Monday, June 23, 2008

Sentences do not exist.

Apparently George Lakoff, the guru of choice for self-styled "progressives" who suspect that the fact that they don't win arguments is the fault of argumentation itself, has yet again published his1997 book, Moral Politics, under a new title. This time the book is titled The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st Century American Politics with an 18th Century Brain. The title leads one to wonder what vintage brain one requires in order to understand Lakoff's book. Presumably those already in possession of a 21st Century brain do not need to read the book. And where does that leave the rest of us? No bother. We wouldn't understand.

William Saletan's review from the NY Times Sunday Book Review is worth reading. Saletan gives the following-- quite accurate, I'm afraid-- nutshell of Lakoff's position:

Neuroscience shows that pure facts are a myth and that self-interest is a conservative idea.

One simply needs to ask whether this sentence itself asserts a statement of fact. And it asserts several: (1) "Pure facts are a myth"; (2) "Self-interest is a conservative idea"; (3) "Neuroscience shows that (1) and (2) are the case." One could go on, since (1), (2), and (3) imply or presuppose other facts. But wait! Facts are myths! So Lakoff's thesis is self-referentially incoherent.

For centuries-- since Socrates, in fact-- philosophers have had to debunk this kind of nonsense. The most recent dismantling of this bullshit, and I think most compelling, is Ronald Dworkin's ass-kicking "Objectivity and Truth: You'd Better Believe It."

The incoherence of Lakoff's position is not the only thing wrong here, nor is it the most troubling defect. The really disconcerting aspect of his view is that it robs progressives of the idea that there is good reason to uphold and defend progressive ideals. On Lakoff's view, our political commitments are simply the results of neuro-linguistic training; one is a progressive simply because one has been trained to use certain concepts. Conservatives simply have been trained to use other concepts. The question, "which concepts are right?" is, on Lakoff's view, nonsensical. So he is offering a strategy by which progressive ideals can come to dominate American politics, but the strategy requires relinquishing the belief that those very ideals are worth striving for. What a fraud.

3 comments:

imipolex g-unit said...

Here's what convinced me that GL is stupid:

I was a lil' grad-puppy and an audience member at one of his talks pushing the 1997 version of his book. At one point he was making some bullshit claim about universal metaphors and asserted that ALL expressions utilzing "up" expressed an increase in something and "down" expressed a decrease of something. During the Q&A I submitted as a counterexample that to "bear down" meant to expend an increase in effort. His response was that it wasn't really a counterexample. No explanation or argument: just flat-out denied it was a counterexample.

Dear George Lakoff: you fucked UP!

Spiros said...

I've heard several similar accounts of how badly GL does when confronted with an academic audience rather than a room full of hacks looking for someone to tell them that all of their opponents are ipso facto ignorant. I'm sure the "neuroscience" that supposedly underlies the view is as simplistic as the ethics and pol phil. What a fraud: The Dr. Phil of liberal politics.

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