Book Review: Readings

George Lakoff writes on a culture war in which "the main battlefield is the brain"


The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain

by George Lakoff
Viking Adult, 304 pp., $25.95

"We know that we do not know our own brains," writes cognitive scientist and linguistics professor George Lakoff in his latest book, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain. A no-brainer, I think. After all, I can't explain how I think about what I think about. What is up with all those millions of neurons making billions of connections and firing a hundred times a second into my complex circuits?

But it's more than not understanding the complex inner workings of our brains. Most of the time, we don't even know what we're thinking. Lakoff writes that people are unaware of 98% of the thinking their brains do, and his latest call to action – a call to progressives to get up off their yoga mats and fight conservatives in an ongoing culture war, in which "the main battlefield is the brain" – is about trading in 18th century Old Enlightenment reasoning, which discounts unconscious thought, for 21st century reasoning. Lakoff's New Enlightenment, based on 30-year-old discoveries about the brain, challenges the Old's notion that reason is conscious, universal, disembodied, logical, unemotional, value-neutral, interest-based, and literal. He encourages progressives to rethink how they think and how they reason in order to better interpret political language and advocate more effective progressive policy. Lakoff credits the Republican Party with building think tanks and developing expertly crafted language to influence voters (i.e., the poor and the uninsured who vote with their minds on Christian values and a fear of terrorists). "America was founded and developed as a progressive country, and it is crucial that its values be reclaimed and extended to fit the needs of our century," he writes.

The Political Mind is written with a candid, forthright tone, which makes for an easily digestible read despite its occasional meta, textbooky tendencies. By breaking down conservative, progressive, and neoliberal modes of thought and demonstrating how each embeds cultural narratives and metaphors into the human brain, Lakoff simultaneously enlightens and establishes a good case for necessary change. However, I was a bit put off by the author's narrow targeting: not the average American, nor even the average progressive, but progressives with his shared moral view. But I guess that's the whole point.

George Lakoff will discuss and sign copies of The Political Mind at BookPeople, Thursday, July 17, 7pm.

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