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Obama Reframes Syria: Metaphor and War Revisited

A look at the ever shifting reasons why we "must" go to war.

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These are real forms of thought and they occur naturally.

Kahneman proposes that we can avoid the effect of unconscious, fast, nonlogical thought by using slow, conscious, logical System 2 thinking (this is the classical view of conscious rationality).  But brain and cognitive science research suggests otherwise. Linear, conscious reasoning makes use of massively parallel unconscious reasoning that makes use of conceptual frames, metaphors, and narratives — and the forms of thought just described above. In the case of Iraq, the policy-makers Kahneman and Renshon correctly cite were conscious, slow-thinking policy-makers using logic and statistics — and in doing so used unconscious System 1 thinking.

No matter how slow or conscious or logically you think about Syria, you will still use metaphors and scenarios of the sort discussed above. They are inevitable in a situation like Syria.

It is vital that we be made aware of all this. Metaphorical and scenario-based thinking is not necessarily false. Conceptual metaphors and scenarios have real inferences that may or may not fit the world. America will act, or act by not acting. There will be real-world consequences in either case. We need to keep track of the metaphors and scenarios that lead to those consequences.

George Lakoff is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.

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