Friday, December 24, 2004

Lakoff - II: Preliminaries

[Preamble to this series: This is one of a series of posts about the relevance of the work of George Lakoff for public health. First a disclaimer. My aim here is not an explication of all of Lakoff, or where he stands in cognitive science versus analytic philosophy, or whether there is a "there, there" as Gertrude Stein once wondered about Oakland (where Lakoff is now situated at UC Berkeley). It is rather to take some elements of Lakoff's writings (and I think genuine insights), and see how they might illuminate a central problem in public health, having a Central Problem. Posts will be relatively short, as befits the medium. PF is Lakoff's book, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). MP is Moral Politics (2002)]

It is necessary to approach Lakoff not from his current destination (the "reframing" project) but from where he starts. Those who only know him from his latest elephants book, which is a summary of the tactical aspects of a longer book, Moral Politics, may wonder how he arrives at some of his formulations. There is undeniably a "rabbit out of the hat" feeling about them but they become more understandable (and evaluable) when the underlying theoretical machinery is revealed.

Lakoff didn't arrive at his latest views on politics by starting with an interest in the political implications of cognitive science. Before Moral Politics he had written widely on a bewildering variety of topics. But throughout there are certain underlying themes. The three most important I set out in the previous post. The first of these was that the mind is inherently embodied and the second, that most thought is unconscious (I will consider the third, important from a political standpoint, later).

First, mind is embodied. In Lakoff's view all our mental processes, the small portion that are conscious and the vast majority that are not, are shaped by the fact we are evolved, biological entities. To survive we have developed mechanisms to sense our environment, categorize it and react to it, as have all organisms. In "higher" organisms this involves using neural structures that enable us to perceive, move and manipulate. These structures "have been shaped by both evolution and experience." (PF, ch. 3).

This leads naturally to the second point, that most thought is unconscious. On a trivial level most of what we do to get along in the world is unconscious (I don't think about how to chew or walk), but Lakoff's more radical contention is that "higher functions" like reasoning and forming and manipulating concepts use the same neural circuitry and also involve constraints dictated by sensing, categorizing and manipulating the world. Reasoning is thus just as "sensorimotor" as breathing or walking. For Lakoff it is wrong to separate "reflexes" like pulling your hand from a hot stove and "reasoning." Both are versions of "sensorimotor inference." This holds true also for philosophical concepts like "causation" and "morality."

This also implies that "reason" is universal with all living things, not just "human" ones. We are on a continuum with other animals. People are not in conscious control of most of their reasoning nor do they have access to the operation of most of their thinking. These are findings Lakoff takes as established by modern cognitive science and he uses this machinery to construct a wide ranging theory. One product is his much discussed "reframing" formulation of political action. Of which, more to come.

Previous post here. Nest post here.