(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
The authors claim that western Philosophy was founded on a mistaken view of
reason and set out to refounding Philosophy based on three assumptions:
1. The mind is inherently embodied; 2. Thought is mostly unconscious;
3. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
Unlike the ideal, trascendent, universal "reason" of western Philosophy, the
authors believe in a reason that is somewhat biological, that arises from our
bodily experience, that reflects our evolutionary history,
that is mostly unconscious and metaphorical and that is emotionally charged.
None of these statements comes as a shock. It is mostly a matter of definitions.
Mathematicians would probably refer to Lakoff's "reason" as "common-sense
reason", to distinguish it from logical reasoning (or, more appropriately,
As far as philosophers go, those assumptions are important because they
set the record straight in a number of disputes: mind and body cannot be
separated if mind is embodied, therefore Descartes was wrong; there is a limit
to what we can think, if our thinking reflects our evolutionary history,
therefore Kant was wrong;
everything is relative to what we are; and we can't even know what we really
think because most of it occurs unconsciously.
(Some of these claims go too far: the fact that mind is embodied does not
conclusively prove that mind and body are the same substance; Chomsky's
native knowledge is similar to Kant's a-priori knowledge; and neurologists
routinely analyze the electrical activity of unconscious thought, just like
metereologists have been studying storms even if they are not themselves
The authors seem especially wary of "absolute" idea, such as pure reason
(in the Frege-Russell tradition) and syntax (in the Chomsky tradition), ideas
that pretend to be completely insulated from our daily life. Nothing of what we conceive can be "pure", everything has been contaminated by the reality of the human experience.
The authors believe in "embodied realism", not "disembodied scientific realism",
and are therefore in the company of phenomenologists, Varela, Winograd, etc.
The most powerful claim the authors make is that all of our concepts are
grounded in our bodily experience.
The claim that this creates a new conception of the person is true, but then
it is also true of the invention of cinema and of Bob Dylan's protest songs.
The book first outlines the method used, which is borrowed from cognitive
science, then explores the most popular philosophical issues and most
famous philosophical theories, and finally draws some general conclusions.
The authors label "cognitive unconscious" the vast and intricate work performed
silently by the million circuits in the brain. They believe that metaphor is
the fundamental device employed by the cognitive unconscious to build our
Concepts are neural structures that are built by experience. Inference is,
ultimately, sensorymotor inference. Reason is as "bodily" as perception and
motion. The device that helps translate sensorymotor concepts into more abstract
concepts is metaphor.
From a neural and cognitive viewpoint, the correspondence theory of truth (that
truth is a matter of correspondence between symbols and the world) is inadequate
because it does not take into account the three levels of embodiment:
neural, phenomenological and unconscious. A statement may be true at one
level and false at another level (e.g., a color exists at the phenomenological
level, but is something completely different at the neural level).
The authors believe that truth depends on understanding.
The authors' review of philosophical issues quickly turns into an essay on the importance of metaphors in conceptualizing Time, Causation, Mind, etc. Each of these issues is best explained by the metaphors we apply to them, and therefore by their bodily "meaning". And most of this 600-page volume is, in fact, a list of metaphors.
The analysis of western philosophers (mainly Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, but also Chomsky and the modern tradition) could be the most valuable part of this monumental book, as the authors dissect the underlying assumptions of those philosophers. It is like watching a psycoanalysis session, the true motivs appearing little by the little as the words are carefully examined and related. We discover that folk theories and linguistic metaphors are the basis for so much of what has been said and written in Philosophy. While this would probably not change the opinions of those philosophers (after all, they can always reply that, in their opinion, those folk theories and linguistic metaphors just happen to be true), it is educational to learn what lies behind their famous treatises. THe authors conclude that Philosophy rests on (a relatively small number of) shared conceptual metaphors, the same ones that permeate folk theories. It would be hard for us to understand a philosophical theory that did not rest on those metaphors, because those are the tools that allow us to share meaning with others.
In particular, it is intriguing how the authors show that Chomsky, one of the founders of cognitive science, actually belongs to the older logical-analytical tradition, as he embraces logical formalism and several of Descartes' assumptions, while neglecting how thinking and language rest on bodily experience. Lakoff's criticism of Chomsky's program is scathing (and a bit excessive, since neural findings lend quite a bit of support to Chomsky's theory of innateness and universal grammar), but it shows how thousand-year old metaphors are still rooted even in modern Philosophy.
Here Lakoff also summarizes his own views on language, that he calls "cognitive linguistics". Language is about making neural connections in the brain between concepts (and their cognitive effects on memory) with expression (speaking, writing, etc). Language is embodied, which means that its structure reflects our bodily experience. Syntax is a consequence (not a prerequisite) of concepts. Our bodily experience creates concepts that are then abstracted into syntactic categories. Syntax is a direct consequence of our bodily experience, not an innate property. It is shared (to some degree) by all humans for the simple reason that we all share roughly the same bodily experience.
The authors' own philosophical theory, summarized in a rather sloppy manner in the last chapter of the book, is far less impressive, at least for readers familiar with the last 40 years of scientific research. It mostly counters the traditional, disembodied metaphysics of the past with the modern, embodied metaphysics of our days. Every concept is grounded in our bodily experience, which means that our entire system of thinking is. Of course, this has practical and moral implications (everything is relative to our bodily experience, there is no absolute value or truth). The authors take issue with the popular view of Darwinian evolution as mere "competition" as it leads to a cynical form of morality and they offer instead an interpretation that emphasizes altruism. Finally, the realization that our mental life is embodied, and therefore connected to the environment and therefore to everything else that exists, can give new meaning to the term "spiritual life".