Friends of Semantic Compositions

January 2009

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30 31

Site Statistics

Blog powered by Typepad

« What George Lakoff knows about the mind | Main | I want my movies back »

October 01, 2004



If you add commas to sentence 1 ("John, I believe, Sally said Bill believed Sue saw") it sounds better. It's still a confusing sentence that no one would ever say, but I don't think it's exactly ungrammatical.


You said two things which seem contradictory to me:

Introspection about things you aren't deeply acquainted with is not a serious research strategy.
This is a diversion, and Lakoff knows it.

So you have critical experience about what Lakoff knows to be a diversion, and you got it through introspection -- if I understand you correctly. It looks to me like Lakoff could turn your criticisms around and use them against you.

Then again, it could be that you have a substantial point that I'm missing. The technical side of this may be obvious to professional linguists, and maybe I lack the basic skills to catch your drift.

This is a good example of why I won't believe in any logic more subtle than the formula satisfiability problem. Once it gets past first-order logic it all goes blurry to me.

P.S.: Sentence 1 sounds perfectly natural to me when I say it out loud. If it had commas it would be as grammatical as anything in Michael Swan's _Practical_English_Usage_.

Semantic Compositions

I'll deal with the easy one first -- sentence 1 sounds completely awful to me, but the thing that makes introspection about grammaticality so much fun is that people with only slightly different dialects can disagree greatly. The point there was that more native English speakers will disagree with van Riemsdijk and Williams than not about the judgment, and the failure of such judgments to be reliably universal is what makes them inappropriate as a research technique.

Moving on to your more substantive point, there's no contradiction in what I said otherwise. One of these statements was a rhetorical point, and the other was not. Lakoff has argued vehemently against introspection as a research method, and some of his other writings provide excellent case studies in how to do empirical research. The comment about "and Lakoff knows it" was intended to be emphatic, but it's well grounded in things he has actually said -- including things cited in the body of this post. Quoting Lakoff hardly counts as introspecting about his mental states. Drawing conclusions from those quotes doesn't make me a hypocrite.

But your comment indicates that you think I'm radically skeptical of our ability to discern other people's mental states, to the extent that they're almost completely unknowable. I don't think that's a reasonable interpretation of my comments; the standard I set in judging Lakoff's work isn't that one must totally immerse oneself in the life's work of one's subjects, but that if you're not a "native thinker", then you had better "[provide] evidence of serious research with footnotes by the dozen". Lakoff simply doesn't show that he's bothered to read even a slightly representative sampling of conservative rhetoric, and his treatment of liberal speech is not notably better. I actually read Lakoff's books before making any judgments about his thinking, and quotes with footnotes can be found in every section of the review. That's a compliment Lakoff doesn't pay to those whose speech he purports to explain.


But your comment indicates that you think I'm radically skeptical of our ability to discern other people's mental states, to the extent that they're almost completely unknowable. I don't think that's a reasonable interpretation of my comments;

No, actually, that's not what I said, nor what I meant. I don't know whether the only problem is that I suck at articulating or whether there are other problems.

This is why I stick to the formula satisfiability problem.


The academic in the back of my mind is fascinated by your critique of Lakoff's generalizations about the essential frames of political ideology. I came to Lakoff through Benjamin Lee Whorf and Keith Basso, not politics, and found his theories and assertions fascinating but, shall we say, incomplete.

My dissatisfaction with Lakoff's work generally is for the lack of culturally diverse substantiation in his assertions about metaphor. The topic is crying for some basic data comparable to what you find with a quick foray into, say, ethnomathematics.

The tactician in the front of my mind, however, is not persuaded that Lakoff is wrong is his generalizations, for a wonderfully simple reason. I suddenly find myself able to make sense of conservative rhetoric and even, thank Dog, to dissect, rebute, and confute it. That clarifying effect may be the result of felicitious overgeneralization, but it's getting the job done. You can tighten screws with a butter knife, if that's all you've got.

Great discussion. I'll be back.

The comments to this entry are closed.