in cognitive science and biology for sociology. Both helped kick start the most happy time of my time as a sociology graduate student: a period of about a year where I barely read any sociology! They both dealt with the implications research in biology and cognitive science had for the social sciences, and did so in a very “big picture” way that appealed to me.

However, Pinker’s book had one thing Lakoff’s didn’t have: citations. Lots of them. So I followed the footnotes in The Blank Slate and I found a huge, diverse world of fascinating stuff - some of it agreeing, and much of disagreeing, with Pinker’s case. Reading Lakoff’s book, however, gave the impression that you were reading the work of a man who had stumbled upon brilliant ideas for the first time ever in history. I went on to read Lakoff & Johnson’s follow-up, Philosophy in the Flesh, which was accurately described in a review I read as “a small important book inside a big self-important book.” Lakoff’s work is interesting - but his claims are so far-reaching and his citation so non-existent that I basically set it all aside with a big question mark. In contrast, Pinker’s book was a helpful starting point for entering into a new field of research. In the past few years Lakoff’s become quite the “progressive” guru, and whenver I hear/read him I like about half of what he has to say. I usually end up defending him against critics though b/c most of the criticisms you hear of him sort of miss the point: “Oh, Lakoff says it’s just all about words and not about policy or facts.”

So, this is a long-winded way of saying it was refreshing to find a review of Lakoff’s newest book, Whose Freedom?, by someone who does get the cognitive science, Steven Pinker, who calls him out on the lack of citation and evidence:

Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author’s own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject. And Lakoff’s cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds.

Here’s the link.

And there’s more: a little debate ensures that I have no time to write about: Lakoff replies and then Pinker replies to Lakoff’s reply.