The Political Mind, Part IV (Chapter 3)

In Chapter 3, we finally get to read all about the Strict Father and Nurturant Parent. I knew this was coming, of course, but for some reason, when I finally got to this chapter, I still felt surprised. I mean, at some point, you'd think he'd give up metaphors that even his own epigones can't find evidence for. But no, he clings to them even more desperately in this book, writing (I wish I could parody him this well, but he really wrote this):

It should be noted that these models [the "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent" models] are descriptive not prescriptive. They do occur in people's brains. They are not something I am suggesting that people follow; people just do follow them. Newton, as a scientist, described how objects move; he had no power to make them move that way. The same is true here. American politics does use these models. All I can do is describe them.

He later directly compares them to Newtonian gravity, and again laments that there's nothing he, or we, can really do about them. He just reports the facts, folks. Ah, the existential condition of the lonely scientist, helpless to do anything but observe the Truth, and when he or she can't get the Truth published in mainstream peer reviewed journals, write books about the Truth for non-scientists. But I digress...

To be fair, he does add something new to the rehashed nonsense about strict fathers and nurturing parents: gratuitous neuroscience. I learned, if nothing else, that Lakoff is all about Hebbian learning (he even writes, "neurons that fire together wire together"!!!). I honestly did not see that coming. Here's a wonderfully gratuitous passage, as an example:

Primary metaphors arise spontaneously, usually during childhood, when two different parts of our brain are activated together during certain experiences. For example, when we are children, we are held affectionately by our parents and feel warmth. Whenever we pour water into a glass, the level goes up; whenever we pile more things on a table, the level goes up. This experience occurs over and over, every day of our lives.

Two different parts of our brain--one characterizing verticality and the other quantity, or one characterizing temperature and the other affection--are activated together, day after day. Activation spreads outward along networks of neurons from those two brain centers, and eventually two paths of activation meet and form a single circuit linking those two areas of the brain. (p. 83)

And on the next page:

Because temperature is publicly discernible, while affection is not, the temperature synapses fire more often and so are stronger. As a result, activation will flow from temperature to affection, and not in the opposite direction. (p. 84)

This is how we get the AFFECTION IS WARMTH and MORE IS UP conceptual metaphors, apparently (by the way, isn't warmth one publicly discernible sign of affection, in Lakoff's own story, and therefore aren't we dealing with a strong association that's been lexicalized, rather than a metaphor? I'm just sayin'). These are nothing more than just-so stories of course (no one's done any research testing this view; none whatsoever), and they're really kind of silly, but they allow Lakoff to say, "thus, metaphorical thought is physical" (p. 84). This is all just gratuitous neuroscience, designed to make his "Newtonian" model of progressive and conservative thought sound genuinely scientific, instead of like something Lakoff developed through informal text analysis. I think I've said this before but, ugh.

With this knowledge of how Lakoff sees metaphors being formed in childhood, we can move on to the political family metaphors, which are formed because "most people's first experience with governance is in their family" (p. 85). This association between governance and family causes government and family to fire together a lot, and thus wire together, creating the NATION (or GOVERNING INSTITUTION) AS A FAMILY metaphor. It's not clear, from Lakoff's work, how we form particular versions of that metaphor, as Lakoff notes that people raised in strict father families may have nurturant parent metaphors when it comes to governing institutions, but I think Lakoff had reached the legal just-so-story-pulled-out-of-his-ass limit for one chapter at this point, and therefore had to skip making up an explanation for that part of his model.

At this point, I think we can try to represent Lakoff's model schematically, so that it makes a little more sense (it still won't make much sense). It would look something like this (click for a larger view):


So, we have family, and we have government, and the networks of cells representing them fire together (co-activation), yielding the metaphor THE NATION IS A FAMILY. This then turns into either the Strict Father or Nurturant Parent version of the metaphor, who knows how. These sub-metaphors then lead to the ethics of obedience and empathy, respectively, and these ethics are related to the emotions of fear and empathy, respectively. For pure conservatives (who don't really exist) and pure progressives (who are the saviors of our democracy), every issue activates their corresponding metaphor, ethic, and emotion, but for biconceptuals, conservative frames can cause them to experience fear, the ethic of obedience, and thus think in terms of the Strict Father metaphor, while progressive frames cause them to take the other route. Sound about right?

Take an example. You're a biconceptual, and somebody raises the issue of terrorism. If they say, "What do you think about the war on terror?", the "war on terror" metaphor will activate fear, which will in turn activate the ethic of obedience, which will in turn activate the Strict Father metaphor, and you'll say that you think we should kill 'em all. If, on the other hand, they ask, "How do you think we should punish criminal acts of terrorism," the "criminalization" part will activate empathy (for the victims, I guess), which will in turn activate the ethic of empathy, which activates the Nurturant Parent metaphor, which causes you to advocate arresting terrorists and trying them in criminal courts. Or something like that.

A much simpler model, of course, would be built on assocations (emotional and conceptual), schemas, episodic memory, and retrieval cues, instead of metaphors that Lakoff just made up in his head, and these grand meta-narratives, but hey, it's his book. On to Chapter 4.

More like this

I wrote this on September 21, 2004, as a reaction to the misunderstanding of Lakoff's term "Nurturant Parent". Slightly edited (eliminated bad links and such). Discussions of Lakoff's theory are going on in several places in the blogosphere, including on DailyKos and many other places...just…
I wrote this on September 21, 2004, as a reaction to the misunderstanding of Lakoff's term "Nurturant Parent". Slightly edited (eliminated bad links and such). Discussions of Lakoff's theory are going on in several places in the blogosphere, including on DailyKos and many other places...just…
The first thing to say about Chapter 1 is that it's much better written than the Introduction. In fact, if you buy the book, I recommend skipping the introduction, and starting with Chapter 1. Chapter 1 is, in fact, the best chapter in the book. That's because it contains a pretty good discussion…
Update: OK, a pro is in the house. Chris of Mixing Memory starts: I don't really know where to start on this. Lakoff's reply is one of the most intellectually dishonest pieces of writing I've seen from a cognitive scientist, and if anyone other than Lakoff had written it, I'd probably just ignore…

Lakoff was one of those who, immediately after 9/11, denounced military action against the Taliban/al-Qaeda regime in Afghanistan.

"We should not be like them, we should not take innocent lives in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Massive bombing of Afghanistan with the killing of innocents will show that we are no better than they."

Fool. Idiot. Being against the invasion of Afghanistan is not at all like being against the Iraq War. Why should Obama or any serious Democratic politician listen to this guy? His "scientific" analysis of politics is crap, and his politics are crap.

Hebbian learning? Not gratuitous neuroscience...self-damning neuroscience.

If metaphors are just simple associations they are not really embodied...not really that interesting at all really.

Crackpot Index:

#22. 20 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

By Patrick (ortho… (not verified) on 11 Jul 2008 #permalink

chris, how would you compare lakoff to johnson and faucconier (i remember you didn't care much for their book how we think) and cognitive linguistics a la talmy and langacker? and others

By steve meyerson (not verified) on 15 Jul 2008 #permalink

A much simpler model, of course, would be built on assocations (emotional and conceptual), schemas, episodic memory, and retrieval cues

Can you outline this model or provide a reference that would explain what you mean here?