College Quarterly
Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
Reviews Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea
George Lakoff
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Reviewed by John Hoben

Perhaps fewer concepts throughout human history have provoked more controversy or more bloodshed than that of freedom. From its Athenian beginnings to its contemporary, sometimes belligerent incarnations, democratic freedom has often been at the forefront of human thought and struggle. However, as noted by such prominent “left wing” intellectuals as Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren, the ideological aspects of this libertarian discourse often obscures a darker undercurrent of conquest and imperialism. Increasingly, “freedom and democracy” have become pretexts for state aggression and the consolidation of hegemony, much as an idealized conception of Western civilization provided a justification for the conquest and subjugation of Africa during the era of 19th century European colonialism.

Unfortunately, at times, the esoteric field of postmodern theory appears hermetically sealed from contemporary popular culture, where freedom is invoked as an abiding justification for the War on Terror. Many contemporary postmodern critiques of ideology and power, while perceptive, are often inaccessible to the “average” reader. However, increasingly, there are exceptions. In the tradition of the accessible public intellectual, George Lakoff, American professor of cognitive linguistics at Berkeley, applies a conceptual approach to the study of freedom within American political culture. While writing from primarily a linguistic and cognitive empirical perspective, in his most recent work, Whose Freedom? The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, Lakoff shares postmodern theorists’ mistrust of universal reason and their preoccupation with the role of language in shaping human thought.

According to Lakoff, metaphors and concepts function as cognitive filters through which the world is constituted as “the frames…in our brains define common sense.” In this vein, Lakoff describes freedom as a powerful conceptual frame, which strongly influences individual perception, as well as culture and politics. Yet, Lakoff also argues that the concept of freedom is neither static nor uniform as “[t]here are two very different views of freedom in America today, arising from two very different moral and political worldviews.”

The first of these is the conventional notion of freedom, which, Lakoff believes, has traditionally been at the heart of American liberalism. It is essentially “progressive” and is based on a “nurturant parent model”. Within this paradigm, the state is organized around the “commonwealth principle”, as resources are used by the government “for the common good to make individual freedom possible.” The progressive model, consequently, emphasizes not only “freedom from”, but, also, “freedom to” as it recognizes that “freedom requires opportunity.”

In contrast, the dominant metaphor within the conservative paradigm is that of the strict father. As Lakoff notes, “the strict father is the moral authority in the family, he knows right from wrong, is inherently moral and has the authority to be head of the household.” The strict father requires obedience and self discipline. Freedom, within the parameters of this model, then, “is the freedom to become disciplined, freedom from government interference, and the freedom to enter into the free market and be prosperous.”

Nonetheless, despite this apparent stark dichotomy, Lakoff contends that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish which conceptual model is being invoked. In part, this is because it is also possible to discern an uncontested core of “simple freedom” which Lakoff defines as simply, “being able to do what you want to do…being able to choose a goal, have access to that goal, and pursue that goal without anyone purposely preventing you.” Lakoff argues that while neoconservative policies are often justified by recourse to the core elements of simple freedom, the conservative ideal of freedom is radically different from that which has conventionally shaped American political culture. The Right, he cautions, has effectively used references to the uncontested core of freedom to cultivate a false consensus which has introjected neoconservative values into the “mainstream” of American public life.

Consequently, Lakoff advocates a “higher rationalism”, which he defines as “a mode of thought in which one can recognize ideological framing.” Lakoff’s admonishes progressive liberals to be wary of invoking a competing conceptual frame when debating contested concepts. Instead, liberals have to actively frame public debate using their own metaphors, or, the nature of “freedom” along with its attendant social structures will be fundamentally, and perhaps, irrevocably, altered. Like their conservative counter parts, then, liberals must learn to deploy metaphorical language both strategically and deliberately.

Although unashamedly partisan, one wonders whether the binary opposition at the heart of the book could have been substituted for a more nuanced approach which pays closer attention to the complex history of this multifaceted ideal. While Lakoff does adopt a novel approach to the analysis of contemporary political issues, he does not undertake a more comprehensive critique which links ideology with the structural underpinnings of hegemonic interests. Although Lakoff’s book does provide a useful conceptual tool to critique contemporary neoconservative discourse, his starting point appears to be a “progressive liberalism” which is taken as a priori and given. Unfortunately, Lakoff’s premise that America has been formed around a particular progressive liberal ideal of freedom and that, consequently, its cultural identity should continue to conform to such an ideal is largely unexamined and arguably reflects an essentially bourgeois set of values.

Arguably, then, conceptual science does not replace the need for political philosophy and cultural critique – it is merely one tool of analysis. Despite Lakoff’s best intentions, one cannot but be a little disconcerted by the implications of his position that thought is largely unconscious given its metaphorical foundations, coupled with his injunction to liberals to use language more strategically. There may be a fine line between what Lakoff terms a “higher rationality” and what the more cynically inclined might simply term “spin”.

In fairness, however, Lakoff’s theory does have intuitive appeal and is borne out, in part, by his use of examples from the mainstream media. A more detailed historical critique would have required a degree of analysis which is perhaps beyond the scope of the book. Despite its flaws, Lakoff’s book is thought provoking, well written and presents complex concepts from the field of cognitive linguistics in a manner which is accessible but which, does not deprive them of their essential vigor. Lakoff does an excellent job of directing public attention to a powerful and often misappropriated discourse, and, as such, it is not only a book which is timely, but, also, well needed.

Consequently, Lakoff’s study of freedom will appeal to those with an abiding interest in a broad range of fields including cultural studies, critical pedagogy and – given the degree to which the neoconservative discourse has permeated all aspects of public and private life – contemporary politics. As teachers, we must turn our attention to the ways in which powerful interests have misused the notion of freedom as we help students to become critical and exercise those liberties both inside and outside of the classroom. While always a central pedagogical focus, this aspect of educational practice has taken on a more urgent, perhaps even desperate, meaning given the unprecedented erosion of fundamental freedoms evident during the ongoing War on Terror. As Lakoff reminds us, then, above all else freedom requires a practice of critical informed dialogue – a practice which has become, not only a pedagogical necessity, but, also, a compelling moral obligation.

John Hoben is a teacher, a lawyer and an award-winning poet, who is currently completing his Ph.D. in the Faculty of Education at Memorial University in Newfoundland. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology