Cognitive Linguistics and the Marxist approach to ideology

Peter E Jones

Key words: ideology, Marxism, Idealized Cognitive Model, 'false consciousness', economics


This paper offers a critical reflection on the potential contribution of the Cognitive Linguistics paradigm to the theoretical understanding of ideology in general as well as in the analysis of particular ideologies in Leatt et al's third sense as 'systems of thought'. The paper seeks to position this potential contribution in relation to the more traditional, and very influential Marxist-inspired conception of ideology as 'false consciousness' and aims to clarify the differences and similarities between a CL and a Marxist view. From a discussion of the general philosophical and theoretical issues at stake in these differing approaches, the paper considers their relative merits by exploring how they might be applied in an analysis of a particular conceptual domain. As an illustrative case study, the paper focusses on economic theorising in contemporary cultural and 'Critical Discourse' theory. The paper identifies within this theorising those conceptual elements which a Marxist approach would consider 'ideological' and argues that, philosophical differences notwithstanding, the Cognitive Linguistic concept of 'Idealized Cognitive Model' is a useful tool of ideological analysis in the Marxist sense.


Central to a Marxist treatment of ideology is the question of objective truth. On this pivotal question, Marxist theory and Cognitive Linguistics represent different, and to some degree, opposing philosophical orientations. In Cognitive Linguistics terms, Marxism is unacceptably 'objectivist' while, from the Marxist point of view, Cognitive Linguistics, despite its claims to realism, occupies positions considered to be typical of relativism and idealism and therefore would itself be regarded as ideological (in the 'pejorative' sense).

The question of the relationship of CL to the Marxist tradition is an important one which has not, as yet, been addressed in the relevant literature. In fact, there is no mention of Marxism, as philosophy or social theory, in the main works on the philosophy of CL (eg Johnson, 1987; Lakoff, 1987). Nor is there any engagement with the long tradition of specifically materialist philosophy which was one of the contributory sources of Marxist materialism. The claim by Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 181) that their account of truth 'can be considered an attempt to extend the realist tradition' by dealing with 'social and personal reality as well as physical reality' comes nearly 140 years after the founders of Marxism first expounded their 'materialistic conception of history', an attempt to extend their materialist philosophical outlook to the study of human social existence and its laws of development. A dialogue between Marxism and CL would, therefore, be fruitful on a number of grounds. Firstly, Marxist ('dialectical') materialism does not share many of the features of the 'objectivism' or 'external realism' which are offensive to CL theorists. Thus, the 'real premises' of historical materialism are 'men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions' (Marx and Engels, 'The German Ideology' in Selected Works: 25). Secondly, Marxist theory developed through protracted polemical engagement with philosophical trends akin to CL's 'experiential realism', whose proponents claimed, as do those of CL, that their position was a 'third way' between materialism and idealism, escaping the 'defects' of both extreme positions. One such trend, calling itself 'empirio-criticism' or 'empirio-monism', was taken up by the leading figures of Russian Marxism (including Plekhanov and Lenin) at the beginning of the century. The Marxists argued that philosophical views which take human 'experience' as their epistemological foundation inevitably lead to idealist or anti-realist positions in the absence of a consistently materialist (or 'objectivist') interpretation of experience. In the course of these arguments, materialist perspectives on such contentious issues as the possibility of objective truth, the relation between relative and absolute truth, and the relationship between sensation and concept, were elaborated which would repay serious study by CL philosophers.

The paper will argue that CL's 'experiential realism', like other 'experience'-based philosophies, is not a consistent and coherent philosophical system but wavers between materialist and idealist premises, often giving priority to the latter. On the one hand, there is a commitment to 'basic realism', ie 'to the reality of a world existing independent of human beings' (Lakoff, 1987: 266), a commitment shared with 'objectivism' (op.cit: 158-159). On the other hand, there is a denial of the possibility of objective truth or objective knowledge when 'the mind reproduces the logical relations that exist objectively among the entities and categories in the world' (Lakoff, op.cit:: 163), a 'God's eye' view' of truth. On the CL view: 'Human concepts do not correspond to inherent properties of things but only to interactional properties [ie 'experience', PEJ]' (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980: 181). Experience, then, though 'constrained at every instant by the real world of which we are an inextricable part' (Lakoff, 1987: 263)' does not provide us with concepts and theories which correspond to the properties and interconnections in the external world. These ideas underlie a CL variant of conceptual relativism (not 'a total relativism', op.cit: 264) which entertains the 'existence of alternative, incompatible conceptual schemes' (ibid) and in which 'reality as we understand it is structured by our conceptual schemes' (op.cit: 262). On this view truth is not 'absolute, objective truth' but truth 'relative to understanding' (op.cit: 294). I will argue that the conjunction of basic realism with a denial of objective truth (in the above sense) involves a logical contradiction typical of contemporary neo-Kantianism. Basic realism in fact already presupposes a 'God's eye view', since it asserts that the real world exists independently of human beings and therefore independently of all human experience. The distinction between 'inherent' and 'interactional properties' is also untenable on the same grounds: we cannot claim that we know that matter exists independently of human beings and yet deny that we can know its 'inherent properties' since its existence independently of human experience is one of its 'inherent properties'.

The materialist perspective, on the other hand, proceeds consistently from the premisses of basic realism. Human experience proves to us that material reality exists, demonstrating that the 'inherent properties' of material reality are in principle knowable and can be discovered through experience understood as primarily practical activity with and on things. Such a view does not necessarily imply that there is 'one true or correct description of a system of phenomena' as no attempt is made to prescribe a priori the form that objective knowledge must take. But objective knowledge is possible, since experience is not simply 'constrained by...' but is practice, the practical transformation of the external word, and is therefore itself an objective, material process subordinate to the laws of material reality existing independently of human experience. Human beings, of course, have their own purposes and needs distinct from the natural world but these purposes are realized in that world through activity. The matter of nature, whose intrinsic properties are independent of and essentially indifferent to our purposes, is the source and material of human life-activity; in bringing this material into the service of our own needs we begin to discover its intrinsic, objective properties, thereby developing images, ideas, and ultimately concepts and systems of theoretical thinking in which the objective phenomena of materiality reality and their law-governed interconnections are represented. Practice itself is the proof of correspondence between idea and reality. Truth, however, is not a finished once-and-for-all-time state, but a process. A particular natural scientific theory, for example the theory of evolution, does not constitute the final and absolute truth of the matter. The correspondence between a scientific theory and the reality it depicts is always conditional, approximate and relative to the system of objective interactions revealed by historical practice. But if the theory is not absolutely true, neither is it absolutely false; if the cupboard is not full, that does not mean that it is bare. There is a growing kernel of truth within the theory of evolution to do with the facts, the processes and the mechanisms of development and differentiation of organic life - a kernel which is eternal and absolute truth. Truth and falsehood are dialectical 'opposites' and must not be counterposed in a formal and mechanical way. A theory may therefore be true only within certain limits, but within those limits absolutely and objectively true. From such a standpoint, the CL perspective on relativity of knowledge and the existence of alternative conceptualizations of objects cannot be considered convincing. I will argue that what are referred to as 'alternative conceptualizations' are in fact grounded in the intrinsic properties and interconnections of the objective phenomena conceptualized.

This Marxist version of 'objectivism' is at the heart of the Marxist approach to ideology. The foundation of this approach is the 'historical materialist' view that the social production of the material means of life is the primary determinant of human social existence and development and that 'social being determines social consciousness'. Ideology, as a form of social consciousness, is therefore not merely dismissed as falsehood, but as a partial and historically limited reflection of social being, a reflection in which the real movement of the social whole is 'inverted' in the minds of social actors: 'If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process' ('The German Ideology': 25).

From all of this, it follows that Marxism and CL have quite different views on what constitutes 'cognition' and, as I will argue, radically different perspectives on what constitutes a 'concept' and the relation of the latter to word meaning and semantic processes. Nevertheless, despite these clear differences, there is sufficient congruence and complementarity between the two traditions to allow a productive engagement. For CL, human experience in the world is the source and motivation for 'imaging' and thinking processes, rather than innate biological mechanisms. CL makes the claim that cognition is not based on language, but rather, 'language is...based on cognition' and 'depends upon the nature of thought' (Lakoff, 1987: 291). It follows that language cannot constitute a barrier, boundary or limit to human thinking (as is the case with some idealist philosophical trends), although the distinctive properties and processes of human language are themselves a constituent of human cognitive activity and influence and shape cognitive processes in many ways. These propositions are, within limits, commensurable with a Marxist perspective in which human cognitive activity, whether embodied in language, artistic images or some other mode, is viewed as a form of 'ideal' (Ilyenkov, 1977) or conceptual 'modelling' of the natural and social worlds which arises from and is inseparably connected with human activity in the world. Consequently, the two positions, arguably offer complementary perspectives on the processes and mechanisms of cognition. The paper goes on to discuss how these complementary perspectives may be productively combined in an analysis of ideology.


From a discussion of general philosophical and theoretical positions we move to the examination of a particular system of belief, specifically a theoretical model of economic processes in post-modern cultural theory (eg Baudrillard, 1981) and 'Critical Discourse Analysis' ( Fairclough, 1992). This model, ostensibly grounded in an attempt to extend basic concepts and categories of Marxist economic theory, involves claims about the 'changing nature of commodities' with serious implications for the way in which the relationship between economic and political/ideological processes in modern society is conceptualized. The paper attempts to apply CL concepts and methodology in order to illuminate the deficiencies of this model from a Marxist viewpoint. Firstly, the way in which such models depart from and contradict the theoretical system of Marxist economic concepts is clarified. It is argued that such a departure entails a rejection of the Marxist view and an inversion of its historical materialist premisses. Secondly, the paper attempts to throw light on the semantic and conceptual processes employed in the 'extension' of the Marxist concepts beyond their legitimate limits. The different models are analysed using the CL perspective concept of 'Idealized Cognitive Model'. The paper argues that the Baudrillard-inspired model is derived from particular concepts within the Marxist economic ICM by the application of metaphorical and methonymic processes. This results in a new model which is conceptually at odds with the source ICM and, therefore, in the terms of the original, cannot be true. In this way, the concepts and methods of Cognitive Linguistics, despite differences in philosophical and theoretical orientation, can be applied as a useful auxiliary tool in the Marxist critique of ideologies.


Baudrillard, J (1981) For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Telos Press

Fairclough, N (1992) Discourse and Social Change, Polity Press

Ilyenkov, E V (1977) 'On the concept of the "ideal"', in Problems of Dialectical Materialism, Progress

Lakoff, G (1987) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, University of Chicago Press

Lakoff, G & Johnson, M (1980) Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press

Johnson, M (1987) The Body in the Mind, University of Chicago Press

Marx, K & Engels, F Selected Works, Vol 1, Progress, 1969