George Lakoff

George P. Lakoff (Pronounced: "lay-koff") is a professor of linguistics (in particular, cognitive linguistics) at the University of California, Berkeley where he has taught since 1972. Although some of his research involves questions traditionally pursued by linguists, such as the conditions under which a certain linguistic construction is grammatically viable, he is most famous for his ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human thinking and society. He is particularly famous for his concept of the "embodied mind". In recent years he has applied his work to the realm of politics, and founded a progressive think tank, the Rockridge Institute (


The reappraisal of metaphor

Lakoff's original thesis on conceptual metaphor was expressed in his book with Mark Johnson entitled Metaphors We Live By in 1980.

Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff's work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought. He says "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." Non-metaphorical thought is for Lakoff only possible when we talk about purely physical reality. For Lakoff the greater the level of abstraction the more layers of metaphor are required to express it. People do not notice these metaphors for various reasons. One reason is that some metaphors become 'dead' and we no longer recognise their origin. Another reason is that we just don't see what is going on.

For instance, in intellectual debate the underlying metaphor is usually that argument is war:

  • He won the argument
  • Your claims are indefensible
  • He shot down all my arguments
  • His criticisms were right on target
  • If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out

For Lakoff, the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors. The application of one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge offers new perceptions and understandings.

Lakoff's theory has major consequences if correct. It points to the complete re-evaluation of the entire Western philosophical and scientific traditions. It has applications throughtout all academic disciplines and indeed within all society. Lakoff has sought to explore the full consequences of this view in his later works.

About the embodied mind

When Lakoff claims the mind is "embodied", he is arguing that almost all of human cognition, up through the most abstract reasoning, depends on and makes use of such concrete and "low-level" facilities as the sensorimotor system and the emotions. Therefore embodiment is a rejection not only of dualism vis-a-vis mind and matter, but also of claims that human reason can be basically understood without reference to the underlying "implementation details".

Lakoff is, with Rafael E. Nez, the primary proponent of the embodied mind thesis.

Lakoff offers three complementary but distinct sorts of arguments in favor of embodiment. First, using evidence from neuroscience and neural network simulations, he argues that certain concepts, such as color and spatial relation concepts (e.g. "red" or "over"), can be almost entirely understood through the examination of how processes of perception or motor control work.

Second, based on cognitive linguistics' analysis of figurative language, he argues that the reasoning we use for such abstract topics as warfare, economics, or morality is somehow rooted in the reasoning we use for such mundane topics as spatial relationships. (See conceptual metaphor.)

Finally, based on research in cognitive psychology and some investigations in the philosophy of language, he argues that very few of the categories used by humans are actually of the black and white type amenable to analysis in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. On the contrary, most categories are supposed to be much more complicated and messy, just like our bodies.

"We are neural beings," Lakoff states, "Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything - only what our embodied brains permit."

A criticism of Lakoff would be that he writes as if he has discovered something unique with the concept of the embodied mind. However, a number of thinkers have considered the mind to be 'embodied', and his argument would be stronger if he referenced their ideas. Physicist David Bohm made a similar argument for embodiment in Thought As A System. John Grinder and Richard Bandler articulated this view in Neuro-linguistic programming. Similar ideas can also be found in the work of Julian Jaynes.

Controversial extensions to the embodied mind thesis

Many scientists share the belief that there are problems with falsifiability and foundation ontologies purporting to describe "what exists", to a sufficient degree of rigor to establish a reasonable method of empirical validation. But Lakoff seems to discard both claims entirely:

In particular, he asserts, in an idiosyncratic claim extending those published in "The Embodied Mind", that falsifiability itself can never be established by any reasonable method that would not rely ultimately on a shared human bias - that mathematics itself is subjective to the human species and its cultures: thus "any question of math's being inherent in physical reality is moot, since there is no way to know whether or not it is."

Lakoff on mathematics

Lakoff argues that the best way to understand what mathematical and philosophical ideas are really about is to consider them in light of the structure of the embodied mind. Therefore, the philosophy of mathematics ought to look to the current scientific consensus understanding of the human body as a foundation ontology - abandoning self-referential attempts to ground the operational components of mathematics in anything other than "meat". This has generated some controversy. It is as yet unclear whether philosophers not so mathematically inclined are terribly interested in or bothered by Lakoff.

An example of a controversial Lakovian idea in this vein is that, when considering the significance of mathematics, we should remain agnostic about whether math is some how wrapped up with the very nature of the universe. Early in 2001 Lakoff told the AAAS, "Mathematics may or may not be out there in the world, but there's no way that we scientifically could possibly tell." This claim bothers a number of people, some because they think there really is a way we could "tell", others, presumably, because it implies that mathematics involves a good deal less certainty than one might expect.

The falsifiability of this claim is itself a central question in the cognitive science of mathematics, a field which attempts to establish a foundation ontology based on the human cognitive and scientific process.

Political significance and involvement

Lakoff's "application of cognitive linguistics to politics, literature, philosophy and mathematics" has led him into territory normally considered basic to political science.

Lakoff has publicly expressed both ideas about the conceptual structures that he views as central to understanding the political process, and some of his particular political views. He almost always discusses the latter in terms of the former.

Moral Politics gives book-length consideration to the conceptual metaphors that Lakoff sees as present in the minds of American "liberals" and "conservatives". The book is a blend of cognitive science and political analysis. Lakoff makes an attempt to keep his personal views confined to one particular section near the book's close.

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between progressives and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe to different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. The conservative model has a family structured around a strong, dominant "father" (government), and assumes that the "children" (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible "adults" (financially and morally responsible beings). However, the "children" are "adults", and so the "father" should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that progressives support a model of the family based on "nurturant values", where both "mothers" and "fathers" work to keep the essentially good "children" away from "corrupting influences" (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other.

Lakoff further argues that one of the reasons progressives have had difficulty since the 1980s is that they have not been as aware of their own guiding metaphors, and have too often accepted conservative terminology framed in a way to promote the "stern father" metaphor. Lakoff insists that progressives must cease using terms like "partial birth abortion" and "tax relief" because they are manufactured specifically to allow the possibilities of only certain types of opinions. "Tax relief," for example, implies explicitly that taxes are an unpleasant thing, something someone would want "relief" from. To use the terms of another metaphoric worldview, Lakoff insists, is to unconsciously support it. Progressives must support linguistic think tanks in the same way that conservatives do if they are going to succeed in appealing to those in the country who share their metaphors.

Lakoff has distributed some much briefer political analyses via the Internet. One article distributed this way is "Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf", in which Lakoff argues that the particular conceptual metaphors used by the first Bush administration to justify American involvement in the Gulf ended up either obscuring reality, or putting a handy conservative spin on the facts. Presumably it is contributions such as this that have helped endear Lakoff to some political activists with little interest in theories of the mind.

In recent years, Lakoff has become involved with a progressive think tank, the Rockridge Institute (, an involvement which follows in part from his recommendations in Moral Politics. Among his activities with the Institute, which concentrates in part on helping liberal candidates and politicians with re-framing political metaphors, Lakoff has given numerous public lectures and written accounts of his message from Moral Politics. His latest political work, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, self-labeled as "the Essential Guide for Progressives," was published in September 2004 and features a foreword by former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.

Comparison to other thinkers/schools

Published books

  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  • George Lakoff and Mark Turner. More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor University of Chicago Press, 1989.
  • George Lakoff. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • George Lakoff. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press, 1996. (Moral Politics has been published with two different subtitles. See the article about it for more information.)
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Philosophy In The Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books, 1999.
  • George Lakoff and Rafael Nez. Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. Basic Books, 2000.
  • George Lakoff. Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. ( Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.

See also

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