Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (Excerpt)

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

photo by Arleen Hartman

‘How Cognitive Science Reopens Central Philosophical Questions’

The mind is inherently embodied.
Thought is mostly unconscious.
Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
These are three major findings of cognitive science. More than two millennia of a priori philosophical speculation about these aspects of reason are over. Because of these discoveries, philosophy can never be the same again.

When taken together and considered in detail, these three findings from the science of the mind are inconsistent with central parts of Western philosophy. They require a thorough rethinking of the most popular current approaches, namely, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and postmodernist philosophy.

What would happen if we started with these empirical discoveries about the nature of mind and constructed philosophy anew? The answer is that an empirically responsible philosophy would require our culture to abandon some of its deepest philosophical assumptions.

Our understanding of what the mind is matters deeply. Our most basic philosophical beliefs are tied inextricably to our view of reason. Reason has been taken for over two millennia as the defining characteristic of human beings. Reason includes not only our capacity for logical inference, but also our ability to conduct inquiry, to solve problems, to evaluate, to criticize, to deliberate about how we should act, and to reach an understanding of ourselves, other people and the world. A radical change in our understanding of reason is therefore a radical change in our understanding of ourselves. It is surprising to discover, on the basis of empirical research, that human rationality is not at all what the Western philosophical tradition held it to be. But it is shocking to discover that we are very different from what our philosophical tradition has told us we are.

Let us start with the changes in our understanding of reason:
Reason is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. Thus, to understand reason, we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanisms of neural binding. In summary, reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.

Reason is evolutionary, in that abstract reason builds on and makes use of forms of perceptual and motor inference present in “lower” animals. The result of Darwinism of reason, a rational Darwinism: Reason, even its most abstract form, makes use of, rather than transcends, our animal nature. The discovery that reason is evolutionary utterly changes our relation to other animals and changes our conception of human beings as uniquely rational. Reason is thus not an essence that separates us from other animals; rather, it places us on a continuum with them.

Reason is not “universal” in the transcendent sense; that is, it is not part of the structure of the universe. It is universal, however, in that it is a capacity shared universally by all human beings. What allows it to be shared are the commonalities that exist in the way our minds are embodied.

Reason is not completely conscious, but mostly unconscious.

Reason is not purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative.

Reason is not dispassionate, but emotionally engaged.

This shift in our understanding of reason is of vast proportions, and it entails a corresponding shift in our understanding of what we are as human beings. What we now know about the mind is radically at odds with the major classical philosophical views of what a person is.

For example, there is no Cartesian dualistic person, with a mind separate from and independent of the body, sharing exactly the same disembodied transcendent reason with everyone else, and capable of knowing everything about her or his mind simply by self-reflection. Rather, the mind is inherently embodied, reason is shaped by the body, and since most thought is unconscious, the mind cannot be known simply by self-reflection.

Classical philosophical conceptions of the person have stirred our imaginations and taught a great deal. But once we understand the importance of the cognitive unconscious, the embodiment of mind, and metaphorical thought, we can never go back to a priori philosophizing about mind and language or to philosophical ideas of what a person is that are inconsistent with what we are learning about the mind.

Given our new understanding of the mind, the question of what a human being is arises for us anew in the most urgent way.

[George Lakoff (born 1941) is a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is best known for his ideas about the centrality of metaphor to human thinking and society. He is particularly famous for his concept of the "embodied mind". He is the founder of the Rockridge Institute, a progressive think tank.]