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by Keith J. Pavlischek


Strict Father Is Watching You

Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't
By George Lakoff
University of Chicago Press
413 pp.; $24.95

George Lakoff is not a political scientist, but he does fancy himself as conducting a scientific study of politics in America. An eminent professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, Lakoff has set out to discover the basic differences between liberals and conservatives. His interests are "empirical" rather than "theoretical," he says, adding that he "did not begin with any philosophical presuppositions about what I would find." (A degree of skepticism may be in order here; see, for example, Randy Allen Harris's The Linguistics Wars [1993] for an account of Lakoff's career.) So it is as a scientist that he addresses us: "These results emerged from empirical study using the tools of a cognitive scientist to study political worldviews."

This book, then, presents itself as the outcome of research; its findings claim the status of a discovery, made by Lakoff in the course of his study of "our moral conceptual system, especially our system of metaphors for morality."

So what did Lakoff discover about liberals and conservatives? He learned, he says, that these opposing groups share a metaphorical understanding of the Nation As Family, but while conservatism is based on a "Strict Father" model of the family, liberalism is based on a "Nurturant Parent" model. Seen from this perspective, "liberal" and "conservative" are not, at root, political categories: "They are categories whose central members are defined by family-based moral systems that are projected by the Nation As Family metaphor onto the domain of politics."

Lakoff's argument runs like this:

--Political policies are derived from family-based moralities (conservative = strict father; liberal = nurturant parent).

--Those family-based moralities are largely constructed from unconscious conceptual metaphors.

--Understanding political positions requires understanding ...

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