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.


  1. =8)-DX says

    Gosh, this is actually a good explanation of a notion I’d heard before and thought needed some extra prodding to make all the parts fit. Thanks for sharing.

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