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Pinker Pans Lakoff - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
February 20th, 2007
04:17 pm

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Pinker Pans Lakoff
Steven Pinker shish-kebabs George Lakoff's latest screed for the Democratic Party. [powells.com]

Interesting. Sort of embarrassing, if, like me, you appreciate Lakoff's classic Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson, 1980).


In other news, I have just finished grading my first university exams (Greek for Beginners). I'm pleased.

Current Music: Naomi -- Sharon Moldavi
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From:roza
Date:February 20th, 2007 02:59 pm (UTC)
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I have just finished grading my first university exams
Wee-ha, congratulations! Playing with the big boys now :)
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From:unfilthy
Date:February 21st, 2007 06:16 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the link. I'm not sure if you've noticed, but there's now also a link to Lakoff's response to Pinker's review. Coming at it from a linguist's perspective, and especially psycholinguistics, I found the Pinker-Lakoff war of words particularly entertaining, and having my psycholinguist best friend visiting with me now is especially fortunate, as I'm looking forward to some interesting discussion once she comes home and reads this :)
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From:ijon
Date:February 23rd, 2007 11:44 am (UTC)
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Yeah. Lakoff managed to convince me that there is a feud between Pinker and himself. As for the claims of misquotation and misinterpretation -- well, I suppose it's hard to tell; Pinker certainly convinced me, based on the quotations and interpretations he had brought, but then if those are misleading, one would have to actually read the book to assess whether Lakoff was foolish in writing or Pinker vicious.
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From:unfilthy
Date:February 23rd, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC)
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...one would have to actually read the book to assess whether Lakoff was foolish in writing or Pinker vicious.

Most likely, it's a little bit of both. The linguistics community is no stranger to feuds, both personal and academic, and as someone commented, the entire debate is petty and embarrassing. Noa and I decided that linguistics is an embarrassing and petty pursuit in general, and proceeded to amuse ourselves by discussing some of the basic misconceptions regarding cognitive linguistics, neurolinguistics, psycholinguistics, etc., and whether or not it's important to avoid using terms coined by "the other side" when discussing processes that have nothing to do with the debate the term was originally coined for.
We them moved on to the fact that most of the serious studies and debates about language processing deal with the first 150-300 milliseconds after the subject's exposure to the stimulant, so why on earth should we care which terms are used to refer to data gathered after 1200ms? Incidentally, those first milliseconds are what Fodor's (and in some cases, Chomsky's) views on the way language is initially processed in the mind relate to, namely that initial language processing takes place in automatic informationally encapsulated modules (and their corollaries in the brain itself), which handle what is commonly referred to as lower functions, such as syntax, lexical access and phonology. Lakoff, on the other hand, deals with what happens in stages of language processing which follow these initial, automatic functions; the higher functions that receive input from the lower functions, as well as requiring and involving context - knowledge of the world. These processes aren't automatic, and they kick in quite a few milliseconds later (I can't remember the number off the top of my head, but I can look them up if you want), and many old school linguists, of the purist type, don't even consider the study of those higher functions as part of the scope of linguistics. Pinker tends to take the modularity of mind theory a bit too far, but I digress.

Considering that there's still a debate about what constitutes linguistics in general, and the place of higher functions in linguistic discourse in particular (and that's not even counting those who entirely disagree with the theory that there are lower, automatic functions in language processing), arguments within the community are often a result of a fundamental disagreement on where the lines between disciplines lie, and so misrepresenting other school of thought (schools which tend to actually deal with different stages of processing) seems to be a favorite pastime of linguists around the world. This is why it's difficult to fully understand these feuds unless linguistics is one's primary area of expertise, but also why it's so amusing to Noa and me, especially considering that these tiffs tend to be quite clever. As an example, Pinker once wrote an impressive book (at least to the layman), based on Fodor's brilliant "The Modularity of Mind", and called it "How The Mind Works". In response, Fodor wrote another little book, called "The Mind Doesn't Work That Way" (which, BTW, is a highly amusing as well as informative book, and I wholeheartedly recommend it).
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From:ijon
Date:February 23rd, 2007 11:02 pm (UTC)
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Thanks! I didn't realize that. I should really read me a few landmark books in linguistics. What do you think of Ong?
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From:unfilthy
Date:February 25th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
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Ong, as in the guy who wrote about written vs. spoken language? If that's who you mean, then his work is way outside the scope of my particular interests, and I'm not familiar with it, so I can't provide an opinion. My knowledge about written language is limited to something akin to a footnote in the language acquisition branch of psycholinguistics, and the only bit of language acquisition I have more than a cursory knowledge of is phonology...

The further you go into the social sciences, the less I know, mostly because I find it too frustrating to judge the numerous theories in any reliable way. Too many factors, not enough (of what I consider to be) reliable data; especially when philosophy enters into it. I'm much better with things that can be isolated and quantified in well structured experiments. Frege, Russel, Fodor (to name a few), were philosophers whose work could be translated into experiments that could support or disprove their theories. A linguist (a formal semanticist or a psycholinguist) could test their theories against what language is (as opposed to what it "should" or could be), or use them in some practical manner. That's why (and how) I've been exposed to their work on language, but my abilities are limited. When it comes to linguistics, I look at what is, and I try to explain it, in a way that takes into account data that has been gathered, and data that can be extracted. I've learned quite a bit about rhetoric, for example, and epistemology, and I've found it fascinating, but I cannot integrate it into my work in linguistics; the entire discourse is different, and my mind simply doesn't work that way.

I could probably explain myself better, or at least in a more detailed fashion, but I'm feeling slightly brain dead at the moment. My apologies.
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Date:February 27th, 2007 02:54 pm (UTC)

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