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  • Metaphor in the Raw
  • Michael Sinding
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

This audacious project based in cognitive linguistics began its career as a tentative collaboration between a linguist and a philosopher, with Metaphors We Live By in 1980. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson are key figures in what has become an international collective enterprise studying the central role of processes traditionally thought peripheral, if not deviant, with respect to normal thought, pre-eminent among which is metaphor. Lakoff and Johnson followed up their claims in 1987 with studies of other elements of the embodied mind: prototype categorization and image-schemata.1 This latest opus sets out the current state of the overall theory, then analyzes the metaphorical structure of five basic philosophical concepts and eight important philosophies from the Pre-Socratics to present-day Rational Action Theory. With lucid, close argumentation and well-organized evidence, it consolidates a powerful theory of mind, provides answers to perennial intuitions about the irreducible power of metaphor, and does justice to its ambition to recast reason and philosophy.

In the past few decades, it has become common to draw on findings in cognitive science in areas beyond the philosophy of mind, where it emerged as a major force.2 The Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy has embraced cognitive science more than has continental European-inspired postmodern thought. Philosophy in the Flesh presents itself as a middle way between these two main options (3), and while the former attracts more attention than the latter, their literalism and objectivism, stalled in “first-generation cognitive science” are similarly ventilated. This is an appealing third path: asked to choose between radical objectivism and radical subjectivism, one replies with Melville’s Bartleby, “I’d prefer not to.” But preferring not to is not very viable, despite the problems that flow from settling for the estimated lesser of two evils. With the new brew of the embodied mind, dissatisfied critics need no longer hold their noses as they swallow their intellectual commitments. Now they can say, with Shakespeare’s Mercutio, “a plague o’ both your houses.” Examples of Lakoff and Johnson’s approach are their highwire walks between analytic and postmodern errors over signs and self: signs are not natural reflections of reality nor arbitrary fabrications, but “motivated” (464–66). We have no essence that is just autonomous and rational or fractured and irrational; rather, we understand ourselves through variations of a basic metaphorical schema relating two entities: “subject” and “self.” By the end of the book, that highwire has turned into a broad highway.

The first section, “How The Embodied Mind Challenges The Western Philosophical Tradition,” begins to do so by extrapolating from empirical research to philosophical principles, instead of the more usual reverse. Lakoff and Johnson’s view of reason conflicts with all the major philosophical accounts, and so also rejects previous accounts of the human person (3–7). The stakes of this debate are high, and we hear the ring of a manifesto at times. Three abrupt opening sentences state the major findings that buttress the authors’ claims:

The mind is inherently embodied. Abstract thought is largely metaphorical. Most thinking is unconscious.


Specifically, “second-generation cognitive science” proves that a “cognitive unconscious” uses structures that emerge from bodily experience to shape conscious thought at every level. “Empirically responsible philosophy” must renounce “a priori philosophizing” and incorporate these discoveries. That is, “the very structure of reason 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”; reason is “evolutionary, in that it builds on... forms of perceptual and motor inference present in ‘lower’ animals”; it is “shared universally by all human beings”; and it is mostly unconscious, largely metaphorical and imaginative, and emotionally engaged (4).

Chapters 1 and 2 lay the groundwork of the project and its polemic. Chapter 3 begins to delineate the evidence for the authors’ theory, exploring concepts relating to color, basic-level categories, spatial relations, bodily movement, and event- and action-structure. Chapters 4...

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