Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Lakoff - I. Who is George Lakoff?

[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. While I have read Lakoff, I am not a "Lakoff scholar." 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. I will try to keep the posts short (above the fold), as befitting the medium, although I might not always succeed.]

Who is George Lakoff? I first met him after reading some of his writing but knowing there was a great deal more I hadn't read. I was glad to see he really existed and not a printing press or a consortium of graduate students. He is real, unlike the avatar, Revere, who writes this. His PhD is in linguistics from Indiana University (1966) and he stopped at a variety of institutions before coming to rest at Berkeley in 1972. He is short and plump and no shrinking violet in demeanor. Surprisingly, he is not particularly well-tuned to how his arguments are received by others, but he is open to criticism and not at all defensive. I like him. You can read his official bios at the Rockridge Institute website which he founded to put his theories into political practice ("Rockridge Institute: Rethinking Progressive Politics. Reframing Public Debate. Changing Public Policy.") Lakoff himself is a genuine progressive. In 1991 he was among a few academics to get on the internet to try to rally his colleagues against the first Bush misadventure.

He describes himself as a cognitive scientist. This self-identification is essential to his intentions. Lakoff believes that modern scientific studies of "the mind" have settled, and in most cases, "swept away" millenia of a priori speculation about human reason and the boundaries of knowledge. His project almost overwhelms you with its breathtaking ambition: to reconstruct all of Western Philosophy on the basis of the new scientific discoveries from cognitive science (see his Philosophy in the Flesh, written with Mark Johnson, for more along this line; hereafter abbreviated, PF).

Here, in his own words (PF), are the three major "findings" of cognitive science Lakoff gives as the basis for his reconstruction of philosophy:
  • The mind is inherently embodied
  • Thought is mostly unconscious
  • Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
The first item is characterisitc: Lakoff is a thoroughgoing materialist. Second, Lakoff believes the unconscious plays a dominant role in how we think and how we reason. Third, metaphors are the currency of abstract thought.

It is the latter two, especially the third, that has drawn the most attention in the political realm and which we will look to for implications regarding public health. More about that in coming installments.

The point I want to make is that Lakoff is about a good deal more than "reframing" messages. The reframing part, in fact, is just the tip of an iceberg that supports a "naturalized epistemology" much more radical than most current adherents of that philosophical position ever dreamt.

Enough for now. Next post, here.