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Grasping Philosophy by the Roots
Francis F. Steen
Philosophy In the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson; xiv & 624 pp. New York: Basic Books, 1999, $28.00 cloth, $20.00 paper.
Reductionism has a tattered reputation; its promise of simplicity is suspect. Yet the power of an explanation lies precisely in identifying that level of analysis at which simplicity is genuinely illuminating. Philosophy may seem an unlikely candidate for such a project; it cultivates abstruseness as a measure of sophistication, and surely its unwieldy subject matter deserves no less. There is, then, something refreshingly shameless about Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy In the Flesh, extravagantly subtitled The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. It sets out to give us a clear window into the structure of philosophical thinking itself, into the spreading lines of reasoning that have patterned this millennial search for a truth that can be formulated. Can it deliver?
The hidden engines that construct philosophical edifices, the authors suggest, are not the ones that spring first to mind. Philosophical ideas are not systematically assembled out of meticulous observations, drawn up within a mathematical order of abstract reason, or serendipitously manifested in an unmediated glimpse of truth. Nor are our ideas of the mind and of the cosmos, of causality and morality, arbitrary inventions ex nihilo, acts of the creative will. Nor yet are they simply cultural constructions, pawns of concealed political agendas. [End Page 197] The conceptions of philosophy, Lakoff and Johnson contend, are inference-preserving elaborations and projections of modes of cognition grounded in the fact that we have bodies--no, that we are bodies.
Philosophy In the Flesh is an adventurous elaboration of the thesis of the metaphoricity of language and the ubiquity of metaphor in everyday thought spelled out in the authors' groundbreaking Metaphors We Live By. In the course of the intervening twenty years, the model has been structurally strengthened, projected into new arenas, and firmly bolted to the cognitive capacities of the embodied mind. The central notion that abstract thought is largely metaphorical, molded on the last of the pre-verbal--on locomotion, vision, spatial reasoning; on our hands' experience with bounded objects--is now extended to the currently dominant approach to philosophy, the Anglo-American analytic tradition, with some gestures to its rival, postmodernism.
Unless you insisted on carrying it around, you might not notice this is a brick of a book, topping six hundred pages. With a few honorable exceptions--at times, a surfeit of detail and examples bogs it down--it is a delightful companion and a compelling read, much helped by a loud and clear organization. The first part presents the main components of the challenge that the model of the embodied mind poses to the Western philosophical tradition, treating topics such as the cognitive unconscious, embodied realism, and the relation of metaphor to truth. Part Two outlines the perspective of cognitive science on basic philosophical ideas such as time, causation, the mind, the self, and morality. The third part examines the history of philosophy in the light of metaphor theory--a selective exploration focused on analytic philosophy and its roots. In the final part, the authors briefly set out their own vision of an embodied philosophy.
Philosophy In the Flesh may be characterized as a sustained act of constructive deconstruction. It shares with deconstruction a program as old as philosophy itself: that of examining our implicit assumptions. Unlike the postmodern critics de Man and Derrida, however, Lakoff and Johnson do not view the contradictions they discern within the body of Western philosophical thinking as a terminally destructive mise-en-abîme that robs language itself of its power of signification. While they argue that Anglo-American analytic philosophy's insistence on non-figurative language is itself enabled by an unconscious act of figuration, this contradiction is in their view a manageable and corrigible failure, requiring nothing but a healthy respect for empirical evidence and a dose of clear thinking...