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George Lakoff : biography

May 24, 1941 -

George P. Lakoff ( born May 24, 1941) is an American cognitive linguist, best known for his thesis that lives of individuals are significantly influenced by the central metaphors they use to explain complex phenomena.

The metaphor thesis, introduced in his 1980 book Metaphors We Live By has found applications in a number of academic disciplines and its application to politics, literature, philosophy and mathematics has led him into territory normally considered basic to political science. In 1996 book Moral Politics, Lakoff described right-wing voters as being influenced by "strict father model" as central metaphor for such an complex phenomenon as the state and left-wing voters as being influenced by "nurturant parent model" as folk psychological metaphor for this complex phenomenon. According to him, an individual's experience and attitude towards paying taxes is influenced by being framed in linguistic constructions such as "tax relief" as some sort of affliction that individuals need a "relief" from. In "Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf", he argued that the American involvement in the Gulf war was either obscured or was put a spin on, by the metaphors which were used by the first Bush administration to justify it. Between 2003 and 2008, Lakoff was involved with a progressive think tank, the now defunct Rockridge Institute. He is a member of the scientific committee of the Fundacion IDEAS, Spain's Socialist Party's think tank.

The more general theory that elaborated his thesis is known as embodied mind. He is professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1972.

Work

Reappraisal of metaphor

Although some of his research involves questions traditionally pursued by linguists, such as the conditions under which a certain linguistic construction is grammatically viable, he is most famous for his reappraisal of the role that metaphors play in socio-political lives of humans.

Metaphor has been seen within the Western scientific tradition as purely a linguistic construction. The essential thrust of Lakoff's work has been the argument that metaphors are primarily a conceptual construction, and indeed are central to the development of thought.

He suggested that:

"Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature."

Non-metaphorical thought is for Lakoff only possible when we talk about purely physical reality. For Lakoff the greater the level of abstraction the more layers of metaphor are required to express it. People do not notice these metaphors for various reasons. One reason is that some metaphors become 'dead' and we no longer recognize their origin. Another reason is that we just don't "see" what is "going on".

For instance, in intellectual debate the underlying metaphor is usually that argument is war (later revised as "argument is struggle"):

  • He won the argument.
  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He shot down all my arguments.
  • His criticisms were right on target.
  • If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out.

For Lakoff, the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors. The application of one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge offers new perceptions and understandings.

Linguistics wars

Lakoff began his career as a student and later a teacher of the theory of transformational grammar developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky. In the late 1960s, however, he joined with others to promote generative semanticshttp://www.db-thueringen.de/servlets/DerivateServlet/Derivate-4550/Government_and_Binding.pdf as an alternative to Chomsky's generative syntax. In an interview he stated:

Lakoff's claim that Chomsky asserts independence between syntax and semantics has been rejected by Chomsky, who has given examples from within his work where he talks about the relationship between his semantics and syntax. Chomsky goes further and claims that Lakoff has "virtually no comprehension of the work he is discussing" (the work in question being Chomsky's). His differences with Chomsky contributed to fierce, acrimonious debates among linguists that have come to be known as the "linguistics wars".

Living octopus

Living octopus

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