Women, Fire and Dangerous Things deliberately canvases logical problems in the classical objectivist model of cognition and just as deliberately advances the prototype theory of cognition. It argues that knowledge cannot be understood as one-to-one references between meaningless symbols and objects "really" out there, but rather, knowledge must be understood as basic-level "gestalt" categories generated by the biology of the body, by normal actions taken in learning the world, by cultural folk-myths and by metonymic reasoning. Drawing from case studies in ethnography and in linguistics, Lakoff marshals evidence for knowledge organized into idealized cognitive models. However serious in purpose, and cautious with evidence, Lakoff has something of the wistfulness of a scholar who has spent his life tilting at windmills: "probably you will go on thinking the way you always have, but if you would just consider the matter logically..."
What is objectivist cognition and what are the key problems it poses? Objectivism asks "What is correct human reason? What is truth? How is meaning? How can we characterize such meaning relationships as logical consequence and sameness of meaning?" (162) Objectivism assumes "that the mind can function as a mirror of nature. That is, it is possible for the symbols used in language and thought to correspond to entities and categories in the world. Given objectivist metaphysics, the world can be assumed have the kind of structure that makes such symbol-to-world correspondences possible. " (162) Lakoff suggests that there are many difficulties with such a philosophy. He explores, among other examples, how the boundaries of mother and bachelor are constituted. He argues that "pope as bachelor," and "working mother as mother" do not have and cannot be made to have meaning without a surrounding fuzzy complex interpretative cultural construct. In a parallel set of arguments, Lakoff looks a problems raised by two competing forms of biological classification: cladistics (evolution) and phenetics (morphological similarity). There are two systems -- each defensible -- and an object can only be known as itself by being placed within one of the two systems. (213) Attacking the problem from a semantic/philosophical angle, he offers the "flashing lights" problem. If "Harry" sees a light flash across a screen, and says, "I saw a light flash across the screen," but there were, in fact, two lights that flashed across the screen in very close succession, so that the two lights seemed to be one, how can we discuss from whose perspective are the lights seen, understood and described? Lakoff says, "Technically, this is beyond classical systems of objectivist semantics. Such systems do not permit an entity in one world to correspond referentially to multiple entities in other worlds." In support of his arguments, he presents Henry Putnam's critique of model-theoretic semantics -- a kind of mathematics of objectivism. (232-234) Lakoff concludes that objectivist philosophy is "inconsistent both with the facts of human categorization and with the most basic requirements for a theory of meaning." (265)
What does Lakoff propose instead of objectivism? Knowledge cannot be understood from a God's eye perspective: without denying an outside reality, responsible researchers agree that knowledge can only be understood from a human reference point. Cognitive models are embodied --based on the body -- built up via ordinary actions within a culture, structured according to folk myths within that culture, and overlapping to allow gradients of membership between one model and the next. He uses the color studies of Berlin and Kay to illustrate embodied knowledge. In these studies respondents had different words for color, and different understandings of how many colors there were in the world (anywhere from two to eleven) but they did agree on "focal colors."
What made it possible for Berlin and Kay to find these regularities was their discovery of focal colors. If one simply asks speakers around the world to pick out the portions of the spectrum that their basic color terms refer to, there seem to be no significant regularities. The boundaries between color ranges differ from language to language. The regularities appear only when one asks for the best example of a basic color term given a standardized chart of 320 small color chips. Virtually the same best examples are chosen for the basic color terms by speakers in language after language. (26)
Lakoff links the focal colors to the firing rate of neurons, and suggests that -- despite seeming diversity -- the biology of the body determines what we see and how we know what we see. Cultural folk myths and daily activities can be as powerful as biology. The book's title, Women Fire and Dangerous Things, refers to another supporting study on the Dyirbal language, which has four classes of nouns:
I bayi: (human) males; animalsIn this system, domains of experience links nouns that might otherwise seem unrelated. Fishing poles, for instance, are not class IV, but class I, with men, who traditionally do the fishing. Mythical connections also link nouns. Birds are believed to be the souls of dead women, and crickets are believed to be old women, and so both are in class two. Nouns switch classes to signify danger; hence, stinging trees (class IV) reside with women in class II. Hawks (class II) are bumped to class I. Lakoff argues that such systems represent the way that a culture thinks and processes information, and that human knowledge --Western, or (as in the case of the Dyirbal) aboriginal -- must be understood on these terms.
II balan: (human) females; water; fire; fighting, birds
III balam: nonflesh food
IV bala: everything not in the other classes
He suggests that there are four types of cognitive models: propositional, image-schematic, metaphoric, and metonymic. (154) Propositional models include those things that seem most objective, such as "there is a ball on the table," or "I am standing in a field." Image schematic models include gestalts for overall shapes and relations. Kinesthetic relationships are important to image schematic models: containers, (in/out) part-whole (a half, a third), linked, center-periphery, source-path-goal, and movement, including verticality. These models are his proposal for a human-based system affirming reality, not traveling beyond the bounds of logic, and accounting for meaning and thinking across culture and language.
Although it is beyond my abilities to decide if Lakoff has adequately
dismantled the 4000 year-old objectivist project, seemingly reasonable
and very helpful to me will be his theoretical models for thinking.
Most interesting was his brief reference to Fauconnier, who writes about