Sunday, January 09, 2005

Lakoff - VII: An important contribution to political discourse

[Preamble: 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)]

As a cognitive linguist, Lakoff has been interested in a large variety of conceptual systems, but recently he has concentrated heavily on moral concepts, the underlying furniture of our political concepts. The raw materials of that furniture (note my use of metaphor here) come from evolved neural structures appropriate to our propagation as a species. Those neural structures have both dynamic and static features: static, in that they conform to certain design requirements for biological survival; dynamic, in that within those general constraints they can function in a huge number of distinguishable ways, modified by our everyday lives (our biology, our history, our culture). That variety interests Lakoff as much as the regularities. Indeed it is the relationship of the "regularities" and the "variety" which gives rise to the puzzles noted in my post, Lakoff - V. Before going on with Lakoff's own formulation (leading to the "reframing" arguments) I want to pause to highlight an area where I think he has already made an important contribution to political discourse in Progressive circles.

As children of the Enlightenment, Progressives are heavily invested in rational discourse: facts, logical inference, rational decision making, consistency. In some ways we are blinded by these ideals in the sense that we do not recognize the importance of mechanisms outside that framework, which we have tended to identify with irrationality, "pure ideology," or the occult, to name a few pejorative categories. What Lakoff has done is call our attention to the fact that cognitive science suggests that we continually, but unconsciously, make "inferences" not based on "facts" or logical syllogisms. Those inferences are the products of neural structures and their computations, inferences to which we have no conscious access. They are rational in a different sense, a deeply material and biological sense. They are rational in that they express one way an organism can evolve to reproduce and survive in a changing world. In the human species neural structures (and the body connected to them) evolved to allow very complex inferences about the world and how to react to it. These are our conceptual systems and their visible evidence in the real world is technology and culture. Technology and culture are ways that individual neural structures interact with other structures to further enhance species survivability.

As we proceed further into Lakoff's thought, there will be considerable room for alternative narratives, reconstructions and opinions about what the true underlying metaphors are in American society and politics. Thus there will be plenty of opportunity to disagree with Lakoff over some of the details. Before plunging into that thicket, however, it is important to recognize the importance of the foundational aspect of his thought: that most of our reasoning is unconscious, that we make unconscious inferences, that these are related in an intimate way to our biology. According to Lakoff, metaphors are a natural and necessary mode of abstract thought. Thinking metaphorically is not a choice, although the metaphor we use is not constrained.

That is where "framing" will finally enter the picture.

First post in series here. Previous post in series here. Next post here.