Pinker vs. Lakoff

Language, Politics

And the winner is … Geoffrey Nunberg! A lot has been said about this nasty debate, and I’ve avoided it because it seems hard to get engaged without slinging mud, but Geoff Nunberg’s piece is truly excellent. Actually there isn’t much here about Pinker, which is perhaps why the piece is so good. Nunberg takes Lakoff seriously and shows exactly where his analysis jumps the shark:

Now it isn’t unreasonable to suppose that political orientations have their genesis in early socialization, as Maslow, Lasswell, Erikson, and Adorno among many others have argued. But Lakoff is claiming more than that. He reduces the model of the family to two broad types, which determine one’s position on a broad range of specific political issues, and which coincide precisely with the poles of early-twenty-first-century American politics.

So why should we give primacy to the nation-as-family metaphor? Lakoff doesn’t give any direct evidence for that hypothesis: no surveys, interviews, case studies or ethnographic investigations; no database counts or empirical investigations of language use; no historical or contrastive analyses; no experiments that support the centrality of the family metaphor over others. His analysis rests entirely on a kind of rational reconstruction: by systematically working out the entailments of the two pictures of the family, Lakoff says, he can show how each position follows from the basic model.

I have Nunberg’s latest book sitting on my bookshelf, maybe its time to read it!

Also see the follow-up post at Language Log.

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