On Lakoff and the Importance of Meaning

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

I would like to build on Tom’s recent post about the debate unfolding around George Lakoff’s new article, How We Talk About the Environment Has Everything to Do with Whether We’ll Save It.  Lakoff is a former colleague of mine (we worked together at the now defunct Rockridge Institute) and I am intimately familiar with his work.

My perspective is informed by extensive study into the realm of cognitive semantics, the subfield of cognitive linguistics that has grown largely out of Lakoff’s work.  I would like to take up his criticism of discourse analysis as being inherently limited by drawing attention to the central concern of semantics – meaning.

Cognitive semantics comprises a growing body of methods and insights into the nature of meaning for human beings.  Theoretical tools include frames (structured patterns of associated knowledge that underly conceptual thought), metaphors (cross-domain mappings of logic from sensory-motor apparatus in the brain to conceptual thought), metonymies (representative concepts that “stand in for” more complex cognitive processes), image schemas (universal structures of bodily experience that provide scaffolding for conceptual reasoning), and more.  Each of these tools helps shed light on the nature of meaning in human language and thought.

To help draw the distinction between conventional discourse analysis and cognitive linguistic discourse analysis, I would point to a number of features of brain function that conventional discourse analysis lacks attention to.  One is the Hebbian learning function, which is the “neurons that fire together, wire together” phenomenon behind Lakoff’s comments about repetition.  Each time an association network is activated in the brain, the tendency for it to be activated in the future is enhanced.

Another is the central role of sensory-motor functions in body-based meaning.  Conventional discourse analysis treats language as a formal (or quasi-formal) system to be deconstructed based on formal logical relationships.  What this fails to take into account is the context-dependent logics of bodily experiences that systematically influence the emergence of meaning in language.

These inadequacies are significant because conventional discourse analysis misses the dynamic and cumulative aspects of meaning in human interactions pertaining to cognitive and neurological groundings of the embodied mind.

In my work I incorporate this neurological foundation into communications theory to allow for complementarity between the different analytic approaches.  It is not that conventional discourse analysis is wrong, but rather that it is inadequate and misleading as it is currently understood by its practitioners because it is incapable of grounding conceptual meaning systematically in the lived, bodily experience.

Other critiques of Lakoff treat his work as reductionist, as though he loses sight of culture in his emphasis on brain function.  This is simply a misunderstanding of Lakoff’s work.  He writes extensively about the cultural and political influences that shape meaning through discourse.  The source of this misunderstanding, in my view, is a lack of clarity about the distributed nature of human cognition.

I often make the connection from brain function to culture through the observation that our brains are pattern-matching and pattern-completing machines.  They filter massive amounts of perceptual information into coherent patterns that are meaningful to the human mind.  These perceptual patterns come from two sources – the internal body milieu and the external physical/social environment.  Lakoff’s frames are nothing more (or less) than the coherent firing patterns of neural circuitry that make sense of information from both sources.

The distributed nature of human cognition arises through the social interactions of people.  We learn, think, and know through a vast web of interactions with the world.

I hope that this begins to clarify the deeper significance of Lakoff’s work for expert practitioners and theorists.  This brief commentary cannot possibly address all of the issues.  Perhaps it will suffice to provide a space where we can grapple together with the complexities of meaning in human thought that are so central to environmental discourse.

Joe BrewerOn Lakoff and the Importance of Meaning