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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.4 (2001) 300-305

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Philosophy Disrobed: Lakoff and Johnson's Call for Empirically Responsible Philosophy

Steven Fesmire
East Tennessee University

Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999. Pp. xiv + 624. $20.00 pbk. 0-465-05674-1

In answer to a friend's query about my current pursuits, I hoisted Lakoff and Johnson's six-hundred-page magnum opus into his hands. "Reviewing this." Thoughtfully weighing the imposing book in one palm, he pronounced: "Philosophy in the Flesh? It needs to go on a diet!" I laughingly agreed, then in good philosopher's form analyzed his joke. He had conceived the book metaphorically as a person, as when we speak of books "inspiring" us or being "great company" and even as being "fat" or "thin." His cleverness lay in perceiving a novel entailment of this metaphor: just as an overweight person may need to diet, a long book may need to be shortened. In addition, he used a conventional metaphor in which means (to ends) are conceived as paths (to destinations), thus one may "go on" a diet for the purpose of losing weight as one goes on a path toward a destination.

All in the spirit of Lakoff and Johnson. "The question is clear," they say. "Do you choose empirical responsibility or a priori philosophical assumptions? Most of what you believe about philosophy and much of what you believe about life will depend on your answer" (551). Choosing the path of empirical responsibility, we are primed to accept three central findings about the mind and language that have emerged [End Page 300] from "second generation" cognitive science (i.e., freed of the assumptions of analytic philosophy):

1. The Cognitive Unconscious. Most thought--ninety-five percent, as a rule of thumb--operates beneath the tip of the iceberg of conscious awareness. Thus, there exists a "cognitive unconscious," cognitive defined very broadly to include all "mental operations concerned with conceptual systems, meaning, inference, and language" (12). Thought isn't repressed a la Freud; it just works too quickly and automatically for us to catch it in the act, and it isn't directly accessible via Cartesian introspection. Among the key constituents of the cognitive unconscious are metaphors, metonymies, folk theories, image schemas, basic-level categories, and prototypes. These are "part of our automatic cultural heritage," and since they are "embodied in our synapses," they resist change (414). By disclosing our use of these structures, cognitive science affords limited freedom from "cognitive slavery," that is, "uncritical dependence on our unconscious metaphors" (538). The history of philosophy has been marked by such slavery, since "the conceptual systems of philosophers are no more consciously accessible than those of anyone else" (136).

2. The Embodiment of Mind. Concepts and the mind in general are embodied, though not in the trifling computational sense in which independently structured mental software needs to run on neural hardware. The body is in the mind. That is, conceptual structures ride piggyback on and evolved from basic sensory and motor systems (20). The most pervasive instance of this is metaphorical thought, which involves the projection in our brains of "activation patterns from sensorimotor areas to higher cortical areas" (77). Due to the central role of embodied metaphor, reason is fundamentally imaginative, rather than disembodied, universal, transcendental, and literal. This is supported by convergent evidence from multiple methodologies, including linguistic analysis, psychological experiments, etymology, gesture studies, language acquisition studies, and studies of American Sign Language (81-86). That our conceiving minds fit the world is no mystery. Our minds "have evolved from our sensorimotor systems, which have in turn evolved to allow us to function well in our physical environment" (43-44).

3. Metaphorical Thought. Metaphors are inescapable and ineliminable. They involve conceptual mappings, realized physically in our brains, of knowledge and inference patterns from a concrete source domain to a typically more abstract target domain. Thus, metaphors "are a consequence of the nature of our...


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