Pinker 1, Lakoff 0 (as always)

One of the most illuminating things I've read in a long time is this exchange between Steven Pinker and George Lakoff. Pinker's piece is a review of Lakoff's new book, and Lakoff responds. I am already familiar with these two—the first is one of my favorite current thinkers—but I still think that if someone unfamiliar with either were to read the exchange, Pinker would still come out way ahead.

The problem with Lakoff is that he is exactly in tune with the modern left-wing mind. He tries to walk such a fine line towards such a vague goal that he ends up pleasing no one. Reading his response I couldn't help noticing his awkward way of making firm statements:

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. [emphasis mine]

This is in response to Pinker's review in which he points out how awkwardly Lakoff's leftism forces him to handle the strict father vs. nurturant, uh, parent metaphor.

The mainstream Left is trying very hard to have no vision at all, or if that's not the case I don't know what else could explain it. Elements like Kos occasionally aside, the appeal of Democrats is that they are not Republicans. What Lakoff aims to do is give Democratic politicians attractive ways to package their non-ideas, and his response to Pinker shows why that doesn't work.

For instance, he resorts to the simple and obvious trick of characterizing Pinker's ideas as "the old view...from Rene Descartes's seventeenth-century rationalism" while calling his "the new view" which all modern research supports. Nevermind that there is a wealth of new research supporting and expanding "the old view," or that "the new view" has many more people supporting it for ideological reasons rather than scientific ones. (The tag under the article mentions that Lakoff is "a founding senior fellow of the Rockridge Institute, a center for research devoted to promoting progressive ideas.")

Or there's this low and scientifically misguided insult:

There is another scientific divide that Pinker and I are opposite sides of. Pinker interprets Darwin in a way reminiscent of social Darwinists. He uses the metaphor of survival as a competition for genetic advantage. He has become one of the principal spokesmen for a form of evolutionary psychology that claims that there are genetic differences between men and women that stem from prehistoric differences in gender roles. This led him to support Lawrence Summers' suggestion that there might be fewer women than men in the sciences because of genetic differences. Luckily, this unfortunate metaphorical interpretation of Darwin has few supporters.

I can't really sum it up better than the way Pinker did:

There is much to admire in Lakoff's work in linguistics, but Whose Freedom?, and more generally his thinking about politics, is a train wreck. Though it contains messianic claims about everything from epistemology to political tactics, the book has no footnotes or references (just a generic reading list), and cites no studies from political science or economics, and barely mentions linguistics. Its use of cognitive neuroscience goes way beyond any consensus within that field, and its analysis of political ideologies is skewed by the author's own politics and limited by his disregard of centuries of prior thinking on the subject. And Lakoff's cartoonish depiction of progressives as saintly sophisticates and conservatives as evil morons fails on both intellectual and tactical grounds.

Via Arts & Letters Daily

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