The New Phrenology

The Political Mind", George Lakoff (2009).
First, for me at least, this book has an agenda that overrides its scientific assertions. The agenda is a defense of progressive politics. Whether I agree or disagree with the politics Lakoff defends is not as important to me as is what I refer to as “the new phrenology.”
Second, Lakoff’s decriptions of the problems with reason and truth as they are stated by Enlightenment philosophers, is old material. For at least a century the Cartesian search for certainty and the Kantian desire to find a mathematical or scientific basis for metaphysics have been questioned by philosophers (Dewey, Rorty) and by those who offer a philosophy of science (Popper, Kuhn).
Third, Lakoff seems not to have heard of Diodge “The Brain That Changes Itself” (2007) in which the author discusses neuroplasticity. According to Diodge, any mapping of the brain with what is going on with the body denies the fact that when certain neuronal pathways are damaged the routes change. Neither Gall (SIC) nor Lakoff, both of whom attempt to find a topography of brain to thought direct influence, seem to understand neuroplasticity. For the former, that can be excused. He wrote long before any brain functioning according to its anatomy had been discussed in any detail.
Lakoff may be right in his ideas about the adaptational necessities of humans, which brains regulate. But to tie this in to political beliefs is, for me , problematic.

well, we might still examine political beliefs from the POV of evolutionary psychology, which could conceivably suggest that they are adaptational necessities, no?

i haven’t read the book, but i would doubt that adaptational necessity points to any specific political agenda (progressive or otherwise) as the correct one - i think political viewpoints are like morals - they are an adaptational nessity, but there is no particular best system for arranging them - it’s all just an expression of whatever happens to suit our distinct social purposes - when and where social purposes differ, political views will as well . . .

as for the phrenology analogy - i think you’re onto something, but perhaps it’s a little confusing - i must assume Lakoff isn’t actually linking political beliefs to particular anatomical structures?


I’ve followed Lakoff for a few years and I think his latest leans heavily on some of his earlier work. The link to brain/body/politics is more about our metaphorical perspective than anything. His argument that there is no clarity in linguistic is-isn’t seems reasonable to me. It is the metaphor/ perspective language brings that influences how we think.

We both have a basic grasp of neuroplasticity, but I question whether it is relevent to the issues he raises. That the brain can and does learn new pathways doesn’t change the language/grammar/syntax that excites neural activity.

I hate Lakoff and Chompsky and all their followers because you know that they are mostly right and it’s damn near impossible to figure out where they’re wrong… :stuck_out_tongue:

Thanks for your post. I’ll take your last comment first. To clarify–Lakoff gives us a phrenology of activity as framed in active neuronal conditions (activity of neurons in “nets” and activity of neurotransmitters, etc., in certain brain areas) and sees these frames as somehow “a priori” for political beliefs. He does, as you suggest, get into the “adaptational necessity” issue, which could lend support for the idea of brains attempting to make sense of environments to which we must adapt, regardless of whether the environments are natural or man-made. I still have difficulty in thinking that this reduction explains my political preferences.

Thanks, Tent, but does the activity of my brain explain my political preferences? I agree about the metaphor situation as you state it. But I’m stll suspicious of Lakoff. As for the Diodge reference, change the topology and you change the metaphor. Or are metaphors more physically demanded than are our interpretations of them? I do like Chomsky. He was onto structure as an innate, experiential reality. IMHO, Lakoff extends Chomsky’s idea into areas the latter would not have agreed with. As someone reminded me, Chomsky was not into evolution and was offended when asked if theories of evolution influenced his theory of innate structure.
Is not Lakoff’s cognitive science yet another attempt to make psychology appear to have some grounding in the sciences, specifically in the popular discussions of neuroscience? Is it not still another attempt at the certainty that is found in the black box of mathematics?And is this any different from the Enlightenment philosphers reaction to Newton?

OK. The complexity of brain function and what is “mind” requires meta meta meta abstraction and I’m really poor in that department. :unamused: But I think it is more about the effects of linguistics that allows Lakoff to make his claims. But maybe if you forgive a ramble, I can makes some tentative connections. Chomsky establishes an argument for latent language recognition, right? He and Lakoff agree on that much. To my mind, it is just another way of saying the brain is predisposed to pattern recognition. The brain appears to be hard-wired to recognize the patterns of grammar,syntax, etc. If we accept neuroplasticity, then we know the “neurons that fire together wire together”. Even though Lakoff doesn’t mention neuroplasticity specifically, he arrives at similar conclusions. What he seems to be driving at is that language “trains” the brain to excitation when presented with certain metaphors which are experientially derived. This is illustrated (kinda) in the liberal/conservative debates. For example, the buzz word “socialization”. The brain of a liberal/progressive interprets that word as a positive while the conservative interpretation is negative. In each case, the brain reacts in the ways it was trained by metaphorical experience. Lakoff is essentially saying that language and the meanings experientially found in metaphor takes predisposed pattern recognition and teaches the brain to react as liberal or conservative. Thus, brain function can and does control our “politics”. Does that make sense?

As usual, this is a gloss explanation, so I could easily be missing the point or be dead wrong, but it heightens my awareness of words as metaphor and the consquences for what little grey matter I have left…

Tent, your posts are to the point and well said. I agree about the way Lakoff extends Chomsky’s idea of innate structure, of the framing necessary for communication and comprehension. This is the first Lakoff I’ve read. In all honesty I must admit to envy or even jealosy at seeing in print a better articulation of brain to thought connections than can be found in my copious, unorganized notes or years of harping in philosophy forums or the same subject. That being said, I still wonder to what extent my agreement with his politics or my passion for neuroscience lends credence to ideas that should be subject to critique. Lately reading Kuhn, I’m becoming more aware of the historical “shelf life” of explanatory models.
I find in this book no ideas that have not been stated before, hence my problem with it being touted as novel, 21st century ideas. Among the concepts* Lakoff explores or exploits are 1. problems with the Enlightenment philosophers’ ideas about reason and truth, 2. ecological morality as a survival mandate, 3. a predominant subconscious influence on conscious thought, 4. brainwashing techniques, 5. profiteering, 6. emotional contributions to rational thought as espoused by Damasio (the only neuroscientist Lakoff cites by name), 7. habitualized neural nets, and 8. metaphor as how brains make sense of environments, etc., etc.

    1. Richard Rorty, 2. Aldous Huxley, 3. Sigmund Freud, 4. William Sargant, 5. Ralph Nader, 6. Paul MacLean, 7. Donald Hebb, 8. Julian Jaynes.
      In Lakoff’s book I found only one reference to neuroplasicity: “Brains have certain kinds and amounts of plasticity, but they are not infinitely plastic”. It may be that the degree to which brains show plasticity, not only as noted in loss of limbs, etc., but in the fact that there are a billion possible neural connections in which alternate paths are possible, determines the degree to which we can “change our minds”.

If that is the case, then what determines the degree of plasticity in a person’s brain?

Well, if one goes by some of the threads in this site, none. :laughing:

OK. Sober up… :unamused:

To short-circuit all the blah blah blah, We don’t know. First, the brain studies related to plasticity are relatively new territory, so the hard-science research doesn’t allow us to say very much other than it looks like a promising exploration. Second, the number of variables such as physical make up of the individual, diet, geoghraphical location, language enculturation, etc. etc. makes it almost an individual assessment rather than yield to some generalized rule of thumb. At this point in time, the best we can say is that all humans have some degree of brain plasticity - with the exception of old dogs like me… :wink:

I agree that there really isn’t much in his work that hasn’t at least been observed and pondered over and over in the last couple hundred years. If there is a difference, it is the coming together of serious scientific brain studies that begin to lend support to the “wild meandering” ideas. To suggest that brain function can determine your political POV was wild stuff just a few years ago, but not so much today. They’re beginning to zero in on the supportive evidence that allows them to make such statements.

As far as “changing our minds”, I can’t get past the power of language/metaphor as the determining factor in all this. We blah blah enculturation as if we understand it, but let me ask, where is the line between training (enculturation) and brain washing? Is there one? Or does brain plasticity guarantee that experiental metaphor construction is ALL brain washing? Don’t think about it too long without a good stiff drink…

I tell you what, this attempt to scientize soft, blurry areas like plasticity of the brain into a psychology capable of … dare I say it, because that’s where this is leading … medicating a person to grow or reduce neural pathways, and to perhaps de-brainwash them, is more than a little scary, n’est pas?


Why? Then I could have you exactly the way I want you. What’s wrong with that? :wink:

That you wouldn’t have - me - at all, just something called me on drugs.

But what you call “me” is already “brainwashed”, and there is no need for drugs, I “train” you to respond to different metaphors and you’re just a different “me”. Both would still be “me”. But you’re safe. I haven’t figured out how to erase the brain response to the old metaphors yet. But I’m working on it. :evilfun:

This has been a day of utter confusion and contention. Maybe Mercury’s in retrograde or something. :confused:

Maybe we should all spend the day having evilfun instead.

Just one day? I was thinking maybe a month or two… :evilfun:

I noticed it today… I don’t know why. The virtue of sophrosune will show itself again very soon, I’m sure.

Thanks! And I took your advice about the stiff drink. The back and forth between you and Jonquil is enlightening and entertaining. Now, if brainwashing is possible, even in a dirty brain like mine :smiley: , the language/metaphor determination somehow trumps the physical, adaptative sources of metaphor.
I still have problems believing that a catalog of physical to mental correspondences can provide us with an exhaustive description of such connections; and, I wonder for whom such catalogs are compiled–businesses? The military? Politicians?

Coberst, Lakoff fan, where are you?

Hi Ier,

Apologies for the drift, but I’m sure jonquil will recover as soon as all those nasty metaphors are swept out of the house. :stuck_out_tongue:

I think the “catalog” is an ever-changing compilation of metaphors that tap into our basic emotional “triggers”. The external factors can be natural or man-made events as long as they have one common attribute: abrupt change.

Consider: A natural disaster such as a hurricane (Katrina). Step back and look at the words that flowed from New Orleans being flooded and the coastal destruction along the gulf coast. We found words of chaos, accusations of malfeasance, hopelessness, etc. These words were used by government, businesses, politicians, help groups, environmentalists, etc to form a mental picture demanding a specific response whether the words were used to create a negative or a positive image. If I say “New Orleans” your brain automatically produces a set of positive and negative reactions based on the words you read or heard during that time.

What about the biggie? 9/11… What was the initial response? Fear and anger. Overnite the Bush spin doctors trotted out any and all words that would reinforce fear and anger. The content of all that followed was less important than the use of those trigger words used to promote an agenda that left us with two wars, the patriot act, and terrorists under every bed and in every closet. Look at the bullshit "terrorist alert"crap. What color are we today? All of these metaphors were designed to produce paranoia that could be manipulated - and it worked, didn’t it?

Beyond this, there is also a slower version of metaphorical manipulation that is probably of more interest to psychologists and advertising mavens. Ever see “new and improved” on the box of your favorite laundry soap? It is just another way of saying, “not old and ineffective”. Repeated enough times, the brain is “trained” to react positively to those words. It makes no difference if the soap formula hasn’t changed, you see the soap working better because it is “new and improved”. It’s the subliminal message zeroing in on our emtional triggers that slowly train our plastic brain function to continually look for, and buy new and improved products.

Whether plasticity is used for good or evil, it is language and metaphor that forms us. To say that plasticity works both for and against us becomes obvious if we become sensitive to the “baggage” metaphor feeds our pathetic little brain.

Are we puppets in a clockworks orange world? Yup. We always have been.