Lakoff vs. Pinker

As intuitive as cognitive linguistics is, which the “strict-father” model relies on, it is not without its critics.  I feel obligated to share its criticisms by other scientists that claim that cognitive linguistics has deviated too far off the path of cognitive science.  Pinker, for example, attacks Lakoff’s approach, that is, approach not substance, to using cognitive linguistics to disparage conservatives.

The problem with this burlesque is not that its targets don’t deserve criticism. It’s that it will backfire with all of its potential audiences. Any of his Lakoff’s allies on the left who think that their opponents are such imbeciles will have their clocks cleaned in their first debate with a Young Republican. The book will be red meat for his foes on the right, who can hold up his distortions as proof of liberals’ insularity and incomprehension. And the people in the center that he really wants to reach will be turned off by his relentless self-congratulation, his unconcealed condescension, and his shameless caricaturing of beliefs with which they might have a modicum of sympathy.

Pinker above is referring to the book “Whose Freedom” by Lakoff.  But Pinker’s critique seems to be about the strict-father model in general, where the dialogue between Lakoff and Pinker can be found here (not easily).  It’s hard to take this review seriously, but not because it’s mediated by a right-wing blogger, but because of the contempt he shows for Lakoff.  I found two valid criticisms.

Opinion on Pinker

What does Pinker think that a model does as it must be a simplification of reality since it has to remove noise and detail in order to balance its descriptive value with its usability.  I wouldn’t describe Lakoff’s model as a caricature, but if we misapply this and say that this is how a real conservative thinks and feels, then the word caricature would be apt because this model is an ideal, not a reality.

But a model is not supposed to say anything about any one individual as it only characterizes some ideal type.  The questions should be: (see below).  In my view, it does these things.

  • does the model make sense out of how the two modes of thought (worldviews) reason differently,
  • why they may take different stances on the key issues,
  • as well as explain where this reasoning comes from and how it works.

Lakoff did not do a good job at talking about the model’s limitations as well as not clarifying the level of explanation that this is supposed to be at.  This is confusing since most models describe the worldviews in terms of evolved adaptations and personality differences, and Lakoff’s model is at the top level since language is the outcome of our intuition and feelings, as it encodes them.

We can’t use this model to say this is how a real conservative would reason and behave because reality is complicated and there is even evidence that we are bi-conceptualizers in that we can switch between the worldviews or modes of thoughts.  We can only say that there is an increased probability that conservatives will endorse and use this mode of reasoning more often than a liberal would.

Defining the Conflict 

Pinker’s criticisms on the discipline don’t seem to hold much water since Lakoff defends his use of the science quite well.  The only criticism that has any merit is Lakoff’s recommendation on how liberals need to approach politics.  He suggests that liberals need to stop focusing on the “facts” since politics is mostly identity-based.  Instead, liberals need to engage in more metaphorical thought, as conservatives do, which would evoke our tribal instincts.  Below, Lakoff describes how Pinker’s views on cognitive science differ.

Pinker, a respected professor at Harvard, has been the most articulate spokesman for the old theory.  In language, it is Noam Chomsky’s claim that language consists in (as Pinker puts it) “an autonomous module of syntactic rules.”   What this means is that language is claimed to be just a matter of abstract symbols, having nothing to do with what the symbols mean, how they are used to communicate, how the brain processes thought and language, or any aspect of human experience, cultural or personal.

Pinker is part of the old school of cognitive science that believes that language is a matter of symbolic manipulation in a highly modular mind, while cognitive linguistics is a branch of, so they claim, the new way of thinking on the mind.  It is new in that it detracts from the school of “Western Philosophy”, requiring that thought is not mind alone but bodily instead.  This idea that thought and reason are bodily allows us to do away with the once contrasting ideas of perception versus conception, and much else.

The new view is that reason is embodied in a nontrivial way. The brain gives rise to thought in the form of conceptual frames, image-schemas, prototypes, conceptual metaphors, and conceptual blends. The process of thinking is not algorithmic symbol manipulation, but rather neural computation, using brain mechanisms.

Invalid Criticisms by Pinker?

(be nice to get expert opinions)

Criticism #1:

Pinker represents the research results on conceptual metaphor as follows: “Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, shows that all thought is based on unconscious physical metaphors …” I have actually argued the opposite.

Pinker misrepresents what Lakoff has always said.  If you read his material, it is clear that facts matter and that literal thought is a part of how we reason although to a lesser extent.  Lakoff also states that the mechanisms that we reason with, namely image-schemas, conceptual frames, and prototype structures, are not metaphorical at all although metaphorical thought relies on them.

Criticism #2:

Having claimed falsely that I believe that all thought is metaphorical, Pinker then chides me by taking the position I have actually advocated: “Thinking cannot trade in metaphors directly.” Just as I have not only said, but have argued empirically.

Pinker even gets the research in his own field of psychology wrong. “Laboratory experiments show that people don’t think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.” But experiments show exactly the opposite.

By Pinker not getting the empirical evidence behind understanding metaphors right, Lakoff claims that he misunderstands the “most basic result in contemporary metaphor research: Metaphor is a matter of thought, not just language.”  Lakoff then goes on to explain how thought uses metaphor and how it relies on getting the facts about framing correctly.

The same words can be instances of different conceptual metaphors. To take a familiar example: It’s all downhill from here can mean either (1) things will get progressively worse, based on the Good Is Up, Bad Is Down metaphor; or (2) things will be easier from now on, based on the metaphor in which Action is Understood as Motion (as in things are moving right along) and Easy Action is understood in terms of easy (i.e., downhill) motion. 

This example shows that facts, represented as words, matter in that facts must be paired with the correct frame in order to make sense out of the facts.  So if we use the wrong frame, for example, “Good is Up, Bad is Down metaphor”, then we won’t be able to understand if someone is using the “Action is understood as Motion and Easy Action in terms of motion metaphor” frame.

Criticism #3:

That is what “reframing” is about — correcting framing that distorts truths and finding framing that allows truth to be seen.But Pinker claims that I say the opposite, that rather than being a realist, he says I am a cognitive relativist: “All this belies Lakoff’s cognitive relativism, in which mathematics, science, and philosophy are beauty contests between rival frames rather than attempts to characterize the nature of reality. It undermines his tips in the political arena as well.   Lakoff tells progressives not to engage conservatives on their own terms, not to present facts or appeal to the truth, and not to pay attention to polls. Instead, they should try to pound new frames and metaphors into voters’ heads. Don’t worry that this is just spin or propaganda…”

But this is a misrepresentation as well, as Lakoff clarifies below.

Here is what I actually say about spin and propaganda (Don’t Think of an Elephant, pp. 100-101): “Spin is the manipulative use of a frame. Spin is used when something embarrassing has happened or has been said, and it’s an attempt to put an innocent frame on it–that is, to make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good. Propaganda is another manipulative use of framing. Propaganda is an attempt to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true, for the purpose of gaining or maintaining political control. The reframing I am suggesting is neither spin nor propaganda. Progressives need to learn to communicate using frames that they really believe, frames that express what their moral views really are. I strongly recommend against any deceptive framing.”

Criticism #4

Pinker: One of the findings of cognitive science that is most important for politics is that frames are mental structures that can be either associated with words (the surface frames) or that structure higher-level organizations of knowledge.

This is about how mental structures are stored in the mind.

Lakoff: Surface frames are associated with phrases like “war on terror” that both activate and depend critically on deep frames. These are the most basic frames that constitute a moral worldview or a political philosophy. Deep frames define one’s overall “common sense.”  Without deep frames there is nothing for surface frames to hang onto. Slogans do not make sense without the appropriate deep frames in place.” (p. 29) The same basic point is made in my other books applying cognitive science to politics. Again, Pinker claims that I say the opposite.

Pinker: Cognitive science has not shown that people absorb frames through sheer repetition. On the contrary, information is retained when it fits into a person’s greater understanding of the subject matter.” But that is exactly what I said! The deep frames characterize the “greater understanding of the subject matter;” the surface frames can be “retained” only when they fit the deep frames. 

Valid Criticisms by Pinker?

(be nice to get expert opinions)

Criticism #1

Pinker: thinking cannot trade in metaphors directly. It must use a more basic currency that captures the abstract concepts shared by the metaphor and its topic–progress toward a shared goal in the case of journeys and relationships, conflict in the case of argument and war–while sloughing off the irrelevant bits.

Mediator: This is an old criticism of conceptual metaphor theory, first voiced (as far as I know) by Greg Murphy in his 1996 paper “On Metaphoric Representation.” There Murphy argues that we need an independent (i.e., non-metaphorical) representation of a concept in order to know which other concepts we can map it to metaphorically, and once we’ve mapped it, what information from the other concepts are relevant for the structuring of the first concept.

This is a valid point as to where do we get the knowledge to map a metaphor from one domain to the other, or even where do we know where to start the metaphor.  For example, how do we know that up is good and down is bad such that we can conclude that “doing evil is falling”?  I would imagine that cognitive linguistics has addressed this, but I have not read enough material to have seen it.  And even if we don’t know the answer just yet, I don’t think this is fatal to metaphor theory, in which Lakoff uses.

Criticism #2

Pinker: Laboratory experiments show that people don’t think about the underlying image when understanding a familiar metaphor, only when they are faced with a new one.

Mediator: Lakoff says, not so, and for the first time, cites actual research by someone other than himself. The problem is, the research he cites doesn’t actually say anything about Pinker’s claim. Raymond Gibbs’ books a.) are out of date and b.) don’t really present any empirical work on dead metaphors, and Boroditsky’s work (which I’ve discussed before) a.) doesn’t license conclusions about conceptual metaphors, and b.) concerns only one fairly unique and highly abstract domain, time. Actual work on metaphor in general has, in fact, shown that conventional metaphors (often called dead metaphors) are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically, just as Pinker says.

This criticism would make the criticism above an invalid one because this blogger is claiming that Lakoff is wrong.  I don’t have the time to investigate, but it is important to at least observe that a common criticism of cognitive linguistics is that it lacks empirical support.  Also, I know that experts will interpret the evidence in a way that fits their theory, so who is right here?


[1] Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes. Penguin Publishing Group.

[2] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[3] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[4] Lakoff, George. The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant! . Chelsea Green Publishing.

[5] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[6] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[7] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[8] Tuschman, Avi. Our Political Nature. Prometheus.

Driving Right-Winged Logic

When we break down the logic of conservativism, we will then be able to understand it.  Believe it or not, there is nothing irrational about it, but this doesn’t mean that we need to support it.  What drives its logic is its adherence to a “strict-father” morality and its reliance on folk behaviorism.  Before describing how the model works, we will look at the assumptions that drive its logic.

It is not irrational if we believe that its assumptions are true, but it is dangerous if taken literally to those that are unable to meet its standards since social hierarchy and meritocracy are moral and necessary parts of the system.  In fact, competition, which is the means to hierarchy, is such an essential and inseparable piece of conservative morality that without it it would become incoherent.

Without competition, there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person.  It is through competition that we discover who is moral, that is, who has been properly self-disciplined and therefore deserves success, and who is fit enough to survive and even thrive in a difficult world. [2]

This worldview is one mode of thought that is common throughout all cultures although perhaps not in the same exact configuration – a configuration that “appeals to the worst of human instincts, leading people to stereotype, demonize, and punish the Other. [2].”  I am in agreement with Lakoff here, but if I am to be at all honest, then I must admit to using this “hawkish” type of reasoning myself.

If he has not worked hard enough, he is slothful and hence morally weak.  If he is not talented enough, then he ranks lower than others in the natural order…The rich (who are talented enough and who have worked hard enough to become rich) deserve their wealth and the poor (either through lack of industry or talent) deserve their poverty. [2]

Assumptions on Human Behavior

Conservatives’ logic relies on folk behaviorism, which is a model of human behavior that explains learning in terms of rewards and punishments.  Since we do respond to incentives, trade-offs, and consequences, then folk behaviorism seems to be true, but life isn’t all about carrots and sticks as much else can motivate us.  It is, however, an essential piece for making their reasoning work.

People, left to their own devices, tend simply to satisfy their desires.  But, people will make themselves do things they don’t want to do to get rewards; they will refrain from doing things they do want to do to avoid punishment. [2]

Behaviorism as a model for how we learn has largely been replaced by cognitive science as an explanatory tool [6].  And it can’t be true in the absolute sense since it requires that punishment and rewards have absolute meanings, but they don’t since conceptual categories, which rewards and punishments are, are considered to be “fuzzy”, “radial” and vary in the prototype that is used.

Not only can’t we unequivocally define what reward and punishment are for everyone, but we don’t always act according to what the rational actor model predicts, which is not in some objectively defined way that is always in our best interests.  What interferes with us maximizing our rewards and minimizing our punishment is that our reasoning varies over time, situation, and with the individual.

Often, the source of that failure is due to the fact that people use other forms of reasoning that get in the way of a reward-punishment form of “rationality”—prototype-based reasoning, alternate framings, worldview differences—which affect how categories of people and events are understood and even affect judgments of simple probability.

There exists an additional, hidden, assumption that “life is a struggle for survival, and therefore “survival in the world is a matter of competing successfully”. [2].  This means that the world is difficult and that we must become self-disciplined through rewards and punishments which builds character.  We already know, however, from this post that we are making life a struggle for survival.

The Conservative Morality

    1. This contributes a great deal—the strict dichotomy between
    2. good and evil, the internal evils, asceticism, and the immorality of moral weakness.
    1. This contributes notions of the legitimacy and illegitimacy of moral authority, and
    2. transfers the resentment toward meddling parents into resentment against the meddling of other authority figures.
    1. This legitimizes certain traditional hierarchical power relations and, together with Moral Strength,
    2. makes it seem reasonable to think that the rich are either morally or naturally superior to the poor.
    1. This provides a spatial logic of the danger of deviance.
    1. This contributes the idea that there exists an essence called “character,”
    2. that it can be determined by significant past actions, and that it is a reliable indicator of future actions.
    1. This makes moral unity and uniformity a virtue
    2. and suggests the imminent and serious danger of any sign of moral nonunity and nonuniformity. 
    1. This associates our visceral reactions of disgust
    2. and our logic of the corruption of pure substances with the idea that morality must be unified and uniform.
    1. This adds the logic of disease to the logic of immorality
    2. and contributes the idea that contact with immoral people is dangerous 
    3. because the immorality might spread in a rapid and uncontrollable way like an epidemic.
    1. This adds the idea that seeking one’s self-interest is a moral activity
    2. and interfering with the seeking of self-interest is immoral.
    3. The application of this metaphor is limited by its role in the system.
    1. The role of this metaphor in the system is to specify when helping people is moral.


[1] Graham, George, “Behaviorism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[2] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[3] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[4] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[5] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[6] Wikipedia contributors. Behaviorism. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:59, December 17, 2020, from

Schematic of Reason

[This is my interpretation of the work of George Lakoff from UC Berkeley and Hugo Mercier from the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris.]

To understand an ideology we need to break down its mode of thought.  This mode of thought is not formal logic but rather a series of metaphors that have a central theme that is adhered to that gives it its coherence.  Mechanistically, we all reason the same, by way of intuitive inference, but we do vary in the preference and priority that we give to certain types of reasoning.

The mode of thought that an ideology engages in can be broken down and understood with the help of cognitive linguistics, which is a multidisciplinary approach to understanding human language and cognition.  This post will look at the mechanics behind real reason and claims that reason is mostly post-hoc and metaphorical.  In the end, we will introduce the ideology of conservatism.

Post-Hoc Reasoning

We reason by seeking reasons to justify our beliefs and actions in order to persuade others [10].  This is known as a post-hoc rationalization, which means that we have an intuition first and then support it with reasons.  There exist two kinds of reasoning which is either an explanation or argument but both have a similar structure and only vary in how they relate to their reasons.

We may, for example, feel that it is unfair to let the free-market determine the minimum wage, and then we seek reasons to justify government interference in the market.  In the process of doing so, we are making claims on what is right and wrong, which makes this kind of reasoning a form of moral reasoning.  In fact, most reasoning is a kind of moral reasoning.

  • intuition: feeling a sense of compassion for those that struggle when earning substandard wages
  • justification: Government must establish a minimum wage because we can’t rely on the imperfect market.
  • covertness: Notice that the real reason, which is having compassion, is left out because it is considered irrational.

Conceptual Categories

To understand the mechanism of reason, we have to turn to cognitive science which says that we only understand things in light of what we already know.  In order to do this, our mind creates conceptual categories that are nothing more than metaphors.  These categories have inferential capacity in that they allow us to draw inferences that aid in our understanding of our reality [7].

Primary metaphors are cross-domain mappings, pings, from a source domain (the sensorimotor domain) to a target domain (the domain of subjective experience), preserving inference and sometimes preserving lexical representation. [7]

The quote above is saying that we have a rudimentary intuition about something in the physical domain and then map it to a higher domain with our language.  Take for example the metaphor of “going over your head”, which is a physical experience that is mapped to the target of “failing to understand” something.  Our language is replete with examples of us understanding our reality in this way.

Conservativism as Metaphor

The style of reasoning that conservativism uses is similar to the style we use towards raising a family.  Not surprisingly, conservativism resembles a strict-father upbringing while liberalism resembles a nurturant-parent upbringing.  We can think of each style of raising families as a unique mode of thought that consists of various complex metaphors that have different priorities.

The theme of ‘strict-family’ for conservatives is what drives its logic by prioritizing the various metaphorical concepts.  For example, conservatives place moral strength, which addresses self-discipline and success, at the highest priority, while morality as nurturance is at the lowest priority.  We will explain the details of George Lakoff’s model of conservativism below in the next post.

  1. MORAL STRENGTH: This defines self-discipline as characterized by the family model and extends it to morality.
  2. MORAL AUTHORITY: This builds on parental authority in the central model and extends it to morality generally.
  3. MORAL ORDER: This legitimizes the Strict Father’s authority, and defines what counts as “natural” and hence legitimate.
  4. MORAL BOUNDARIES: This allows us to apply spatial reasoning to moral structures.
  5. MORAL ESSENCE: This spells out an important part of what is meant by “character” in the family model.
  6. MORAL WHOLENESS: This provides a way to conceptualize the importance of unity, sameness, and stability of morality.
  7. MORAL PURITY: This provides us with a way to conceptualize immorality as portrayed in the family model.
  8. MORAL HEALTH: This allows us to conceptualize the effects of immorality as portrayed in the family model.
  9. MORAL SELF-INTEREST: This provides the crucial link between self-discipline and self-reliance in the family model.
  10. MORALITY AS NURTURANCE: This links nurturance in the family model to helping others in society in general.


[1] Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition. HarperCollins e-books.

[2] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. HMH Books.

[3] Burton, Robert Alan. On Being Certain. St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

[4] Damasio, Antonio R.. Descartes’ Error. Penguin Publishing Group.

[5] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[6] Lakoff, George. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press.

[7] Lakoff, George. Philosophy In The Flesh.

[8] Lakoff, George. The Political Mind. Penguin Publishing Group.

[9] Lakoff, George. Your Brain’s Politics. Societas.

[10] Mercier, Hugo. The Enigma of Reason. Harvard University Press.

[11] Smith, Justin E. H.. Irrationality. Princeton University Press.