Being over fifteen years old, and intricately involved with explaining the philosophical impacts of discoveries about the mind in the field of cognitive science, this book may seem a bit dated. But not really. Its fundamental premise, that there is no mind or soul or spirit or consciousness without which there is a body, and that the body determines the mind, not the other way ‘round, is hardly original to 20th century psycholinguists and cognitive scientists.
Lakoff and Johnson never once mention him in elucidating the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought, but Baruch D Spinoza (incidentally, a contemporary of Descartes, he of the disembodied mind and Cartesian duality, which Lakoff and Johnson spend hundreds of pages and gallons of ink debunking) came up with this idea of an embodied mind roughly 350 years ago. In the Scholium to Proposition Thirteen of Part II of Ethics, his magnum opus completed in 1675, Spinoza very clearly explains that there is no mind independent of the body:
From the above [i.e., Proposition Thirteen, which states, ‘The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body—i.e., a definite mode of extension actually existing and nothing else.’] we understand not only that the human Mind is united to the Body but also what is to be understood by the union of Mind and Body. But nobody can understand this union adequately or distinctly until he first gains adequate knowledge of the nature of our body.
Without making this a treatise on Spinoza, suffice to say that Lakoff and Johnson’s radical “challenge” to Western thought is about 350 years too late. And what’s more—it’s not as good or powerful as Spinoza’s, because Spinoza had to overcome beliefs that were demanded of the culture of his time, with as painful a death as Inquisitors could muster for heretics as the cost of refusing to believe in the duality.
Lakoff and Johnson set up a straw man with the Cartesian idea of duality and then pretended as if they were the first to ever knock it down. They weren’t. There is nothing at all radical about the idea that the mind is part of the body. It is instead a radical notion to believe that it isn’t (hence the necessity for official sanction and public persecution and punishment for those heretics who refused to believe the two are separate). Just as it is a radical notion to believe that one certain living human was God in the flesh who died a human death but was three days later revived in the flesh. The reward for believing these radical notions, according to the Christian catechism, is that one’s disembodied spirit will live in heaven with God until it is reunited with a reconstituted body after the end days, after which it will enjoy eternal life in heavenly bliss with God.
The Christian necessity for a disembodied spirit or soul to depart for heaven to await the end days with God is what drove the silliness of the Cartesians, who even went as far as to identify where the soul or spirit resided in the body in life—the pineal gland, which is a bit ironic in that we today know the pineal gland to be intricately involved with reproduction, which is the actual means to whatever trifling of eternity, or continuation in time and space, is possible for human beings and all other creatures, rather than some disembodied soul that floats away to heaven at death. So, Descartes was at least in the ballpark, if unwittingly perhaps, when he identified our potential for eternal life as residing in the pineal gland.
Lakoff is known for believing that the mind thinks in metaphors, attributing the use of different metaphors to, for example, different political beliefs. He explains that liberals and conservatives are distinguished by the metaphors they use to describe life in political society. Both analogize political governance to metaphors for the family. For conservatives, theirs is a hierarchical Father Knows Best metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson capitalize every positively identified metaphor, as if some great principle were involved in explicating them) in which it is the duty of a strict father (the government) to raise the children (the people) to be responsible adults who should need little supervision, care or help once having proved their responsibility and maturity. For liberals, governance fits the Nurturant Parent metaphor of the family, where the mother and father work to keep the essentially good children free from harm, protected from the potentially corrupting and harmful influences of pollution, poverty, injustice, etc.
There is precious little doubt that humans think in metaphor. Metaphor and analogy is the manner with which the mind categorizes the world in order to make readily accessible and intelligible sense of it. Language is, as Guy Deutscher points out in The Unfolding of Language, built on a reef of dead metaphors. Words start out describing very physical, fully-embodied concepts (to “go” to the barn, an example of the original meaning of “go”, literally means to move one’s physical presence from its present location to the barn). They slowly become metaphorized (my word) to describe all sorts of abstract things (e.g., “I am going to think of an idea for his birthday party”, using a variant of go which doesn’t describe movement of any physical object, but is movement of the will through time). So, Lakoff is undeniably correct that humans think in metaphors, at least so far as their thinking is done through language. There is a vast amount of thinking, however, that takes place outside of conscious, linguistic purview (“outside” in this sentence is an example of a word being used as a metaphor derived from its original meaning of physically being located somewhere else than inside some sort of container, i.e., “out” of the “side”). It is not clear that metaphor animates subconscious thinking, especially since the subconscious thinking that dominates our mind is thinking done closer to the non-metaphorical stuff that matters to our continued survival. For our subconscious thinking, it’s hard to imagine that the mid-morning hunger I’m feeling right now is anything more or less than just that. No metaphors are involved or necessary to categorize the way I feel. But in writing this essay, I am hungry to get at the truths, if any, that are to be found in Lakoff’s opinions. It’s not the same hunger as I feel for lunch, but it’s similar, and that’s the point. Without physically embodied concepts, it would be very difficult to describe our abstract thinking to others. We would still think abstractly, but communicating those thoughts would be much harder, if not impossible.
The problem with Lakoff’s argument that we think in physically-derived metaphor (actually, Lakoff didn’t go so far as to point out that the base activity for all metaphorical activity is physical embodiment as I am here) is that it explains nothing to say that liberals and conservatives use different metaphors to describe the process of governance. Of course they use different metaphors. People think using metaphor. If they used the same metaphor for views of governance that exist at either end of the political spectrum, their ability to understand and distinguish their views would be greatly diminished. But as Steven Pinker noted in The Language Instinct, liberalism or conservatism are heritable traits—the metaphors with which people are thinking about politics are selected more or less by the genes, not by political party affiliation. Yet even knowing that doesn’t explain much. What caused nature to select for genes that in some people yielded a nurturing, trusting and egalitarian perspective of what governance is about, but in others yielded a hierarchical and disciplinarian perspective? Nobody really knows, but that’s the only question worth asking. To answer it by saying some people use this metaphor or another when thinking through their political views is to end up where the inquiry was begun, without actually answering anything. (Incidentally, my guess is that the genetic differences arose because some people lived in environments that favored socially collective and egalitarian cultures, and some people lived in environments that favored more individualistic and hierarchical cultures, which then begs the question—which environments?)
In the end, Philosophy in the Flesh comes across as an intricately (practically Rube Goldberg-esque, which is to say, poorly) argued rationalization for Lakoff and Johnson’s political impulses, which to further detract from its value, is quite poorly written. Lakoff is something of the psycholinguist version of politico-economist Paul Krugman, who uses economics as rationale for his left-wing political impulses when he uses economics at all, rather than as means of discovering truths about the material world. Except that Krugman writes well and clearly and Lakoff doesn’t. Lakoff’s psycholinguist contemporary, Steven Pinker, has reached very similar conclusions about the nature of the mind and body and therefore at least about the epistemological aspects of philosophy in light of today’s cognitive science, but from a decidedly less political viewpoint (though it is imagined that most of Pinker’s theories find their greatest acceptance among those with right-wing proclivities). It seems Lakoff is to Steven Pinker what Paul Krugman is to Milton Friedman.
Concluding by returning to the first prominent philosopher of the modern (post Renaissance) era who espoused the view that mind and body are inseparable, Baruch Spinoza had also this to say regarding the unity of mind and body. From the Scholium of Part III, Proposition Three, Ethics:
Now surely all these considerations go to show clearly that mental decision on the one hand, and the appetite and physical state of the body on the other hand, are simultaneous in nature; or rather, they are one and the same things which, when considered under the attribute of Thought [mind] and explicated through Thought, we call decision, and when considered under the attribute of Extension [body] and deduced from the laws of motion and rest, we call a physical state.
There really is not much in the way of new ideas in this age about the nature of human beings that wasn’t already deduced by philosophers long ago. Through cognitive science and modern medicine we have learnt a great deal about the intricacies of the human body and the mind inhabiting it, but the big picture remains by and large the same—body and mind exist as a unitary entity devoted to getting the genes for which they are vessel into the next generation. There is no understanding of mankind except that he is understood as an animal that owes his existence, like all others, to evolution by natural selection (a theory which Spinoza adduced, only a couple hundred years before Darwin, in setting out his argument for the nature of God in a beautiful essay comprising the Appendix to Part I of Ethics). Every bit of man, including his magnificently developed brain, has to be evaluated and examined with the clarity of evolutionary impulses in mind, or only confusion can arise.
So the central premise of Philosophy in the Flesh, the notion that mind and body are inextricably connected, is hardly revolutionary, except perhaps to a political shill trying to garner attention for the freshness of his old ideas. Don’t read Lakoff, if you want to better understand the embodied mind and what it means for philosophy. Read Spinoza. Or, Pinker. And read Spinoza anyway. Even accounting for the empirical discoveries of modern cognitive science, he’s still the Michael Jordan of philosophers. Lakoff isn’t. Pinker maybe is the Scottie Pippen.