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the political mind

George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist at the University of California, Berkeley. He is working in a long tradition of scientists who use their knowledge and skills to understand the world we live in and to change the world for the better, as they understand “better”. His books, including The Political Mind (2008), are a part of that project. I admire him for trying and for the power of his work.

I used the phrase “as they understand ‘better’” advisedly. The history of scientists using science to improve the world has been good and bad. Science has been used to eliminate disease, make daily chores easier, and many other good ends; it has also been used—and still is—to further oppressions of all kinds, including racism, sexism, classism, and more.

This is not to say that I dispute Lakoff’s science or even his applications to the political world. In fact, I find the ideas compelling because they help me understand the world and the behavior of people around me. In addition, I like his goals and mostly align with his politics.

But agreeing with Lakoff’s picture of a better world—a picture he outlines in the book’s last chapter—is not important. The science underlying his method for changing the world is important and we should take notice. Lakoff calls that science the 21st century ideas of reason and cognition, which is somewhat self-serving considering that he helped develop the theory. Nevertheless, as I see it the big idea here is that the mind is fundamentally a metaphor instrument (and here we need to note that using the word “instrument” itself evokes a metaphor and one that I don’t think is entirely accurate—instrument implies a tool with a user, but the mind is part of the body and cannot be separated, so who or what would be the user of the “instrument”?). According to Lakoff (and others), we think in and reason with metaphors; every action, every perception, every idea is governed by one or more metaphors that are semi-hardwired in the physical space of our brains.

As I understand the story, our neurons physically form circuits or “frames” or metaphor themes. For example, take a basic action frame: Actor, Action, Acted On. This circuit in the brain is activated by pretty much every action. I could be the actor, writing the action, this blog entry the acted on. Or the actor could be you, reading the action, and still this blog entry the acted on. Every time the frame is activated these roles come into play; my mind is looking for who or what fits the roles. Then our brains take the idea of me—literally another circuit in my brain with an entire frame of associations and knowledge—and binds the actor role with me physically and temporarily.

The binding isn’t permanent, but the more an idea is bound to a role in a frame, the easier it is to do it again. If an idea or person is bound to a role often enough it becomes difficult to separate them because the physical connection between the two brain circuits is now hard to break. This explains, physically, why thinking of yourself as a being in control of your life promotes more of the same. Confidence leads to more confidence, because literally the circuitry that represents you in your brain gets bound in neurons to the circuitry that represents confidence. Of course, the opposite is also true.

This understanding of the brain’s function helps explain and supports lots of ideas about education. Metaphor binding means context is important, that attitude matters, that fun and enthusiasm matter, and that relationships between teachers and students make a difference. Teachers know all this, but now we have a more physical understanding of how it works.

The Political Mind is a deeper exploration and a more nuanced, less specifically political perspective on the ideas from Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant. The basics of the politics are that conservative worldviews are dominated by authority and obedience, while progressives’ central ideas are empathy and responsibility, with protection and empowerment the main roles of government. Lakoff also claims, I believe rightly, that empathy is the foundation of democracy and the philosophical underpinning of our Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. The specific issues he focuses on mostly are economics, the environment, health care, and wars; rarely does he address race, prisons, or schools.  Still, it is easy to use the frames he develops for any issue. Towards the end, Lakoff adds a nice chapter that synthesizes the development of cognitive linguistics with the history and traditions of science, math, philosophy, and other disciplines.

The science Lakoff discusses is useful and provocative. His attempt to use it to change the world is laudable and may work to some degree—though don’t think we’ll know for years to come. The kinds of frame changes about which he’s talking are literal changes in people’s minds; that take time, persistence, and even luck. In the meantime, he’s given me a powerful way to think about and understand the world.

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