Book review

The Political Mind by George Lakoff

So, here we go again! The Political Mind: Why You can’t Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain is yet another book in which the author uses dense reasoning to attack what he falsely believes to be the traditional view of rationality.

The Political Mind was written by cognitive linguist George Lakoff in 2008 and has been followed by a slew of similar attacks on reason that, without any sense of irony, use reason to do so. Lakoff argues that our brains use the logic of framing, prototypes and metaphors to think and if we only understood then progressive politics, would, in a ‘just so’ sort of way, win out. The weird thing about this book, however, is that one can fully accept all of his conclusions about progressive politics and the need to use metaphors etc without accepting any of his science.

For example, he relies heavily on the claim by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga that 98 per cent of what the brain does is unconscious. Even Lakoff acknowledges in a footnote that numbers like these make little sense because one cannot count thoughts. Nevertheless, he writes that the percentage ‘seems about right’. But he then goes on to repeat the figure ad infinitum throughout the book as though it is an unchallengeable fact. It is contestable, however, and not only for the reason that Lakoff provides, but also because it is a quantitative measurement not a qualitative one.

Even supposing we accept the 98-2 per cent split, it may be, as Lakoff acknowledges, that much of unconscious thought is taken up with keeping the body functioning, while the 2 per cent is usefully spent on writing books like The Political Mind and inventing the internet. An analogy might be with the 98 per cent (estimates vary but they are always close to 100 per cent) of our DNA with chimpanzees but that 2 per cent and a few switch genes makes a huge cognitive difference between homo sapiens and chimpanzees – although some might argue of course that it might be better, and less destructive, if we were more like chimps.

Another major problem with this book is that it presents a hopelessly simplified and homogenized version of what he calls ‘The Old Enlightenment’, in which its great 18th century universally privileged rationality to create an over reliance on cold reason. In fact the Enlightenment thinkers held a widely differing positions ranging from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who insisted that ‘reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions’, to Emmanuel Kant who really did privilege reason. Other thinkers like Diderot argued that although the true philosophe was guided by reason, he does seek to eliminate the emotions. Instead he ‘works at not being dominated by them, at benefitting from them, and at making reasonable use of them’. Many thinkers acknowledged that humans are often the ‘slave of the passions’ but thought we should at least try to question ancient ideas and traditions rather than blindly accepting them. In other words, Lakoff is guilty of the straw man facility in which he sets up an argument that doesn’t hold water in order to render is easier to knock down.

Yet another problem is Lakoff’s pathological reliance on the metaphor, which has to do some very heavy lifting. One gets the sense that we literally think in metaphors etc. all the time. “So far we have seen that we think in terms of frames, narratives, metaphors, metonyms, and prototypes.” But it is metaphors that carry the heaviest load. He sees metaphors even when there is one. Conservative attitudes are defined by the strict parent metaphor while progressives are defined by the nurturing parent and so on…and on. Truth only appears once and that is pejoratively when referring to the formal logic of philosophers like Bertrand Russell – although it never occurs to Lakoff that hi book might have benefited from a sprinkling of formal logic.

And you don’t need any of his neuroscience to agree with his final chapter which is a paean to progressive thought, but the irony is that it is written in a literal non-metaphorical way. Metaphors are useful ways of bringing ideas to life. Witness John Donne’s ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’. More prosaically this means, as Lakoff points out in his last chapter, that ‘our brains evolved for empathy, for co-operation, for connection to each other and to earth. We cannot exist alone’. Quite so! It beggars belief that either Lakoff or Donne thought of this truth metaphorically first and then pondered what its literal meaning was. Metaphors in themselves are neutral and their truth or otherwise depend on the ideas they are trying to express.

And what of his conclusion that his naturalistic account leads to what he calls Moral Accounting of which utilitarianism is its non-metaphorical expression? Or that the nurturing parent metaphor leads to non-metaphorical empathy? One of the problems with naturalistic accounts of ethics is that one can always ask whether its conclusions are right. Do altruism and empathy, both of which are said to evolved, always lead to right action? The answer must be ‘no’. One may sacrifice oneself for or have some empathy for a monstrous cause or person. And it is just too pat that his scientific account leads to utilitarianism, conveniently bypassing other normative ethical theories. And is Moral Accounting the only framework for moral decision-making – I think not.

One might agree that the use of metaphors, framing, narratives, metonyms and prototypes are important and that emotions are form an important part of our reasoning without having to give up on the notion of truth. Afterall, we surely believe that ‘No man is an island, entire of itself’ brilliantly expresses an important truth in a particularly vivid and memorable way – not that the metaphor replaces truth. Framing of truths is an important skill that progressives need to learn but the framing itself should not replace the truth. Shifting public opinion is important in order to re-establish the sort of progressive ideas that fuelled the post-war consensus but this work can equally well, if not better expressed within the notion of the dominant ideology or Gramsci’s idea of hegemony as it can in terms of cognitive linguistics.

There is an element of ‘just so’ about Lakoff’s book. It is all too convenient his neuroscientific just happens to coincide with his progressive politics.

Dickie Bellringer

George Lakoff