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How to read ‘Women, Fire and Dangerous Things’: Guide to essential reading on human cognition

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Note:

These are rough notes for a metaphor reading group, not a continuous narrative. Any comments, corrections or elaborations are welcome.

Why should you read WFDT?

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind is still a significantly underappreciated and (despite its high citation count) not-enough-read book that has a lot to contribute to thinking about how the mind works.

I think it provides one of the most concise and explicit models for how to think about the mind and language from a cognitive perspective. I also find its argument against the still prevalent approach to language and the mind as essentially fixed objects very compelling.

The thing that has been particularly underused in subsequent scholarship is the concept of ‘ICMs’ or ‘Idealised Cognitive Models’ which both puts metaphor (for work on which Lakoff is most well known) in its rightful context but also outlines what we should look for when we think about things like frames, models, scripts, scenarios, etc. Using this concept would have avoided many undue simplifications in work in the social sciences and humanities.

Why this guide

Unfortunately, the concision and explicitness I extolled above is surrounded by hundreds of pages of arguments and elaborations that are often less well-thought out than the central thesis and have been a vector for criticism (I’ve responded to some of these in my review of Verena Haser’s book).

As somebody who translated the whole book into Czech and penned extensive commentary on its relevance to the structuralist linguistic tradition, I have perhaps spent more time with it than most people other than the author and his editors.

Which is why when people ask me whether to read it, I usually recommend an abreviated tour of the core argument with some selections depending on the individual’s interest.

Here are some of my suggestions.

Chapters everyone should read

Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6 – Core contribution of the book – Fundamental structuring principles of human cognition

These four chapters summarize what I think everybody who thinks about language, mind and society should know about how categories work. Even if it is not necessarily the last word on every (or any) aspect, it should be the starting point for inquiry.

All the key concepts (see below) are outlined here.

Preface and Chapter 1 – Outline of the whole argument and its implications

These brief chapters lay out succinctly and, I think very clearly, the overall argument of the book and its implications. This is where he outlines the core of the critique of objectivism which I think is very important (if itself open to criticism).

Chapter 2: Precursors

This is where he outlines the broader panoply of thinkers and research outcomes in recent intellectual history whose insights this books tries to systematise and take further.

The chapter takes up some of the key thinkers who have been critical of the established paradigm. Read it not necessarily for understanding them but for a way of thinking about their work in the context of this book.

Case studies

The case studies represent a large chunk of the book and few people will read all 3. But I think at least one of them should be part of any reading of the book. Most people will be drawn to number 1 on metaphor but I find that number 2 shows off the key concepts in most depth. It will require some focus and patience from non-linguists but I think is worth the effort.

Case study 3 is perhaps too linguistic (even though it introduces the important concept of constructions) for most non-linguist.

Key concepts

No matter how the book is read, these are the key concepts I think people should walk away with understanding.

Idealized Cognitive Models (also called Frames in Lakoff’s later work)

I don’t know of any more systematic treatment of how our conceptual system is structured than this. It is not necessarily the last word but should not be overlooked.

Radial Categories

When people talk about family resemblances they ignore the complexity of the conceptual work that goes into them. Radial categories give a good sense of that depth.

Schemas and rich images

While image schemas are still a bit controversial as actual cognitive constructs, Lakoff’s treatment of them alongside rich images shows the importance of both as heuristics to interpreting cognitive phenomena.

Objectivism vs Basic Realism

Although objectivism (nothing to do with Ayn Rand) is not a position taken by any practicing philosophers and feels a bit straw-manny, I find Lakoff’s outline of it eerily familiar as I read works across the humanities and social sciences, let alone philosophy. When people read the description, they should avoid dismissing it with ‘of course nobody thinks that’ and reflect on how many people approach problems of mind and language as if they did think that.

Prototype effects and basic-level categories

These concepts are not original to Lakoff but are essential to understanding the others.

Role of metaphor and metonymy

Lakoff is best known for his earlier work on metaphor (which is why figurative language is not a key concept in itself) but this book puts metaphor and metonymy in perspective of the broader cognition.

Embodiment and motivation

Embodiment is an idea thrown around a lot these days. Lakoff’s is an important early contribution that shows some of the actual interaction between embodiment and cognition.

I find it particularly relevant when he talks about how concepts are motivated but not determined by embodied cognition.

Constructions

Lakoff’s work was taking shape alongside Fillmore’s work on construction grammar and Langacker’s on cognitive grammar. While the current construction grammar paradigm is much more influenced by those, I think it is still worth reading Lakoff for his contribution here. Particularly case studies 2 and 3 are great examples of the power of this approach.

Additional chapters of interest

Elaborations of core concepts

Chapters 17 and 18 elaborate on the core concepts in important ways but many people never reach them because they follow a lot of work on philosophical implications.

Chapter 17 on Cognitive Semantics takes another more deeper look at ICMs (idealized cognitive models) across various dimensions.

Chapter 18 deals with the question of how conceptual categories work across languages in the context of relativism. The name of the book is derived from a non-English example but this takes the question of universals and language specificity head on. Perhaps not the in the most comprehensive way (the debate on relativism has moved on) but it illuminates the core concepts further.

Case studies

Case Studies 2 and 3 should be of great interest to linguists. Not because they are perfect but because they show the depth of analysis required of even relatively simple concepts.

Philosophical implications

Lakoff is not shy about placing his work in the context of disrruption of the reigning philosophical paradigm of his (and to a significant extent our) day. Chapter 11 goes into more depth on how he understands the ‘objectivist paradigm’. It has been criticised for not representing actual philosophical positions (which he explicitly says he’s not doing) but I think it’s representative of many actual philosophical and other treatments of language and cognition.

This is then elaborated in chapters 12 – 16 and of course in his subsequent book with Mark Johnson Philosophy in the Flesh. I find the positive argument they’re making compelling but it is let down by staying on the surface of the issues they’re criticising.

What to skip

Where Lakoff (and elsewhere Lakoff and Johnson) most open themselves to criticism is their relatively shallow reading of their opponents. Most philosophers don’t engage with this work because they don’t find it speaks their language and when it does, it is easily dismissed as too light.

While I think that the broad critique this book presents of what it calls ‘objectivist approaches’ is correct, I don’t recommend that anyone takes the details too seriously. Lakoff simultaneously gives it too little and too much attention. He argues against very small details but leaves too many gaps.

This means that those who should be engaging with the very core of the work’s contribution fixate on errors and gaps in his criticism and feel free to dismiss the key aspects of what he has to say (much to their detriment).

For example, his critique of situational semantics leaves too many gaps and left him open to successful rejoinders even if he was probably right.

What is missing

While Lakoff engages with cognitive anthropology (and he and Johnson acknowledge their debts in the preface to Metaphors We Live By), he does not reflect the really interesting work in this area. Goffman (shockingly) gets no mention, nor does Victor Turner whose work on liminality is pretty important companion.

There’s also little acknowledgement of work on texts such as that by Halliday and Hasan (although, that was arguably still waiting for its greatest impact in the mid 1980s with the appearance of corpora). But Lakoff and most of the researchers in this areas stay firmly at the level of a clause. But give that my own work is mostly focusing on discourse and text-level phenomena, I would say that.

What to read next

Here are some suggestions for where to go next for elaborations of the key concepts or ideas with relevance to those outlined in the book.

  • Moral politics by Lakoff launched his forays into political work but I think it’s more important as an example of this way of thinking applied for a real purpose. He replaces Idealized Cognitive Models with Frames but shows many great examples of them at work. Even if it falls short as an exhaustive analysis of the issues, it is very important as a methodological contribution of how frames work in real life. I think of it almost as a fourth case study to this book.
  • The Way We Think by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner provides a model of how cognitive models work ‘online’ during the process of speaking. Although, it has made a more direct impact in the field of construction grammar, its importance is still underappreciated outside it. I think of it as an essential companion to the core contribution of this book. Lakoff himself draws on Fauconnier’s earlier work on mental spaces in this book.
  • Work on construction grammar This book was one of the first places where the notion of ‘construction’ in the sense of ‘construction grammar’ was introduced. It has since developed in its own substantive field of study that has been driven by others. I’d say the work of Adele Goldberg is still the best introduction but for my money William Croft’s ‘Radical Construction Grammar’ is the most important. Taylor’s overview of the related ‘Cognitive Grammar’ is also not a bad next read.
  • Work on cognitive semantics There is much to read here. Talmy’s massive 2 volumes of ‘Cognitive Semantics’ are perhaps the most comprehensive but most of the work here happens across various journals. I’m not aware of a single shorter introduction.
  • Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty is a book I frankly wish Lakoff had read. Rorty’s taking apart of philosophy’s epistemological imaginings is very much complementary to Lakoff’s critique of ‘objectivism’ but done while engaging deeply with the philosophical issues. While I basically go along with Lakoff’s and later Lakoff and Johnson’s core argument, I can see why it could be more easily dismissed than Rorty. Of course, Rorty’s work is also better known for its reputation than deeply reflected in much of today’s philosophy. Lakoff and Johnson’s essential misunderstanding of Rorty’s contribution and fundamental compatibility with their project in Philosophy in the Flesh is an example of why so many don’t take that aspect of this work seriously. (Although, they are right that both Rorty and Davidson would have been better served by a less impoverished view of meaning and language.)