Friday, August 22, 2008

Pilotti, Maura. "Review of George Lakoff's THE POLITICAL MIND." MOR August 5, 2008.

Lakoff, George. The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. New York: Viking, 2008. George Lakoff is a cognitive scientist who, for quite some time, has applied to politics his knowledge of how the human brain/mind processes information. The enlightening results of this undertaking are evident in his latest book: The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st –Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. In it, Lakoff examines the functioning of the human brain/mind with the purpose of identifying the relationship between the format in which ideas, mostly involving public policy, are presented and their reception by the different constituencies of public opinion (i.e., us). He focuses on frames, pre-existing knowledge structures that absorb, transform, and attribute value to incoming information. The influence of frames on information processing is also prominently featured in his earlier work devoted to the American political process (e.g., Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think; Don't Think of an Elephant). Yet, in The Political Mind, Lakoff's treatment of the role that frames play in the functioning of the human brain/mind and thus of their impact on the political process is more complete, although no less insightful and direct. Lakoff's examination of the political process is well-argued because it not only relies on evidence collected by means of the scientific method but also is guided by the scientific method in his applications of the evidence to politics. In his exploration of the functioning of the brain/mind, Lakoff starts with two key premises: First, he reminds readers that rational thoughts and emotions are inextricably linked in the cognitive frames upon which voters rely to understand politics and to guide their behavior when in the voting booth. Second, he emphasizes that most of the information processing that human beings conduct is unconscious and that even its outcomes (e.g., the understanding of specific issues) are not entirely comprehended by those who engaged in such processing. The latter premise, he recognizes, leads to an apparently unsolvable conundrum. Namely, how can individuals be in command of processes and outcomes that are beyond their awareness? Are human beings destined to be the victims of their own frames as if they were vessels, which, during a tempest, become unable to determine the direction of their travel? Lakoff forcefully argues that the first and most crucial step for controlling cognitive operations and their outcomes is knowledge of how these operations are performed in relation to existing cognitive frames. He reminds us that the adult brain/mind is not an empty container but rather a collection of receptacles (i.e., frames) filled and shaped by early experiences. Thus, he recommends that the information that one has processed be deconstructed in relation to the frames that have been unconsciously applied to the information when it was first encountered. The goal, moral and commendable, is to ensure that the issues are fairly understood and that rational and equitable solutions are adopted. But what does one do if an issue is novel and there does not appear to be a pre-existing frame for it? Lakoff argues that a frame should be created for it so that the above-mentioned goal can be reached. An example of this possibility is provided by the section devoted to "privateering", the ongoing, widespread practice of privatizing the essential functions of government, which, by blending "privatization" and "profiteering", renders government powerless, unable to perform even the most basic function of protecting its citizens (See the American government's response in the aftermath of Katrina and the role of private contractors in foreign wars). . . . Read the whole review here:

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