Embodied Mind

Writer Matt Bai talks about how the ideas of linguist George Lakoff have been incorporated by politicians looking to better "frame" debate ("The Framing Wars," The New York Times magazine, July 17, 2005).

How this came to be is a story about the unlikely intersection of
cognitive science and political tumult. It began nearly 40 years ago,
when, as a graduate student, Lakoff rebelled against his mentor, Noam
Chomsky, the most celebrated linguist of the century. The technical
basis of their argument, which for a time cleaved the linguistics world
in two, remains well beyond the intellectual reach of anyone who
actually had fun in college, but it was a personal and nasty
disagreement, and it basically went like this: Chomsky said that
linguists should concern themselves with discovering the universal
rules of syntax, which form the basis for language. Lakoff, on the
other hand, theorized that language was inherently linked to the
workings of the mind — to ”conceptual structures,” as a linguist
would put it — and that to understand language, you first had to study
the way that each individual’s worldview and ideas informed his thought
process.

Chomsky effectively won this debate, at least in the sense that most
American linguistics departments still teach it his way. (To this day,
the two men don’t speak.) Undeterred, however, Lakoff and his
like-minded colleagues marched off and founded the field of cognitive
linguistics
, which seeks to understand the nature of language — how we
use it, why it is persuasive — by exploring the largely unconscious
way in which the mind operates.

In the 1970’s, Lakoff, verging into philosophy, became obsessed with
metaphors. As he explained it to me one day over lunch at a Berkeley
cafe, students of the mind, going back to Aristotle, had always viewed
metaphor simply as a device of language, a facile way of making a
point. Lakoff argued instead that metaphors were actually embedded in
the recesses of the mind, giving the brain a way to process abstract
ideas. […]

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