It’s time to ditch all forms of un-embodied conscious objectivism.

September 1, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

When developing buildings or ideas, it is critical to start with a good solid foundation.  In fact, when people fail to build with a solid foundation, is usually not even worth one’s while to correct the work.  It’s best to trash the entire project and start over with a worthy foundation.

When it comes to ideas, there are three intellectual foundations that become indispensable.  These three foundational ideas were set forth in the opening words of Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999):

  • The mind is inherently embodied.
  • Thought is mostly unconscious.
  • Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

Based upon evidence proposed by Lakoff and Johnson (and numerous other cognitive scientists), the battle over these ideas is utterly over.  To argue otherwise is, in fact, to argue foolishly.  Yet, for many, these three principles have not soaked in.  There is constant deep resistance to these ideas among many of the people who present themselves as today’s premier philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, theologians, teachers, and political leaders.

As to why these ideas are so often ignored, there could be many potential explanations.  I suspect that many people fear each of these principles because they suggest that we humans lack complete power and control over our lives.  That thought makes all of us uncomfortable, of course, though a few of us are willing to take our harsh medicine to heart.  Most people, however, are not willing to re-conceptualize traditional accounts of what it means to be human.  They are not willing to dispense with a believe that each of us has an ethereal soul that is “free” to think any thought, a soul that is unencumbered by our clunky, fallible, poop and saliva-laden bodies.  They like to believe that our conscious thoughts fully capture the full importance of every moment and every drop of sentience and proto-sentience.  They prefer to believe that when it comes to words, Humpty Dumpty correctly declared: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more or less.”  They want to believe that humans have the power to speak forcefully without first having to develop a coherent theory of language, as though words serve as infallible conduits for transporting our purified ideas from here to there.

The three principles presented by Lakoff and Johnson are dangerous to each of those who crave control more than truth.  To those of us who seek truth above all other things, however, these three principles constitute our new foundations for any meaningful metaphysics.  They constitute three indispensable acid tests for any highfalutin theory for the meaning of life that happens to stroll into town.

Lakoff and Johnson discuss these three concepts in the first several chapters of Philosophy in the Flesh.  The main purpose of their book is to ask how philosophy would be practiced if it were faithfully constructed based upon these three principles.  Their answer is that philosophy (in psychology and politics and everything else) would be radically different.

Lakoff and Johnson argue that it is “shocking” to discover how different we are from what are philosophical traditions have advised us.  For starters, reason is not disembodied.  “The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason.”  It is for the same reason that the study of evolution is intimately related to the understanding of human cognition.

There is no evidence that a physically unencumbered soul floats over each human body.  To the contrary, “Reason is thus not an essence that separates us from other animals; rather, it places us on a continuum with them.”  In short, Descartes was incorrect: there is no evidence for any sort of dualism.  Human reason is shaped by the body.  Human reason “is a form of animal reason, a reason inextricably tied to our bodies and the peculiarities of our brains.”

How well can we know our own cognition? Not well, if we limit ourselves to introspection.  According to Lakoff and Johnson, “we can have no direct conscious awareness of most of what goes on in our minds. The idea that pure philosophical reflection can plumb the depths of human understanding is an illusion.” Johnson and Lakoff present the many cognitive activities occurring while you are in a conversation.  We are aware of very few of these, if any:

  • Accessing memory relevant to what is being said.
  • Comprehending a stream of sound as being language, dividing it into distinctive phonetic features and segments, identifying phonemes, and grouping them into morphemes.
  • Assigning a structure to the sentence in accord with the vast number of grammatical constructions in your native language.
  • Picking out words and giving them meanings appropriate to context.
  • Making semantic and pragmatic sense of the sentences as a whole.
  • Framing what is said in terms relevant to the discussion.
  • Performing inferences relevant to what is being discussed.
  • Constructing mental images where relevant and inspecting them.
  • Filling in gaps in the discourse.
  • Noticing and interpreting your interlocutor’s body language.
  • Anticipating where the conversation is going.
  • Planning what to say in response.

Introspection is thus largely helpless to determine the manner in which humans think. We need to be careful, because we think we know (and we want to think we know) how we think, even though experiments show that introspection is often way off the mark. I have summarized some of this evidence for the limitations of introspection here. How does human cognitive unconscious actually express itself through thought and language?  Large portions of Philosophy in the Flesh spell out detailed and persuasive arguments that it is through conceptual metaphor. “The hidden hand of the unconscious mind uses metaphor to define our unconscious metaphysics.”  The argument is that our abstract concepts, to the extent that they are grounded at all, are grounded in basic human sensorimotor capacities:

An embodied concept is a neural structure that is actually part of, or makes use of, the sensorimotor system of our brains.  Much of conceptual inference is, therefore, sensorimotor inference.

As George Lakoff wrote “Thought is imaginative, in that those concepts which are not directly grounded in experience employ metaphor, metonymy, and mental imagery–all of which go beyond the literal mirroring, or representation, of external reality.   It is this imaginative capacity that allows for “abstract” thought and takes the mind beyond what we can see and feel.”

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, Preface, p. xiv, (1987). at 184.

Probably the most dramatic conclusion I drew from reading Philosophy in the Flesh is that it is not possible to do meaningful philosophy without having developed a reality-based theory of language.  This might sound like bad news for those of us who think of the study of language as a dry topic.  I used to be one of those people, but no longer.  To the contrary, Lakoff and Johnson have written some terrific works to introduce would-be philosophers to the exciting study of language itself (another good starting point would be Metaphors We Live By). For those who take the study seriously, the works of Johnson and Lakoff are capable of turning your worldview upside down and inside out.  You will never again think of human beings or human language the same.  You will have a deep understanding of conceptual metaphor as something that is not an option for any human being who dares to explore any abstract field of study (whether it be religion, philosophy, law, politics, psychology or sociology).

In the end, there is no escaping that there is a wonderful and frustrating fluidity to the meaning of words.   Except for the most encrusted bureaucrate-ese, words breathe human air.   It is naïve, then, to claim that our words of explanation (regarding any topic) depend on the words themselves, rather than upon complex and living interrelationships formed by those who other such words. To the extent our words are meaningful, they are always alive and they originate in our sensorimotor capacities as human animals.  Experientialism (the term of Lakoff and Johnson give to their approach to language and philosophy) makes a strong case in showing that the “objective” use of language is a myth: there is no such thing as abstract and disembodied thought.   Truly “objective” thought would require the impossible:  a “logical propositional trajectory from principle to concrete application,” and there is no evidence for such a mechanism.

Still, many people will fight to the death for the principle that words and simply mean what we consciously intend for them to mean.  George Lakoff has given us a reason why so many people cling to this unwarranted form of radical and unsupportable objectivism:

“There is a major folk theory in our society according to which being objective is being fair, and human judgment is subject to error or likely to be biased.   Consequently decisions concerning people should be made on ‘objective’ grounds as often as possible.  It is the major way that people who make decisions avoid blame.   If there are ‘objective’ criteria on which to base a decision, then one cannot be blamed for being biased, and consequently one cannot be criticized, demoted, fired, or sued.”

[Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, Preface, p. xiv, (1987).]

Why do so many puzzling human activities boil down to a difficult-to-constrain craving for power and control?


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Category: Language, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    I suspect that those who argue that evolution is a mere theory would do the same to these principles. Any idea, however well proven, that disagrees with one's instinctive predisposition will find acceptance only in those with enough training to think and act beyond their God-given reflexes.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    I don't think objections to these theories are going to fall neatly along religious/godless lines. For example, seemed to have a lot of trouble wrapping his head around the idea that his choices were not 100% subject to his conscious, rational decision-making processes. I think a lot of advocates for "Enlightenment values" have a very naive view human rationality.

    On the other hand, a lot of religious people have no problem with the idea of embodied consciousness. I would argue that religious practice and ritual (though not usually systemic theology and doctrine, which attempts to rationalize religious praxis) is very effective at resolving the tensions of the subjective experience of consciousness. Also I think most theologians, on average, are much more conscious of their metaphors than most scientists are.

    Another recent commenter, Mike C. who is the pastor on an "Emerging Church" would have no problem with the general import of the ideas you present in this article. In fact, he has a post on his blog about the soul where he writes:

    What is the soul? Most people I think have this idea that the soul is some immaterial, spiritual entity that floats around somewhere in our bodies, and that continues to consciously exist after we die. This "soul" is separate from our bodies, and somehow represents our true selves apart from our physical existence. However, I want to suggest that this conception of the soul is not really a Christian idea. Rather, it is a syncretistic inflitration of ancient Greek spirit-material dualism wherein spirit is considered the "good" and the "real" while anything material (like our bodies) is evil, illusory, and ultimately to be discarded.

    Another interesting blog, Underverse, has some interesting meditations on the idea of the soul and the common metaphor of truth being "cold and hard":

    The Soul is a Secular Humanist

    Ere I had learnt that the world was a welter of futile doing

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