November 05, 2006

George Lakoff, Card-Carrying Chomskian

George Lakoff has taken a lot of knocks for his theories about political language and the cognitive roots of political orientations, which is not unexpected for someone who has courted controversy throughout his career. Some of the criticism is justified, I think -- in fact I've gotten in my own two cents in my book Talking Right and in a recent post on Open University, the New Republic's academic blog. But some of the charges are really loopy, and none is so weirdly off-the-wall as the description of Lakoff offered in a piece by the Bloomberg columnist Andrew Ferguson claiming that Lakoff's influence is fading, which also ran in the New York Sun and was picked up by various conservative bloggers:

A disciple of the notoriously anti-American Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky, Lakoff first earned a wide public audience -- inadvertently -- with his essay "Metaphors of Terror," published a few days after 9/11.

Now call George Lakoff what you will -- and a lot of people have done just that -- "a disciple of Noam Chomsky" he ain't, not in his politics and certainly not in his linguistics.

True, you could argue that Lakoff's work bears the methodological traces of his Chomskian upbringing; virtually no modern linguist has escaped Chomsky's influence, after all. But Lakoff and Chomsky have been at theoretical and personal loggerheads since the 1960's, and to call Lakoff a Chomsky disciple is like calling Dave Winfield a disciple of George Steinbrenner.

As nonsensical as it is, though, this little factoid has been making its way around the influential conservative blogs. From Little Green Footballs, for example:

I'm sure it will come as no surprise to learn that Lakoff is an admirer of Noam Chomsky.

And from Richard Bennett's The Original Blog:

George Lakoff, the Chomsky protege who's a big fave with Democrats these days, has a new book out urging leftish politicians to spin more.

It isn't hard to see what's going on here. Many people assume that there's some connection between Chomsky's politics and his linguistics, and a lot of them go on to conclude that linguistics itself is constitutively a leftish discipline. So when Lakoff emerged as an influential political figure, it seemed natural to blur both his politics and his linguistics with Chomsky's, particularly if for those who didn't know jack about linguistics. Whatever your political views, it's a depressing reminder of how widespread the ignorance about the field of linguistics is (not that we exactly needed another one). But then it's probably asking too much to expect people who find it expedient to conflate Lakoff's garden-variety liberalism with Chomsky's anarcho-syndicalism to take the trouble to learn the difference between Chomsky's minimalism and Lakoff's cognitive linguistics. Oh well, they have the sense they were born with.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at November 5, 2006 01:46 PM