October 05, 2004

Good theory, bad practice -- or contrariwise?

Over the past month, several weblogs have posted long and thoughtful evaluations of George Lakoff's ideas about framing political discourse. Several l. and t. evaluations each, in fact.

Chris at Mixing Memory has a half a dozen recent posts on Lakoff, whom he calls "one of my least favorite linguists (his work gives embodied cognition a bad name), but one of my favorite political commentators": 9/09 "Framing the convention", 9/16 "Karl Rove the Feminist Bankteller", 9/21 "Lakoff in the Blogosphere", 9/22 "Understanding Frames with an Eye Toward Using Them Better", 9/27 "Lakoff's View of Metaphors", and 10/02 "Lakoff is Everywhere!"

Meanwhile, Semantic Compositions has been arguing the other side, in posts on 9/30 "Maybe try thinking of a donkey", 9/30 (again) "What George Lakoff knows about the mind" and 10/1 "How not to test a hypothesis". [Update: and now (10/5) another installment: "Excellent, excellent".] SC thinks that Lakoff has "[taken] a worthy theory about cognition and metaphors, and [turned] it into a rather less impressive theory of political speech". In slogan form, SC calls this "good theory, bad practice". (Since Chris argues that Lakoff has taken a bad theory of cognition and turned it into good political commentary, I can't resist noting that SC is thus acting as the anti-Chris. Sorry, SC).

If you haven't already had enough, this search will net you a baker's dozen Language Log posts that mention George Lakoff, although with less length and thoughtfulness. (You'll also find one post citing Robin Lakoff, as a bonus).

And the 1996 Cognition paper by Gregory Murphy, which Chris cites as a source of qualms about Lakoff's theory of metaphor, is here: Murphy, G. 1996. "On metaphoric representation", Cognition 60: 173-204 (.pdf). Its abstract:

The article discusses claims that conceptual structure is in some part metaphorical, as
identified by verbal metaphors like LOVE IS A JOURNEY. Two main interpretations of
this view are discussed. In the first, a target domain is not explicitly represented but is
instead understood through reference to a different domain. For example, rather than a
detailed concept of love per se, one could make reference to the concept of a journey. In the
second interpretation, there is a separate representation of love, but the content of that
representation is influenced by the metaphor such that the love concept takes on the same
structure as the journey concept. It is argued that the first interpretation is not fully coherent.
The second interpretation is a possible theory of mental representation, but the article raises
a number of empirical and theoretical problems for it.

Not mentioned by Chris, but also worth reading, are the response by Raymond Gibbs ("Why many concepts are metaphorical"), Cognition 61: 301-319, and the re-response by Murphy "Reasons to doubt the present evidence for metaphoric representation", Cognition 62: 99-108 (.pdf). Gibbs and Murphy manage to disagree sharply while not only remaining civil, but also learning from one another.

I may say something more about all of this later on, but I hope you enjoy the links, anyhow.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 5, 2004 12:16 AM