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Linguistics Wars

This is about disputes among professors of linguistics, people who are also called cognitive linguists and cognitive scientists.

Noam Chomsky is considered the father of modern linguistics – also called analytic linguistics. In 2008 he turned 80 and was emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He combined his work in linguistics with his interests in philosophy, politics and ethics, and he put into his analytic mix the disciplines of psychology, anthropology and neuroscience. He is said to have refuted those scholars who limited their study of language to the behavior of its users – followers of the behaviorist school of psychology led by the B.F. Skinner (1904-1990).

Chomsky with colleagues dissected grammar into hierarchical components, hierarchies in the conveyance of meaning. One of Chomsky's students was George Lakoff, who became a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1972, where he was still teaching in 2008. Lakoff attempted to go beyond Chomsky's analyses by focusing on the use of metaphors as tools of thought, and he invented what he calls the "embodied mind." Chomsky disagreed with Lakoff, and among linguists acrimonious debates followed, to be known as the "linguistics wars."

Donald Davidson (1917-2003), according to Wikipedia, contended that because "language is compositional, it is also holistic: sentences are based on the meanings of words, but the meaning of a word depends on the totality of sentences in which it appears.

Lakoff is described as believing non-metaphorical thought is possible but only when we are describing purely physical reality. According to Wikipedia he believes that "the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors."

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

Lakoff adds that we know all things in association with their component parts and with other things. We know "tree" in relation to wood, vegetation in general, leaves and what have you. We know up in relation to down, soft in relation to hard, fast in relation to slow, yesterday in relation to the day before and today. Beyond recognition of this, and in the interest of clarity, it is obvious that meaning is added to any vague pronouncement by adding observed details, or specificity. That the added details are essentially analogous does not for us eliminate this added clarity.

Lakoff addressed the connection between reason and emotion. He observed that without emotion we cannot be motivated to reason, that without emotion we "can't function at all" because we are not going to know what to want. Biologists see emotions as chemical and that bad chemistry can produce emotions that are counterproductive. Lakoff has been described as believing that cognitive and brain sciences have demonstrated that reason takes place mostly below the level of consciousness and that the process of reasoning is more complex than once believed. Lakoff no doubt has recognized that emotions vary in intensity and service and that people are not completely bereft of self-control and therefore choice, but he has been concerned about the role of emotion as opposed to reason in the response of people to political rhetoric.

Lakoff has complained about conservative think-tanks framing issues to the detriment of the arguments of progressives less adept at the use of metaphors. He has authored a book titled Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate – The Essential Guide for Progressives. On Amazon.com were 200 customer reviews of the book. One of the reviewers complained that Lakoff believes that the problem for Democrats is one of style rather than substance. The reviewer criticized Lakoff for calling his approach "reframing" and compared it instead to the business term "rebranding."

Another critic of Lakoff is a Harvard professor of experimental psychology and cognitive science, Stephen Pinker. He has complained about another of Lakoff's books: Whose Freedom? The Battle of America's Most Important Idea. Pinker has described Lakoff's arguments as "cognitive relativism, in which mathematics, science, and philosophy are beauty contests between rival frames rather than attempts to characterize the nature of reality." Lakoff has defended himself, saying that "We can no longer conduct 21st century politics with a 17th century understanding of the mind," and he has described Pinker as "the most articulate spokesman for the old theory" as to how the mind works.

Steven Pinker

Steve Pinker

Pinker has described language as an "instinct," in other words a biological adaptation and as a product of human evolution. Pinker has written of language as intention to convey a message, such as "the weather is nice outside," or to negotiate a relationship such as "I would appreciate it if you passed the salt," (my examples). Pinker has written The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window ┬áinto Human Nature – published in 2008. A reviewer of this work has criticized him for insisting "that language is a reflection of the user's 'nature' rather than the user being shaped by language that is reflective of the environment in which he or she is shaped and molded."

Trying to Understand

From the beginning of the page you are reading the subject has been more about self-expression than about that other half of communication: trying to understand what someone is attempting to tell us. The purpose of communication is, of course, to transfer thought, and this leaves the reader or listener concerned with how well he understands the person with doing the writing or talking. If someone says, for example, "the devil made me do it," we might better understand him if we ask and he tells us what he means by the devil. In the interest of understanding we need not be concerned with how what he is saying fits with grammatical, philosophical, political or scientific correctness. And, again, clarity is increased by the addition of detail.

Academics examining the biological origins of human communication and the significance of syntax do not address the everyday problem of communication between people that can be solved by going beyond competing declarations. People often argue without understanding with any depth what is in the mind of the other. To communicate effectively, and indeed the best way to argue, is to converse by asking questions. This puts one more inside the head of the other, and, in attempting to explain, the other confronts his own thinking.

Meanwhile, metaphors remain as much a part of human communication as ancient storytelling and scripture. Back then, people described the world in a way that was understandable to them. Thucydides shunned poetry in his writing for the sake of clarity and founded the journalism that survives today.

The use of metaphor by journalists, historians, philosophers and economists or politicians explaining economic phenomena can create descriptions that are significantly unclear. A broadcaster on 16 November 2008 said:

President-elect Obama might be choosing Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state in order to keep an enemy closer to him.

The word "enemy" is not a good description of Obama's emotions toward Hillary Clinton.

The scientist Steven Pinker defends the metaphor and poetry, citing Emily Dickinson's line about the brain being wider than the sky – the brain containing the sky, and you beside." Another use of metaphor might produce something other than poetic brilliance. Take for example, "Respond to your inner spirit." Is this telling us we should be impulsive?

Like the father of journalism, Thucydides, I prefer clarity to poetry. Two people can cooperate in describing what they mean. They can try to understand what each is saying in order to illuminate their philosophical differences.

Copyright © 2008-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.