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Belaboring the obvious
am 5. Juli 2000
The human cognitive system is predisposed towords catagorizing, both for computational and storage efficiency, it seems. New perceptual and experiential experiences are increasingly encoded not as unique instances, but as links to existing instances, and from that, categories are formed. This is all Cog Psych 100, and as far as it goes, true- perhaps trivially so, at least to today's crop of psychologists.
But not to George Lakoff. Finding himself the aging bad boy of structural linguistics, he, like Noam Chomsky and other refugees from a dying field, has recast himself in the role of a social theorist. The problem is that the methodlogy that served him well in linguistics doesn't fly here.
In the 1960s, linguistics was turned upside down by an influx of new converts who, in the wake of Chomsky, didn't seek to extend existing linguistic theory so much as to replace it with an entirely new field. They weren't interested in descriptions of geographical distribution of fricatives in the Amazon basin; instead, they had an entirely new model that was based around building a universal grammer of thought and mind. They built this field from nothing, quoting each others' works and ignoring historical studies.
This was a period of revolutionary science, and a quite exciting one it was. But in the end, while they contributed a lot to understanding of grammers and structure, their real aim- that of producing a definitive deep grammer of thought- failed. The numbers of new graduate students dropped off as bright young people went into nerosciences, cognitive psychology, philosophy and computer science, leaving the once-young radicals without a mission.
As many of the young radicals were also fond of the far left (see the "Fetschrift for James McCawley on the occasion of his thirty-first or thirty-second birthday" for some hilarious examples) they gravitated naturally to political and social theory.
Problem was they attempted to carry with them the same methodology they used in linguistics. Forget the old stuff, they cried; we're got a new, better theory! New insights, new truths, all better than before.
As you might expect, what they produced instead was, on the whole, historically ignorant and theoretically shallow. Lakoff published parts of what became this book around ten years ago as essays passed around UUNet, and it appears he heasn't done much reading since. He's apparantly completely unaware of the explosion in the fields of political philosophy, choice theory and cognitive sciences of the past two decades.
In the end, Lakoff's analysis is shallow, ahistorical and generally unconvincing.