Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things Analysis

George Lakoff

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

A story, possibly apocryphal, has been told to illustrate one of the enduring philosophical questions, that of the nature of reality. Two baseball umpires, one from the American League, the other from the National, were questioned as to the objective existence of balls and strikes—in other words, how and when did a baseball passing over home plate become either a ball or a strike?

“That’s simple,” the National League umpire replied. “I call it for what it is. If it’s in the strike zone, it’s a strike; outside that, it’s a ball.”

The American League umpire had a different view. He said, “It ain’t nothing until I call it.”

Such, in analogy, are the key themes and basic disagreements studied in George Lakoff’s hefty work, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. The essential themes Lakoff considers are human thought, how it is revealed through our use of language, especially patterning such as categories, and the resulting experience of reality. In the course of his explorations, he advances considerable evidence against traditional views of these subjects and ends by producing a new theory, one which is in striking contrast to the classical positions.

As noted above, the topics of the human mind and reality are not new concerns, but long-standing and central questions of philosophy. To the centuries-old debate Lakoff brings new insights from recent work in artificial intelligence, psychology and cognitive studies, and modern linguistics, applying these findings in a generally careful and often-novel approach to the old problem. There is little doubt that, in terms of the earlier analogy, Lakoff would find himself more at home in the American League.

Lakoff begins by positing a standard or accepted view of human thought, a view that he identifies with the classical traditions of Western philosophy and that he terms the “objectivist view.” Here, “objective” is used in its sense as the opposite of “subjective,” that is, the objectivist view holds that reality does exist outside the observer, independent of any differences in the thought processes, cultural and linguistic differences, or bodily form of the observers. This point, although elementary, needs to be stressed to appreciate fully Lakoff’s total argument.

According to Lakoff, the objectivist view is marked by three key tenets. First, rational, meaningful thought is essentially the manipulation of abstract symbols; second, reason itself is transcendent, existing beyond the confines of the human body and its physical limitations; third, mental concepts are valid and accurate internal representations of external reality.

Against this position, Lakoff champions what he terms the “experientialist” or “conceptualist” view. From this vantage point, human thought is imaginative, rather than manipulative; dependent upon the body, rather than independent of it; and at least a partial creator of the so-called reality we seem to perceive about us.

Lakoff’s approach, first undermining the traditional view and then supporting his own, is expressed in his subtitle, What Categories Reveal About the Mind. Lakoff bases much of his theory on our ability as human beings to categorize the universe around us. More than that, he believes that linguistic expressions of those categories offer valid insights into the actual cognitive processes that take place in our mind. Because of this, evidence from psychology and linguistics is acceptable—indeed, to Lakoff, irrefutable—in proving that the classic theory of categorization, the objectivist view, is no longer tenable. According to Lakoff, how we perceive reality depends less upon what is “out there” (reality) and more upon what is “in here,” most notably recognition of our bodily sensations, the innately creative methods of the human mind, and the impact of language upon our cognitive processes. To Lakoff, thought is essentially a creative action that involves rhetorical, rather than symbolic, manipulations: metaphor and metonymy in place of algebra or logic, for example.

In making these claims, Lakoff is thus striking out against at least two of the three central pillars of what he calls the objectivist view. He firmly rejects the notion that thought is manipulation of abstract symbols and equally thoroughly dismisses the notion that reason can be transcendent. He therefore is committed to the belief that thought is rooted within the human organism, and creative.

He accepts to a large degree the existence of outward reality, but he insists that our ordering of it—and therefore our perception of it—is strongly affected by the two points stressed above, creativity and physicality.

Lakoff’s claims are bold and considerable. The question is, how well does he support them, and what evidence does he produce?

Lakoff’s central proof for the conceptualist view comes from his study of categories—how objects, concepts, or themes are grouped together by human beings....

(The entire section is 2084 words.)


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