Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Pinker vs. Lakoff

Here are some observations on Arabs by someone who lived there.

Chris Rock on "How not to get beat up by the police."

Razib brings us a review by Steven Pinker of George Lakoff's Whose Freedom? and Lakoff's response. I haven't read the book, and Lakoff claims that Pinker misrepresents his views (as Lakoff probably misrepresents Pinker's views), but the direct quotes Pinker makes of Lakoff are damning.

There are a lot of assertions made on behalf of "cognitive neuroscience" that are probably untestable, and in any case beyond my full comprehension, but I will happily pick the low-hanging fruit that Lakoff leaves me:
In Whose Freedom? I discuss the difference between freedom from and freedom to (p. 30). Then, throughout the book, I show that both the progressive and conservative versions of freedom use both freedom from and freedom to. For example, progressives focus on freedom from want and fear, and well as from government spying on citizens and interfering with family medical decisions, and also freedom of access to opportunity and fulfillment in life (e.g., education and health care). Conservatives are concerned with freedom from government interference in the market (e.g., via regulation) and they are concerned with freedom to use their property any way they want. In short, the old Isaiah Berlin claims about the distinction do not hold up.
I thought when I read it that Pinker's distillation of the difference between "positive rights" (i.e. the claims we make on the resources of others), and "negative rights" (i.e. the claim that our own resources should be free from the coercion of other people) into "freedom from" and "freedom to" was weak, and Lakoff demonstrates this by applying them in ways Pinker (and, I assume, Isaiah Berlin) did not intend. But that is a weakness in labeling, not in the underlying concept.

Lakoff's examples of Progressive invocation of "freedom from" are tendentious (may not government spy on non-citizens?) and, in the case of "family medical decisions," completely disingenuous. "Family medical decisions" is Lakoff-code-talk for, primarily, abortion, but also for euthanizing the sick and elderly. My point here is not to argue for or against either; I only point out that the only reason conservatives wade into this debate is because we recognize that these "family medical decisions" involve the fate of actual people (e.g. unborn children) who, quite possibly, have a "negative right" to be free from being murdered by other people. Now I will stipulate for the present that Lakoff and the left are sincere in their solicitude for the "right of the woman" to "control her own body" and be free from the demands of the unborn on its resources. I will acknowledge that resolving these competing claims require us to delve deeper into moral and natural philosophy. But I will insist that such resolution requires more than glib invocations of "privacy."

In any case, Lakoff's invocation of "family medical decisions" is in bad faith. If a Christian Science family wanted to deny an appendectomy to their child on religious grounds, I sincerely doubt that Lakoff would find his own formula very persuasive.
In another case, Chapter 7 of Whose Freedom? discusses direct versus systemic causation. On the first page of the chapter, I say, "It is surely not the case that conservatives are simpleminded and cannot think in terms of complex systems. Indeed, conservative strategists consistently outdo progressive strategists when I comes to long term overall strategic initiatives." Pinker's version: "It takes considerable ignorance, indeed chutzpah, to boast that only a progressive such as himself can understand the difference between systemic and direct causation." The opposite of what I say.
So, Lakoff is "conceding" that conservatives are politically adept at winning elections. That does not address the substance of conservative policy analysis regarding crime and welfare, nor even concede that conservatives have looked at these issue in a systemic way, beyond "compassion" at an anecdotal level.

Come to think of it, Lakoff barely addresses the substance of Pinker's critique of Lakoff's policy prescriptions at a philosophical or empirical level. He instead is satisfied to, jargon aside, engage in "marketing major postmodernism" (hat tip to Steve Sailer) and insist that the only problem for progressives is that they need to sell their policies better. That may or may not work, but at the end of the day, the progressive worldview is bankrupt, and the electorate seems to know it.

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