Aengus Anderson: You're listening to The Conversation. I'm Aengus Anderson.

Micah Saul: I'm Micah Saul.

Neil Prendergast: And I'm Neil Prendergast. And if you're just tuning into the series you may want to check out an earlier episode where we lay out the whole premise of The Conversation.

Anderson: Yeah, these are our final episodes. They were all recorded in 2013, and we've just been horrifically lazy about getting them packaged up for you. But, they are now ready and, here they are.

Anderson: Today's conversation is with someone that I imagine anybody who listens to this is probably familiar with, George Lakoff. He's a linguist. He's a researcher.

Prendergast: He's written many many books, of course, including The Political Mind, Metaphors We Live By, and Don't Think of an Elephant, which is kind of about elephants but not really.

Anderson: He's also been a Democratic consultant for a long time. He's not an armchair academician. George Lakoff is engaged in the world.

Anderson: What do you think the cri­sis of the present is, you know, acknowl­edg­ing that there’s a mil­lion ways that could be answered and there are a mil­lion facets of it?

George Lakoff: Uh, I don’t think I can pick one. But I have a cou­ple of favorites. Part of it has to do with a lack of under­stand­ing of how brains work and how that con­tributes to how minds work, and how that in turn con­tributes to our con­cepts of moral­i­ty, reli­gion, pol­i­tics, and even math­e­mat­ics, sci­ence, eco­nom­ics, and so on. That is, there’s a whole set of dis­putes about these that come out of moral­i­ty. And that the moral­i­ty itself can be under­stood in sci­en­tif­ic terms, and that peo­ple don’t want to under­stand that in sci­en­tif­ic terms.

What I do as a sci­en­tist is I study the rela­tion­ship between the brain, the mind, and lan­guage. How con­cepts that are expressed in lan­guage are char­ac­ter­ized in terms of the brain. And I’m work­ing right now with Srini Narayanan, who is one of the world’s experts on neur­al com­pu­ta­tion, on a the­o­ry of how you get ideas and lan­guage out neu­rons. That’s an impor­tant thing because the answer to that tells you a lot about where moral­i­ty comes from, for exam­ple.

One of the things that I did way back over thir­ty years ago was fig­ure out how metaphor­i­cal thought works. Not lan­guage, just, because lan­guage is based on metaphor­i­cal thought, but we think metaphor­i­cal­ly. But we don’t know it. Because 98% of thought is uncon­scious. We have a view of ratio­nal­i­ty, goes back at least to Descartes, some of it to the Greeks. You know, Descartes said, I think there­fore I am.” I’m con­scious of my thought. Correct. You are con­scious of your thought. Of 2% of it.

Consciousness is lin­ear; goes, you know, one step after anoth­er. And the brain does­n’t work that way. The brain is par­al­lel and has lots and lots of par­al­lel tracks going on at once in thought and in char­ac­ter­iz­ing the sub­strate of what it is you under­stand and express. There’s no way you could pos­si­bly be con­scious of most of or even a small part of what you’re think­ing. And what we’ve been able to do over the past thir­ty or thirty-five years in the field of cog­ni­tive lin­guis­tics is get tech­niques to study the uncon­scious nature of thought, and now we’re try­ing to show how that could work in the brain.

We have brain mech­a­nisms that allow us to func­tion in the world and allow us to func­tion as if we see the world objec­tive­ly. But one of the things we know, for exam­ple, is the world has no col­or in it. Color depends upon wave­length reflectance but also upon col­or cones in your eyes, and upon neur­al cir­cuit­ry con­nect­ed to that, to give you col­or. Color isn’t just out there, but we see it as being in the world. We see green as being in grass, and red as in blood, and you know, blue as in the sky but that’s not the case. What we see about col­or in this case is true of every­thing. Because what impinges on a reti­na is very degrad­ed we have to cre­ate what we see.

Anderson: So it all goes down to a hard­ware mod­el of this brain.

Lakoff: This brain in this body. And that’s the oth­er thing. The brain goes through the whole body. It’s through the ner­vous sys­tem. But also through the sys­tem of topo­graph­ic maps. So we not only have topo­graph­ic maps of the visu­al field and of every point on our body is mapped onto the brain, but there are oth­er topo­graph­ic maps around that run down your arms and down your legs, and they con­tin­ue in your brain. The cor­tex is cov­ered with small maps, those maps are con­nect­ed to each oth­er, which is con­nect­ed to cir­cuits. And what we’ve been doing is work­ing out the kinds of ways the maps are con­nect­ed to each oth­er to give us con­cepts. And then the way the con­certs are relat­ed, via the cir­cuits.

Anderson: So even if you became a brain in a bot­tle, you would still think of the world in terms of maps of the body.

Lakoff: You would­n’t have a body. So you would­n’t have any way to think, at all.

Anderson: So that would be a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent type of con­scious­ness entire­ly. So the body real­ly is—the phys­i­cal body is essen­tial to how we under­stand the world.

Lakoff: Exactly. The phys­i­cal body is essen­tial. And expe­ri­ence com­ing out of func­tion­ing in the world with bod­ies is cru­cial to under­stand­ing moral­i­ty. And that comes through metaphor. Metaphor is not some­thing that is addi­tion­al to thought. Metaphor is essen­tial to thought. Because what metaphor does is link up dif­fer­ent parts of the brain. And struc­tures the brain. And then those metaphors get used in tens of thou­sands of oth­er ways.

For exam­ple, we under­stand more as being up, and less as being down; that’s a metaphor. We under­stand affec­tion as being warmth; that’s a metaphor. But why is that the case? When you held warm­ly, as by your par­ents, affec­tion­ate­ly, you feel their body tem­per­a­ture. Right? Affection cor­re­lates with warmth. You pour more water in the glass or you see it poured in as a child, and the lev­el goes up every time. There’s a cor­re­la­tion between ver­ti­cal­i­ty and quan­ti­ty. That cor­re­la­tion is per­ceived in dif­fer­ent parts of our brains. So a child look­ing at that is going to have—even if they’re not con­scious of it—is going to have activ­i­ty in dif­fer­ent parts of the brain. Each one of those neu­rons is con­nect­ed to a between a thou­sand and ten thou­sand oth­er places. And they form net­works that go through the brain.

Well what hap­pens then is as they spread, every time a neu­ron is acti­vat­ed it gets stronger. The con­nec­tions get stronger, the synaps­es gets stronger. And then they spread. And if they’re acti­vat­ed again, they get stronger and they spread fur­ther until you hit the short­est path­way between them. And that path­way becomes a metaphor. That is nor­mal, and we have hun­dreds if not thou­sands of what are called pri­ma­ry metaphors” link­ing the most basic of expe­ri­ences of the body togeth­er.

Now, if you think about what a child encoun­ters, one of the most impor­tant parts of the brain has to do with well­be­ing. That is what is called a reward sys­tem. It’s a sys­tem that has to do with mak­ing you feel good or mak­ing you feel bad. And there are dif­fer­ent path­ways in the brain for this, putting out dif­fer­ent neu­ro­trans­mit­ters. Dopamine for exam­ple makes you feel good.

Now, if you say what sorts of things make you feel good and make you feel bad, give you a sense of well­be­ing or not, those things have to do with moral­i­ty. Because moral­i­ty is about well­be­ing. The well­be­ing of oth­ers and your­self. You’re going to feel good if you eat pure food, and rot­ten if you eat rot­ten food. That’s why immoral­i­ty is rot­ten­ness. Morality is puri­ty. You have purifi­ca­tion rit­u­als around the world. Every one-year-old knows it’s bet­ter to be able to stand up than crawl on the ground. Morality is upright­ness. Immorality is being a low-down snake, being under­hand­ed, etc.

Anderson: So this is kind of a phys­i­cal basis to think­ing about the words we use every day in spir­i­tu­al­i­ty?

Lakoff: It’s not the words, it’s the ideas that we use in rea­son­ing. It’s the basis of rea­son that is not with­in one cat­e­go­ry. It’s rea­son across cat­e­gories that cre­ate things like moral­i­ty.

Among the most inter­est­ing parts of this are the family-based moral­i­ties. You’re bet­ter off as a child if you lis­ten to your par­ents than if you don’t when you’re a lit­tle kid, assum­ing that they want to help you and take care of you. And that gives rise to a metaphor that moral­i­ty is obe­di­ence to legit­i­mate author­i­ty.

There’s anoth­er metaphor that says you’re bet­ter off if your par­ents nur­ture you. So moral­i­ty is nur­tu­rance. What is nutu­rance? Nuturance is con­nect­ing to you, hav­ing empa­thy, feel­ing for what you say, hav­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties so you take care of your­self as well as the chil­dren you have to take care of, and doing your best at it—having an eth­ic of excel­lence to take care of things.

Those are two dif­fer­ent mod­els of fam­i­ly life. What I dis­cov­ered when I start­ed look­ing at pol­i­tics, and con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism, was that con­ser­v­a­tive thought is based on a strict fam­i­ly metaphor and pro­gres­sive thought is based on a nur­tu­rant par­ent metaphor. And that that gives rise to the rea­son­ing that goes on in both cas­es. And they con­tra­dict each oth­er.

Anderson: How ear­ly is that stuff locked in? Or is it locked?

Lakoff: You learn them very ear­ly. You’re born with a hun­dred bil­lion neu­rons, each con­nect­ed to about ten thou­sand oth­ers, which gives you about a quadrillion con­nec­tions. By the time you’re five, half of them have died. That is, your brain has been shaped.

Now, one of the inter­est­ing things about that is most of us have both mod­els used in dif­fer­ent cas­es. So these are what I call bi-conceptual cas­es.” So I mean, take a uni­ver­si­ty. In uni­ver­si­ties you usu­al­ly have pro­fes­sors who are nur­tu­rant at home, nur­tu­rant in their pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, but often strict fathers in the class­room. Or very con­ser­v­a­tive about their aca­d­e­m­ic work. You have these kinds of things but you have the same sort of thing in busi­ness. You can have dif­fer­ent kinds of busi­ness­man with dif­fer­ent opin­ions about these things. And they vary a lot. There is no ide­ol­o­gy of the mod­er­ate.

Anderson: There are just dif­fer­ent blends?

Lakoff: Just dif­fer­ent blends. Different com­bi­na­tions. What’s called a mod­er­ate con­ser­v­a­tive” is some­body who’s most­ly using a strict father mod­el, but some­times using the oth­er. A mod­er­ate pro­gres­sive is some­body who is most­ly using a nur­tu­rant mod­el, but some­times strict. That’s nor­mal.

Anderson: And you would assume that more from like, a house­hold that blend­ed both of those things, too, in the rais­ing of the child?

Lakoff: Well that, but also expo­sure to peers, to movies, to sto­ries, to books. They all have morals [indis­tinct]. Every fairy tale has a moral. Religion, you go take kids who go to church or mosques or syn­a­gogues. They get moral­i­ty, moral lessons. The ques­tion is what are they?

So this is a very com­mon thing, to have both of them. But often more one than the oth­er. What’s hap­pened in our pol­i­tics is that the con­ser­v­a­tives have under­stood this bet­ter than lib­er­als. Empathy has every­thing to do with our pol­i­tics. Our kind of gov­ern­ment was set up on the basis of peo­ple car­ing about their fel­low cit­i­zens. From the very begin­ning we had roads and bridges and pub­lic schools and a nation­al bank and a patent and a whole sys­tem of things that are there for every­body. And that’s been elab­o­rat­ed more and more over the years. So we have vast pub­lic pro­vi­sions, whether it’s sew­er sys­tems now, and elec­tri­cal sys­tems, if you’re going to start a busi­ness you need all of that. Yes, you have to do it your­self, start­ing with what is giv­en to you. This sys­tem allows you to be free in thou­sands of ways that are not seen by con­ser­v­a­tives.

Now, that’s the pro­gres­sive view of democ­ra­cy. That view is denied by con­ser­v­a­tives. Why? If you have the idea of a strict father fam­i­ly and you project it onto let’s say the econ­o­my, what does it say? Let the mar­ket decide. Well, what does that mean? It means that the mar­ket decides who should get reward­ed and who should be pun­ished on the basis of their dis­ci­pline. Why is that? In a strict father mod­el, chil­dren are born bad. They just do what feels good. They don’t know moral­i­ty yet.

Anderson: So there’s an assump­tion that in a way moral­i­ty should hurt a lit­tle bit. Or it should­n’t be the easy way.

Lakoff: Right. That is, the idea on a con­ser­v­a­tive point of view is that the strict father has to pun­ish kids when they do wrong, phys­i­cal­ly, so it will hurt. So they will try to avoid it. They’ll get inter­nal dis­ci­pline by being exter­nal­ly dis­ci­plined. And then if they’re dis­ci­plined, then they can do what the father says—it assumes that the father knows right from wrong—and then become moral beings. And if they’re dis­ci­plined they can go out into a free mar­ket and become pros­per­ous. So what does that say that peo­ple who aren’t pros­per­ous? Means they’re not dis­ci­plined. They can’t be moral, so they deserve their pover­ty.

Anderson: And then the empa­thy is…gone.

Lakoff: It is gone. Empathy’s gone. And—

Anderson: Because they’ve tak­en respon­si­bil­i­ty.

Lakoff: They’ve tak­en— And it’s all per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, not social respon­si­bil­i­ty.

Anderson: Okay.

Lakoff: It’s per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, exact­ly.

Now, in a strict father fam­i­ly, no one can have author­i­ty over the father. If any­thing is to be pre­served, it’s the author­i­ty of the father. So in the mar­ket it’s the author­i­ty of the mar­ket. So you can’t have gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions, tax­a­tion, work­er rights, unions, or tort cas­es.

Anderson: Interesting. So the mar­ket is supe­ri­or to the gov­ern­ment in that mind, and the gov­ern­ment is con­sid­ered some­thing that med­dles in moral­i­ty, almost.

Lakoff: Exactly. The mar­ket is seen as nat­ur­al and moral. Why? Two rea­sons. It’s seen as nat­ur­al because it’s assumed that self-interest is nat­ur­al. Secondly, there’s a con­ser­v­a­tive under­stand­ing of Adam Smith which is dif­fer­ent from his view of moral sen­ti­ments. The con­ser­v­a­tive inter­pre­ta­tion is that by the invis­i­ble hand, if every­body seeks their own prof­it the prof­it of all will be max­i­mized. And that’s the most moral thing. So, the assump­tion is there­fore the mar­ket is moral and nat­ur­al. So it should decide. Rationality is act­ing to max­i­mize your self-interest.

The oth­er part of this is about pol­i­tics. The high­est view in a fam­i­ly for a strict father is that the author­i­ty of father must be main­tained. The high­est view for a con­ser­v­a­tive, an extreme con­ser­v­a­tive, is that the author­i­ty of con­ser­vatism itself must be main­tained. And what does that mean when you get strict con­ser­v­a­tives com­ing into and tak­ing over Congress? It means that if the pres­i­dent pro­pos­es even a con­ser­v­a­tive posi­tion, they have to vote against it.

Anderson: So there’s some­thing supe­ri­or to an issue-by-issue sort of…

Lakoff: Yeah. It goes above the issue-by-issue thing. Conservatives have a remark­able com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem that most peo­ple don’t see. It’s not just Fox News. Fox News only has two to three mil­lion viewers—it’s not a lot. Over more than four decades, start­ing in 1971 with Lewis Powell’s memo to the nation­al Chamber of Commerce before he went on to the Supreme Court, what they did was they set up a series of think tanks. They now have over eighty nation­al ones, and think tanks at all state and local lev­els. They have train­ing insti­tutes to train peo­ple to think and talk con­ser­v­a­tive­ly. That’s tens of thou­sands of peo­ple every year. They keep track of them. They have peo­ple who are relative—able to go on talk shows or give lec­tures to local busi­ness groups or schools or what­ev­er, on var­i­ous top­ics. They keep track of them. They have peo­ple who are good at fram­ing issues and using lan­guage and invent­ing lan­guage for their posi­tions. And they have a sys­tem to spread these around—booking agents to book their peo­ple on radio and TV, every day all over the coun­try.

The Democrats don’t have this. If you think about con­ser­v­a­tives going to col­lege, they will often major in busi­ness. And in the busi­ness cur­ricu­lum you have mar­ket­ing. And the mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sors study cog­ni­tive sci­ence and neuroscience—the stuff I study. They under­stand that ratio­nal­i­ty does­n’t work. They under­stand that peo­ple real­ly think in terms of frames and metaphors and images and emo­tions. So they’re great at mar­ket­ing their ideas. Whereas pro­gres­sives who want to go to col­lege and go into pol­i­tics are main­ly going to study polit­i­cal sci­ence, eco­nom­ics, law, and pub­lic pol­i­cy. And they have the old ratio­nal mod­el.

Going back to Descartes, we not only have the idea that we think con­scious­ly, but also that rea­son is log­ic. And that every­body has the same rea­son, because we’re ratio­nal ani­mals so we have the same rea­son. If you tell some­body the facts they should rea­son to the right con­clu­sion. And more­over, that we can all have access to any fact at all. And that lan­guage is neu­tral. That lan­guage just fits what’s out there in the world. And that the rea­son that we have rea­son is to serve our inter­ests.

None of that is true; none of it. It does­n’t have in it metaphor­i­cal thought. It does­n’t have in it the neces­si­ty for emo­tions. Tony Demasio, who has stud­ied what hap­pens when peo­ple get brain injuries, found that if you have a brain injury that keeps you from feel­ing emo­tion you don’t get super ratio­nal like Mister Spock on Star Trek. Instead, if like and not-like mean noth­ing to you, then you can’t set any goals.

Anderson: Because you have no ara­tional assump­tions about what’s good, I assume.

Lakoff: Yeah, you don’t know what’s good. You don’t know know what oth­er peo­ple will think is good. You must have emo­tion in order to be ratio­nal. And real ratio­nal­i­ty means being aware of how your brain real­ly works, is the deep­er ratio­nal­i­ty. But we don’t have that. And you don’t have it in gen­er­al in the cul­ture. It’s not part of there.

And lan­guage is a big deal. Charles Fillmore, who was in this depart­ment for many years, dis­cov­ered in the mid-1970s that all words in all lan­guages are defined rel­a­tive to con­cep­tu­al frames. When you say the word you acti­vate the frame. The frame is in a hier­ar­chy of frames. You acti­vate every­thing in the hier­ar­chy. In pol­i­tics, the high­est part of that hier­ar­chy is moral­i­ty. So if you have a word that express­es a con­ser­v­a­tive frame, it’s going to acti­vate the con­ser­v­a­tive moral sys­tem. On any issue. [crosstalk] Any issue at all.

Anderson: Okay. So that’s how you get the strong con­nec­tion between a micro issue but a very pow­er­ful, large feel­ing about a sys­temic change.

Lakoff: Exactly. That’s the con­nec­tion. And it’s a phys­i­o­log­i­cal con­nec­tion.

Anderson: It seems like through most of his­to­ry, we haven’t had a very strong nur­tur­ing fam­i­ly mod­el.

Lakoff: Not nec­es­sar­i­ly. What you find is both of them through­out his­to­ry. Think about the Catholic Church. The peo­ple run­ning the church is very strict father, but you have all those nuns. You have all of the pro­gres­sive Catholics and pro­gres­sive Catholic move­ments. You have pro­gres­sive Protestantism. The anti-slavery move­ment is a reli­gious move­ment that had to do with empa­thet­ic reli­gion. The same thing with wom­en’s suf­frage. It was a reli­gious move­ment that had to do with empa­thy.

Anderson: So when we look at sort of the strict par­ent or the nur­tur­ing fam­i­ly mod­el, we need to look beyond just the fam­i­ly and look at oth­er social insti­tu­tions that might embody those things.

Lakoff: Exactly. Because they are pro­ject­ed via metaphor­i­cal thought, uncon­scious metaphor­i­cal thought that is there fixed in your brain, onto oth­er things.

Anderson: It seems like part of the cri­sis that we’re talk­ing about now is that we’ve skewed far to one side, if we’re to look at these two fam­i­ly mod­els.

Lakoff: And, it’s going inter­na­tion­al. The con­ser­v­a­tive strate­gists have been hired by con­ser­v­a­tive move­ments all over Europe, Latin America, Asia, etc. So you have them actu­al­ly con­scious­ly there to try to change those coun­tries. And they’re suc­ceed­ing.

Anderson: What hap­pens if this con­tin­ues unchecked?

Lakoff: You get a con­ser­v­a­tive view of the world tak­ing over, which will deny glob­al warm­ing. Why? Because it inter­feres with lib­er­ty. It inter­feres with you using your land and your prop­er­ty and any­thing you want and nat­ur­al resources, for any­thing you want to do.

Anderson: So you see the com­plete oblit­er­a­tion, almost, of the idea of the com­mons, or the com­mon good, in a way.

Lakoff: That’s right.

Anderson: This is a project where I’ve talk to a lot of peo­ple about the envi­ron­ment. I’ve talk to peo­ple about eco­nom­ic fal­lac­i­es. You know, lim­it­less growth in a finite mate­r­i­al sys­tem. And this seems like this brings a lot of that stuff togeth­er.

Lakoff: Let me give you a tech­ni­cal way in which it does. One of the things you learn as a lin­guist is that every lan­guage in the whole world has in its gram­mar the abil­i­ty to express direct cau­sa­tion. You know, you go pick up a glass of water and you drink it, okay. That is to apply force to some­thing, it moves—it changes state. Direct cau­sa­tion, right there.

The envi­ron­ment is a sys­tem. It uses sys­temic cau­sa­tion. No lan­guage in the whole world has sys­temic cau­sa­tion in its gram­mar. No lan­guage. You have to learn sys­temic cau­sa­tion. And it’s not obvi­ous. Because cer­tain things work by sys­tems. The envi­ron­ment, the economy—the world glob­al economy—is a sys­tem. Most of the impor­tant things are sys­tems.

Anderson: And they seem like they’re abstrac­tions that are dif­fi­cult for us to apply our pre­con­ceived metaphors to?

Lakoff: Exactly. Because the pre­con­ceived metaphors come out of direct expe­ri­ence. We don’t as chil­dren direct­ly expe­ri­ence sys­temic cau­sa­tion.

Anderson: I mean, this seems like it puts us at a real­ly inter­est­ing point in his­to­ry, where our tech­no­log­i­cal abil­i­ty to cre­ate and affect mas­sive sys­tems, both man-made and also organ­ic in the world, requires a new type of lan­guage that we’ve nev­er had to use before.

Lakoff: Exactly. A few years ago, there was this huge snow­storm and Washington DC. And the con­ser­v­a­tive said, Hey, there’s no glob­al warm­ing. It’s snow­ing. More snow than ever.”

Well, if you think about it, it is caused by glob­al warm­ing over the Pacific Ocean. The warm­ing over the ocean means that more water goes water vapor, goes into the air. Well, what hap­pens when it goes into the air? The winds take. Where do they blow? They blow toward the north­east, over the Pole. And they come down over Washington DC as snow in the win­ter.

Now, sci­en­tists are not trained to think and talk this way. But if they’re asked about it, they think cau­sa­tion means direct cau­sa­tion. And that is pre­dictable. And you can’t pre­dict a lot of the things, because they’re prob­a­bilis­tic. That’s part of the sys­tem. It’s a part­ly prob­a­bilis­tic sys­tem. So the fact is that it is sys­tem­i­cal­ly caused by glob­al warm­ing, not direct­ly caused.

Anderson: Now, do you feel that we have the bio­log­i­cal hard­ware to start think­ing about sys­temic change in this way? Or are we real­ly root­ed in mil­lions and mil­lions of years of deal­ing with just direct cau­sa­tion?

Lakoff: We are root­ed in mil­lions and mil­lions of years of just deal­ing… Not only mil­lions of years, chil­dren are not raised and can­not be raised to under­stand sys­temic cau­sa­tion by the time they’re five.

Anderson: So it’s some­thing you have to real­ly push…

Lakoff: You have to teach. But as we get more and more peo­ple in the world, the chances of teach­ing them some­thing like that aren’t great. It’s some­one that has to be taught real­ly ear­ly, and it’s hard to teach.

Now you can teach it if you break it into parts. The first part is net­work cau­sa­tion, like domi­noes: this caus­es this caus­es this caus­es that. Or com­pound cau­sa­tion: Hurricane Sandy was caused by two effects of glob­al warm­ing occur­ring at once. And prob­a­bil­i­ty is anoth­er part of this. Probability’s hard for any­body to under­stand. The third is feed­back. Take the ice cap on the North Pole. The ice cap reflects light and heat. The more it melts from heat in the rest of the air, the less light and heat it reflects. That makes it warmer. And there­fore it reflects still less, and you have a cycle. So you need to under­stand feed­back, you need to under­stand net­work cau­sa­tion, and you need to under­stand prob­a­bil­i­ty, and how those fit togeth­er. Those are the three things you’ve got to get. to under­stand sys­temic cau­sa­tion. It’s not in any cur­ricu­lum. No envi­ron­men­tal cur­ricu­lum teach­es sys­temic cau­sa­tion. Environmental sci­en­tists nev­er talk about sys­temic cau­sa­tion.

Anderson: So say I’m sit­ting in a bar with some­one and I’m try­ing to tell them about sys­tems and things like this—

Lakoff: Forget it.

Anderson: Yeah. I mean, I could tell them all the things like, well here’s this chain of small direct cau­sa­tions…

Lakoff: But they’re not— You see, look. When they turn on the TV in the bar, they did­n’t hear that every sin­gle night. And they haven’t heard it from the time they were lit­tle kids.

Anderson: I mean, we’re facing…really some exis­ten­tial prob­lems with the envi­ron­ment, and pos­si­bly even with say, the econ­o­my. We don’t need to get into that here. But it seems like the stakes are high if the sta­tus quo is main­tained. But if think­ing about sys­tems is maybe a way to start rem­e­dy­ing that, how do we get sys­tems as a whole field of thought out on that TV in the bar?

Lakoff: You’ve got a prob­lem. Because peo­ple don’t know about direct vs. sys­temic cau­sa­tion and what’s in a gram­mar, and why what’s in a gram­mar means some­thing. They don’t know about the nature of thought and the nature of the brain, and how the brain does this. I go to MSNBC and there it is: bril­liant peo­ple; very well-educated; they know every­thing about pol­i­cy and they’ve got all the facts. And they shoot them­selves in the foot every night. Why? I wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant. Which makes you think of an ele­phant.

So what are they gonna do? They’re gonna say, There’s the argu­ment Glenn Beck gave. Here’s the first thing in the argu­ment and here’s the fact that con­tra­dicts it.” And what they do is sup­port Glenn Beck.

Anderson: Just by cit­ing him.

Lakoff: Just by cit­ing him, and cit­ing his argu­ment and negat­ing him. By giv­ing the facts that negate him, they sup­port him. And they don’t get that.

Anderson: Because it’s not a fact-based thing.

Lakoff: Because it’s not a fact-based thing. And because you’re not think­ing in terms of log­ic. In log­ic you know, nega­tion…negates some­thing. And you can’t have both P and not‑P. But in the brain, not‑P acti­vates P.

Anderson: Which is real­ly puz­zling because like, here’s this envi­ron­men­tal prob­lem, and we have facts about it.

Lakoff: Right.

Anderson: And we know through sci­ence that it is a prob­lem, and if log­ic mat­tered you could artic­u­late that to peo­ple. But it’s almost like we need to have that under­stand­ing that is then deliv­ered through…something that almost feels dis­hon­est to me because you’re not using facts to artic­u­late it. And maybe that’s my own human­i­ties back­ground, right?

Lakoff: I don’t think— You know, it’s not that you don’t use facts. I’m not say­ing that at all. I’m say­ing the facts alone don’t do it. Especially when you’re try­ing to use tra­di­tion­al log­i­cal argu­ments. But you should use facts. You know. Never lie. But what you need to do is talk pos­i­tive­ly from your moral sys­tem, which means you have to know your moral sys­tem. You have to know how you think. You have to know that you’re think­ing via those metaphors not oth­ers. You have to use your lan­guage, not any­body else’s. And you have to give the facts from that per­spec­tive.

Anderson: So it’s less of a con­ver­sa­tion in that case, and more of…two sides assert­ing facts, one side pre­sum­ably hav­ing right facts. But I mean, is there no…dialogue in that case between say, the Glenn Beck over here and the guy refut­ing him?

Lakoff: Well, the first part of the dia­logue is about the moral sys­tems them­selves. If you don’t start there and say, Hey, we’ve got these two moral sys­tems, and we’re rea­son­ing from those and they define what’s right,” then you’re hope­less. Nobody has a dia­logue about that.

Anderson: And that’s actu­al­ly what this project tries to do.

Lakoff: Yeah.

Anderson: Tries to like, go beneath that con­ver­sa­tion to what’s good.

Lakoff: Right. But the prob­lem with that is, if you are strongly…in terms of your moral sys­tem, that’s what your brain is struc­tured to have. And you can’t see any­thing else.

Anderson: There are actu­al lim­its to under­stand.

Lakoff: There are lim­its to under­stand­ing, giv­en by the struc­ture of your brain. And unless you under­stand what the struc­tures are and what lim­its come out of that, you’re in bad shape.

Anderson: But if you can do that can you then… Or in essence is there a part of your brain, a high­er con­scious­ness that can say, Ah. This is the pat­tern of what my brain is doing. I can sort of go back and then empathize with this oth­er sys­tem of…morality?”

Lakoff: Only if you’re bi-conceptual. Only if you have both, know that you have both, and see where they’re each apply­ing, and then ask, what would hap­pen if this shift­ed here?” It’s not some­thing that you can just do. And that requires a high lev­el of intro­spec­tion, which very few peo­ple have.

Anderson: So how for­ward, then? You know, it seems like…to address the sort of envi­ron­men­tal prob­lem, which seems like one of the biggest prob­lems, you’ve got these myr­i­ad of very dif­fi­cult lin­guis­tic and social chal­lenges.

Lakoff: Mm hm.

Anderson: And…is that some­thing that we can even pre­emp­tive­ly do through con­ver­sa­tion or through edu­ca­tion? Or do you think that that’s some­thing where minds can be changed only through the fail­ure of a sys­tem that’s so big?

Lakoff: No, it won’t be changed with the fail­ure of the sys­tem.

Anderson: Really? Because that’s some­thing that a lot of peo­ple in this project have said. No, we’re gonna have to have the econ­o­my just fall down in ruins, [crosstalk] and then we’ll change.

Lakoff: Disas—no. No, it won’t help. In fact, it will hurt. I mean, think about what it’s going to uni­ver­si­ties. It’s killing uni­ver­si­ties. It’s killing research at uni­ver­si­ties. It’s killing gov­ern­ment research on all the things we need research on. You know. It’s killing the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem. It’s exact­ly the worst thing that could hap­pen.

Anderson: So, how about a real­ly pre­cip­i­tous decline or prob­lem? Something I mean…

Lakoff: Because that helps the—

Anderson: —like the Great Depression.

Lakoff: It helps con­ser­v­a­tives.

Anderson: So basi­cal­ly because of their com­mand of lan­guage, they can take any sce­nario and always use it to for­ti­fy…

Lakoff: Not just com­mand of lan­guage, it’s com­mand of… See, they have a com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem that changes brains.

Anderson: Physiological.

Lakoff: Physiologic— The use of lan­guage can change brains. If you repeat the lan­guage over and over, that acti­vates the frames in your brain, and they change. Now, brain change sounds like Frankenstein or some­thing. But it real­ly is just smart. And pro­gres­sives don’t know how it works. Let’s have a debate. Let’s get two peo­ple on oppo­site sides and have a debate, and then have the audi­ence vote,” you know. Useless.

Anderson: So what that makes me won­der is, are we beyond…some crit­i­cal thresh­old at which enough minds have been changed that the big con­ver­sa­tion can­not be changed back?

Lakoff: Um…not nec­es­sar­i­ly. We’re at a point where that could change. And the only way it could change is through sci­ence. And that’s why I spend my time on sci­ence. You need to under­stand that reli­gion is com­ing out of the way brains func­tion. That pol­i­tics, moral­i­ty, is com­ing out of that, and how it’s work­ing. And how lan­guage works. The sci­ence needs to be out there, and that sci­ence needs to be taught.

Anderson: You know, that increased under­stand­ing, could­n’t that be more effec­tive­ly used by peo­ple in pow­er?

Lakoff: Moral sys­tems are not equal­ly valid. Because some moral sys­tems are con­sis­tent with the facts, and some are not.

Anderson: Is this…kind of an unprece­dent­ed point in terms of sci­ence get­ting us clos­er to an idea of good? I think a lot of peo­ple I’ve talked to, and myself includ­ed, always see sci­ence as answer­ing tan­gi­ble ques­tions about the world and maybe it answers ques­tions about the brain. But when it comes down to like, how should we live, what kind of world do we want to cre­ate, they seem like they don’t…I mean…

Lakoff: The answer is yes. First of all because it tells you where moral­i­ty comes from. And what it is in detail. And how there are dif­fer­ent moral sys­tems. And then it tells you that some moral sys­tems fit what’s real, and oth­ers do not. And that’s impor­tant to know.

Anderson: And that by doing that we can say that some are bet­ter than oth­ers?

Lakoff: That’s… Yes. I think so. That some are bet­ter than oth­ers in the sense that some…are more real than oth­ers. People think that if you’re study­ing metaphor­i­cal thought you’re not deal­ing with real­i­ty, and that’s the oppo­site. You’re very much deal­ing with real­i­ty because you can only under­stand real­i­ty itself through metaphor­i­cal thought. I have a book called Where Mathematics Comes From, with a mar­velous col­league from San Diego, Rafael Núñez. What we did was show that math­e­mat­ics comes out of human brains and bod­ies. And out of metaphor­i­cal thought. And it sounds abstract because they build metaphors upon metaphors upon metaphors. And the metaphors are utter­ly pre­cise.

Anderson: But they tie to phys­i­cal stuff when you apply it, right, in a way that like, God does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly tie to [crosstalk] some­thing testable.

Lakoff: They don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly apply to phys­i­cal stuff. There’s all sorts of branch­es of math­e­mat­ics that will nev­er have any­thing to do with phys­i­cal stuff. Though it turns out that [crosstalk] more and more they do

Anderson: But they are sort of testable with­in their own…[crosstalk]…world, in a way that God maybe isn’t testable like that, right?

Lakoff: Yeah. They’re con­sis­tent. The issue is con­sis­ten­cy.

Now, there are incon­sis­tent branch­es of math­e­mat­ics. There are approach­es to math­e­mat­ics that don’t fit togeth­er, but are inter­nal­ly con­sis­tent. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them.

Anderson: Right, right. And so think­ing about how that con­ver­sa­tion hap­pens in the world of math, and then sort of the ana­log in the world where we’re talk­ing about the good or spir­i­tu­al­i­ty or some­thing like that… You know, I think of all the peo­ple I’ve spo­ken with in this project who come from just, all these dif­fer­ent back­grounds. And course we all live in the same world togeth­er. Here we’re in the same polit­i­cal sys­tem. And we’ve got to talk to them. And a lot of them, they just nev­er accept any of this sci­ence, is there any way to like, come to a com­pro­mise, or is this some­thing where…

Lakoff: No. I think what’s going to hap­pen is that first of all you’re not going to elim­i­nate con­ser­vatism. Because the metaphor it’s based on, the strict father metaphor, is based on the fact that chil­dren in fact are bet­ter off if they lis­ten to their par­ents. And they are bet­ter off if they’re nur­tured by their par­ents. You know? Each of those gives rise to dif­fer­ent fam­i­ly mod­els and dif­fer­ent modes of polit­i­cal moral thought. You know, you’re not going to get rid of that. The best you can do is under­stand it.

Anderson: And so that’s ulti­mate­ly not an issue of com­pro­mise so much… Or maybe it is an issue of com­pro­mise but it’s [crosstalk] find­ing out where you can have it?

Lakoff: It’s not polit­i­cal com­pro­mise. It has to do with a respect for the under­stand­ing of sci­ence itself. For the under­stand­ing of who you are and who oth­er peo­ple are. And why they are as they are. The peo­ple who do things that I con­sid­er evil, con­sid­er those things moral. And I can tell you why they con­sid­er them moral.

Anderson: So if we’re look­ing at moral sys­tems as a func­tion of the brain, which I think is some­thing that…you have to have a type of con­fi­dence in sci­ence as a way of under­stand­ing the world, and a cer­tain type of phys­i­cal­ism that’s entailed in that, a lot of peo­ple might take issue with on philo­soph­i­cal grounds and oth­ers might just have a very knee-jerk reac­tion to it because it real­ly threat­ens a lot of how we think about moral­i­ty, right? I mean, [crosstalk] for most peo­ple it’s—

Lakoff: And how you think about your­self. Your iden­ti­ty.

Anderson: Right. Because you don’t want to be just a real­ly com­pli­cat­ed meat machine.

Lakoff: But you’re not.

Anderson: And why is that?

Lakoff: One of the things that I’ve done and that my col­leagues have done is study the metaphor­i­cal struc­ture of reli­gion. Thirty years ago when I start­ed work­ing on how metaphor­i­cal thought worked and start­ed teach­ing it here, I got a stu­dent from the divin­i­ty school. And I said, Gee that’s great. Welcome. Take the class. And by the way, how come?”

And he said, God is inef­fa­ble. We can only under­stand God through metaphor. I want to know how we do it.” Exactly the right idea.

Well, we’ve had a lot of the divin­i­ty stu­dents come through. And what they’ve been doing is study­ing the metaphor­i­cal struc­ture of the Bible. The metaphor­i­cal struc­tur­al struc­ture of var­i­ous branch­es of reli­gion. And var­i­ous reli­gions. Last semes­ter I had anoth­er one of these stu­dents. He accepts the reli­gion, and he accepts the idea that his view of God is metaphor­i­cal. And he has no prob­lem with that. Because he under­stands that his moral­i­ty is tied to his view of God—he has a nur­tu­rant God. He under­stands that there’s a strict father God and there is a nur­tu­rant par­ent God, and he has one. And he under­stands that, and he says, There’s a good rea­son why I have this. And it allows me to func­tion well in my life. And oth­er peo­ple should have this one, not that one.”

The oth­er part of this is that the emo­tion­al effects of reli­gion are real. They are in your body. There was anoth­er dis­ser­ta­tion a cou­ple of years ago from a bril­liant young woman in the divin­i­ty school here, who had stud­ied two women who had spir­i­tu­al visions. What she point­ed out was these visions had metaphor­i­cal struc­tures. They had to do with the fact that metaphors are phys­i­cal­ly there in the brain. And that they fit the metaphors from the reli­gion. And that they heard God talk­ing to them.

Well, what does that mean? If you study a lit­tle bit of neu­ro­science, and some lin­guis­tics, you note that you can talk to your­self. The part of the brain that is used for imag­i­na­tion is the same as that which is used for per­cep­tion and action. Language comes through two parts, the artic­u­la­to­ry sys­tem and the acoustic sys­tem, which are linked. When you have acti­va­tion of the artic­u­la­to­ry sys­tem with­out talk­ing, you can get input to the acoustic sys­tem and hear your­self talk to your­self. But it does­n’t have to be you. You can hear God telling you what the reli­gion says you should hear.

Anderson: And for peo­ple from these faith tra­di­tions, is this very threat­en­ing? Because in a way that takes God out of the sky and puts God right between your tem­ples?

Lakoff: It is threat­en­ing, if you take that lit­er­al­ly. What is inter­est­ing to me is the stu­dents from the divin­i­ty school who have become pas­tors, they say, Whether God exists out­side me or not I could­n’t tell. Because God is inef­fa­ble. If there’s a God out­side I could only under­stand him through a metaphor. But I can’t tell the dif­fer­ence between under­stand­ing and cre­ation; there is none.”

And that’s okay. Because the emo­tion­al, social, famil­ial, oth­er parts of reli­gion, and moral parts of reli­gion are so impor­tant that it does­n’t mat­ter if they come through metaphor­i­cal parts of the brain. The spir­i­tu­al feel­ing that you have, the emo­tions that you have, are real emotions—you feel.

If you say, It’s giv­ing me mean­ing,” and what kind of meet­ing is impor­tant, what is impor­tant is the kind of per­son I am. What’s impor­tant is what I feel. What’s impor­tant is how I raise my fam­i­ly, and my kids, and how I act with my spouse. What’s impor­tant is how I act with my neigh­bors and friends. What’s impor­tant is the com­mu­ni­ty that I have, inside the church and out­side the church. Those are impor­tant in my life. And it does­n’t mat­ter what’s out­side.

Anderson: Is sci­ence itself, though, not a sys­tem of under­stand­ing? You know, obvi­ous­ly it has testable premis­es in the world, but there’s much that it can’t test, you know. We look for the things that we—

Lakoff: But we can test this. The dis­ser­ta­tion just fin­ished by Elizabeth Wehring did test it. She took the parts of the metaphors that we had for strict and nur­tu­rant, and she broke them down into dozens of pieces. And then she sep­a­rat­ed out the pieces and she had peo­ple answer sur­vey ques­tions or react in exper­i­ments to the pieces and saw what the cor­re­la­tions between the pieces were. Overwhelming, that they show the metaphor­i­cal struc­ture is there.

And by the way, it will be imme­di­ate­ly attacked by peo­ple who are in the sci­ence that does­n’t want that to be true. This vio­lates all tra­di­tion­al ratio­nal­i­ty. Just as neu­ro­science does. No neu­ro­sci­en­tist will believe Descartes. It’s the inad­e­quate the­o­ry of rea­son that has to be deep­ened. The deep under­stand­ing of rea­son under­stands how we rea­son.

Anderson: Something I won­der about that is kind of end­less regres­sion. We come to this next under­stand­ing [crosstalk] of the brain, and then there’s some­thing beyond that?

Lakoff: It’s not a— No. But it’s the body. The body. Every idea is ful­ly embod­ied, in many ways. That’s where it’s ground­ed. It ends right there.

Anderson: But out con­cep­tions of the body change over time as sci­ence [crosstalk] changes and advances, right?

Lakoff: No. No no. Those are active, con­scious, sci­en­tif­ic things of the body. But there are built-in topo­graph­ic maps in the brain and brain cir­cuits that are con­nect­ed to the body, that are there from birth. Simple things, like you under­stand what motion is. Those things have every­thing to do with how we think.

Anderson: And you feel pret­ty con­fi­dent that the sci­ence about those is not going to be revised by a deep­er under­stand­ing of sci­ence com­ing fur­ther. Like, that’s kind of basic stuff that’s pret­ty sol­id?

Lakoff: Well…

Anderson: Because that seems kind of essen­tial to this, right?

Lakoff: Yeah. This is some­thing where the sci­ence has to go for­ward. In cog­ni­tive lin­guis­tics it’s sol­id. The work on embod­ied cog­ni­tion is over­whelm­ing­ly done; exper­i­men­tal­ly, it’s clear. We think metaphor­i­cal­ly, and those metaphors affect behav­ior. And exper­i­ment after exper­i­ment shows it.

Anderson: The enter­prise of sci­ence, the sci­en­tif­ic method, the way we go about defin­ing our ques­tions and look­ing for results, that is obvi­ous­ly then built on a struc­ture of metaphors.

Lakoff: Except for w— Yes, it’s built on a struc­ture of metaphors, and it’s not an infi­nite loop. Because those metaphors are ground­ed in the body.

Anderson: Because that’s some­thing, you know— In this series I’ve talked to some peo­ple who’ve talked about the phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence. It answers cer­tain ques­tions extreme­ly well, but there are oth­er questions—moral questions—that lie out­side of it.

Lakoff: Except for the fol­low­ing thing: there’s a bad under­stand­ing of the phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence, in terms of the notion of con­verg­ing of evi­dence. That’s what’s going on here. In sci­ence, you have to have con­verg­ing evi­dence. And you get more and more of it from dif­fer­ent fields, with dif­fer­ent method­olo­gies. The sci­ence of the brain does­n’t come from just study­ing the brain. People say, Oh, the sci­ence of the brain. You’re doing fMRIs.” No. Because the peo­ple do fMRIs don’t ask how the brain works. What the how is. They don’t look at how lan­guage works. They don’t look at how con­cep­tu­al thought works. They don’t look at how embod­ied cog­ni­tion works. That’s not seen as the sci­ence of…The Brain, which is delim­it­ing what the sci­ence is. What we’re doing is bring­ing the sci­ence of the brain togeth­er with all of these oth­er things that have to fit togeth­er.

Anderson: And that’s kind of the piece of under­stand­ing that gets us to sys­tems, that gets us to address­ing some of these exis­ten­tial prob­lems.

Lakoff: Exactly.

Anderson: Are you opti­mistic?

Lakoff: Well, my per­son­al­i­ty is gen­er­al­ly opti­mistic. Um—

Anderson: How, after this con­ver­sa­tion?

Lakoff: Well you see, look. I mean… The con­ver­sa­tion has to do with what’s real. And I’ve been around long enough… I’m 72. I’ve been around long enough to see how things change. To see a lot of change. There’s a com­put­er rev­o­lu­tion going on. There’s a change in eco­nom­ics. There’s a change in for­eign pol­i­cy. There’s a change in peo­ple’s per­son­al­i­ties because of all of this stuff. Vast changes.

And you know, when I was a kid, my moth­er nev­er made it to high school—my par­ents did­n’t go to high school. They had to work from the time they were twelve and thir­teen. But my moth­er was raised, lit­er­al­ly, with hors­es and bug­gies. Literally. Where they had peo­ple light­ing the lamps in the streets with the gas lamps.

Now, here I am in 2013, remem­ber­ing what my moth­er told me about 1905 and 1907. The world is so dif­fer­ent, even from the time I was a child from hers. To now?, its’ huge.

So the ques­tion is, how is it going to change? Not whether. And sci­ence plays a huge role in this. The ques­tion is, is it gonna be appre­ci­at­ed or not? The good sci­ence is not imme­di­ate­ly appre­ci­at­ed. Einstein, 1905, did rel­a­tiv­i­ty the­o­ry and it did­n’t get pop­u­lar till the exper­i­ment in 1919. That was some­thing eas­i­er to do than this, okay. And there was­n’t that much com­pe­ti­tion. I mean oth­er the­o­ries and so on. These things take time. And the ques­tion real­ly is, is the sci­ence going to work? And is it going to be pop­u­lar­ized? And is it going to be taught? We have so many things going against pub­lic edu­ca­tion now, against any form of edu­ca­tion. They’re all polit­i­cal ques­tions. So I spend a lot of my time on the fram­ing of polit­i­cal ques­tions, for that rea­son. Some of them do well. Some of them don’t.

But the fram­ing gets out there. I mean, I start­ed work­ing on this stuff in 1995. So it’s 18 years. Well, in 18 years a lot of peo­ple now under­stand what fram­ing is. They’re get­tin’ there. They’re under­stand­ing that moral­i­ty mat­ters. It could be that in anoth­er twen­ty years, it’ll be around to all over the place.

My feel­ing is this: the work I’ve done so far has got­ten out to hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple. Maybe more; I don’t know. But hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple. That’s remark­able. That’s amaz­ing to me. If you had told me, when I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent, that any work I had done would be appre­ci­at­ed by hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple I’d’ve thought you were nuts.

So you sim­ply don’t know what will hap­pen with this. The won­der­ful thing about it is that the knowl­edge exists. My job in there is to devel­op it as well as it can be sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, to write it up as close­ly as I can, and to talk about it as long as I can. And to train oth­er peo­ple to do that, and to work with peo­ple who care about these things. That’s the most I can do.

Aengus Anderson: So that gives you just a small sense of what a conversation with George Lakoff is like. It's…remarkable. It's daunting. It took me the first hour of the conversation to kind of figure out where we were going and to get my head to stop spinning. George built one of the biggest sort of intellectual systems of anyone we've heard in this project. There are so many moving parts. When I was editing this I was trying to figure out, what is an area that I can take out? What's essential? What's inessential?

And when you start pulling things out of this, the whole thing falls down. There's a lot of stuff that you must include here. So as an editor or an interviewer or as a listener, I think this is probably one of our more daunting episodes. It was certainly one of the hardest interviews I've conducted, for a variety of reasons. One was that building the system took an hour. I got two hours with George. The second hour was a lot more back and forth, and I got to search a some of the ideas down more.

But man, I did not do half the job I wanted to do. And going back and listening to this, especially like two and a half years later, I am embarrassed with a number of things that slipped by me. And that's always the tension with these. You need to let an interviewee explain their perspective, kind of delineate the scope of what they want to talk about. And you also need to challenge them. But you need to challenge them and stop them without derailing them. And that was something that in this…in retrospect, I wish I'd challenge him more. So I'll just say that and then I'll hand it over to you guys and stop giving metacontext, and let's talk about what you actually thought when you heard this.

Neil Prendergast: Yeah, I'll jump in right away because I think that we're all going to disagree a little bit about the significance of what Lakoff was relaying to you, Aengus. What I really liked I think the most about this is that it opened up a space where real action can be meaningful. And I think that in some of the interviews we've done, there's just been this kind of "well, you have to throw your hands up in the air because you can't do anything about the world." And I really kind of listened to this interview and heard Lakoff saying, "Well, there are actually some things you can do to effect change." I heard that as education. Some of the the listeners probably don't know, but I'm a college professor so when anybody says that education is worthwhile I say thank you for validating my existence. So, there's maybe a little bit of positioning there that I should be clear about.

But anyway, I really did hear that in what he was saying. Because he has this comment in there I think at some stage, where he says there's so much of your brain that's formed by the time that you're five. But of course that also means that the inverse is true, too. That there's still a lot left as you're getting older. I teach principally college students who are eighteen to twenty-four—not everybody, but mostly. And I can see they're kind of sorting through these two different types of metaphor, the strict father and the nurturing parent, that he discusses. And when my students become aware that there are these two different ways of thinking about…really about American culture—the conservative way, the progressive way—they start to understand them when I give them actually these metaphors. And I actually do share this with them a little bit in the classroom.

Anderson: Oh, so you actually bring some of the things that you've drawn from reading Lakoff into your teaching?

Prendergast: Yeah, I'll just kind of mention the idea of the nurturing parent and the strict father. And they start to kind of actually I think grasp some historical documents a little bit better. I have this exercise early in a very basic US history class that I teach, where I give them something on social Darwinism, which is the sort of late 19th-century sort of defense of attaining as much wealth as you can. And I also give them another document about the Social Gospel Movement, which was more about trying to do something for other people out of empathy.

So you can see there there's a strict father document and a nurturing parent document. And they both sort of define freedom differently. And the students don't know what to make of it. And when I give them this language that Lakoff has, they say, "Oh my gosh. I kind of understand the documents a lot better now." And then they say, "Well, which way should I think, because I understand both systems?"

And then you know, usually I say, "Well, I think you're gonna like the rest of the semester, then. [both laugh] Because you have a lot to think about."

So there's this move of becoming aware of these two different types of metaphors that I think is like, really really valuable for growing minds. And so that's really where I see the significance of Lakoff's interview.

Micah Saul: I definitely agree that he gives us tools that we can use to think about the world and think about how we interact with each other and the systems were we live in. But I had some serious problems with this conversation. And it wasn't because of the tools, but it was because of the overarching system that he created. Separate from the system those tools are are still useful, and I think that's awesome. But, a little bit of a bias here, I tend to run away screaming anytime I hear the word "every single" or "not one" in the context of social sciences. It just seems a little…hard to believe.

Prendergast: You're a good humanities thinker.

Saul: When he sort of proposes that every culture has this duality of metaphor, my immediate reaction is oh really? I'm…not so sure about that. It may just be my personal experience that set me off on the wrong foot here. But by the end of it I was sort of feeling like he's built this really elegant, pretty system that's internally consistent, but it all comes from that initial hypothesis, and I'm gonna call it a hypothesis, that doesn't seem questioned, doesn't seem…proven.

Anderson: You mean the two models.

Saul: The two models, right. Two and only two models. So that's one side of why I sort of found this problematic.

The other side is, by the time we got to the end of the system, my understanding of what he was saying is that you can't convince people of anything. That once you're set into one of these metaphors, into one of these models, and once your brain has adapted to that and all of the other metaphors in your life stem from that initial, primordial metaphor, physiologically you cannot have ideas that are not based on that metaphor without a lot of work, and without a lot of introspection, which he says most people can't do.

So I found this remarkably pessimistic, just because you know, if the conversation doesn't matter at all, does that sort of nullify everything Torcello was talking about and are we just left with throwing chairs at each other?

Anderson: I'm really intrigued, Neil, that you found it empowering because I truly had the same reaction that Micah did, how do you talk to people who are welded shut in so many ways? And…it's a yelling thing, right? It's like, you know, this person who's way on the right or way on the left, shares a couple of your metaphorical systems, but it's only on a small issue here and there. Lakoff says there's no ideology of the middle, there are only combinations and generally people lean to one side or the other. That's discouraging. I happen to think it's wrong because I think you can find examples in history where things don't work like that.

I asked George, say we have a full economic collapse. Does that threaten capitalism as it's practiced? Because what was going through my head was the Depression, where you have a roaring laissez-faire system. It kind of implodes. And then you get the New Deal. You get a wave of dare I say nurturant parenting from the federal government…that seems like it would have been unthinkable in 1923. And clearly a lot of people had to change their thinking there. So I feel like people can be a lot more fluid in changing their minds, and we're not nailed down by these metaphors.

Prendergast: Yeah, and I think maybe we're just having different reads what Lakoff was saying in terms of maybe how nailed down that is, to use your words there. Because I didn't feel like he was saying it was too nailed down. And of course my example came from teaching and we're talking about people whose minds are are still forming. And so it is exciting to sort of show them that there are these different pathways to think with, and they're making their own choices about which one they're going to lean more toward. So, I kind of felt like the flexibility was there. But there is maybe something maybe something a little bit different when people are older. Not trying to insult people who are older…

Anderson: No no, you've just entered their ranks.

Prendergast: I've just [colluded?] now. I'm in their ranks now. But you know, there is something to that and he mentions five-year-olds, right. But how does this change a little bit further into life? I would've liked to have heard more about that.

Anderson: One thing I like about this is that, based on our different reactions, I think each listener is going to hear this interview a little bit differently and they'll probably draw something possibly radically different out of it. Is it empowering? Is it discouraging? I think it's fascinating when someone has a perspective which seems so cleanly nailed-out, and yet can be so ambiguous.

That was George Lakoff, recorded June 12th, 2013 in Berkeley, California.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.

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