Review: Mark Johnson and George Lakoff’s “Philosophy in the Flesh”

by Miles Raymer

Philosophy in the Flesh

In a recent discussion, a friend of mine identified a conspicuous lacuna in our cultural conversations about the human mind and technology. This lacuna, he said, arose from a tendency to treat the brain as a discrete, self-contained information-processing and experience-producing system. When we do this, it becomes easier (albeit still daunting), to imagine successfully simulating a brain using computer software. It also becomes easier to nail down the provenance and primary executor of human nature: it’s the brain, right? My friend intuitively rejected this reasoning, and felt that something important was missing––some truth or set of truths that could only be revealed by a more inclusive and intimate examination of the human body in its entirety. “I’ve got just the book for you,” I told him, “and it’s been almost a decade since I first read it. Let’s tackle it together!”

While Mark Johnson and George Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh cannot be fairly characterized as a comprehensive rejection of the mind-body dualism that has plagued Western philosophy from its earliest origins, it’s not a bad place to start. The philosopher-linguist duo that brought us Metaphors We Live By in 1980 followed up in 1999 with a much longer and more ambitious work addressing “The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought.” Two decades later, the book has mostly aged well, despite some notable flaws.

Johnson and Lakoff’s goal is to blend the findings of cognitive science with the Western philosophical tradition in order to distinguish between historical claims that fit the facts and those that don’t:

What would happen if we started with these empirical discoveries about the nature of mind and constructed a new philosophy? The answer is that an empirically responsible philosophy would require our culture to abandon some of its deepest philosophical assumptions. (3)

The authors are methodical, returning faithfully to the three concepts from cognitive science that demand an update of our philosophical software: the cognitive unconscious, the embodied mind/embodied realism, and metaphorical thought:

Once we understand the importance of [these discoveries], we can never go back to a priori philosophizing about mind and language or to philosophical ideas of what a person is that are inconsistent with what we are learning about the mind. (7)

The cognitive unconscious (unconscious cognition) is probably the most well-known of these ideas. Its intellectual roots are in the unscientific practice of Freudian psychoanalysis, which was swiftly and mercifully replaced by the scientific fields of cognitive science and neuroscience over the course of the 20th century. The discovery of the cognitive unconscious taught us that the vast majority of the neural processes that determine our feelings, thoughts, and actions take place below the radar of conscious experience. The consequences for Western philosophy are significant:

When we understand all that constitutes the cognitive unconscious, our understanding of the nature of consciousness is vastly enlarged. Consciousness goes way beyond mere awareness of something, beyond the mere experience of qualia (the qualitative senses of, for example, pain or color), beyond the awareness that you are aware, and beyond the multiple takes on immediate experience provided by various centers of the brain. Consciousness certainly involves all of the above plus the immeasurably vaster constitutive framework provided by the cognitive unconscious, which must be operating for us to be aware of anything at all. (11)

There is an extremely important consequence of this. For the most part, it is our hidden conceptual mechanisms, including image schemas, metaphors, and other embodied imaginative structures, that make it possible for us to experience things the way we do. In other words, our cognitive unconscious plays a central role not only in conceptualization but in creating our world as we experience it. It was an important empirical discovery that this is true, and it is an equally important area for future research to discover just how extensive this phenomenon is. (509)

At the time of original publication, there was ample evidence to confirm that Johnson and Lakoff were right about how studying the cognitive unconscious would challenge and improve Western philosophy. And, as anyone who’s paid even the slightest bit of attention to such research over the last two decades will know, the importance of the cognitive unconscious has only increased in the age of social media, big data, artificial intelligence, and globalization.

Let’s move on to the embodied mind and embodied realism. The main assertion here is that the human mind is the product of evolution, and its workings are therefore inseparable from the body in which the brain evolved. Johnson and Lakoff explain:

Brains tend to optimize on the basis of what they already have, to add only what is necessary. Over the course of evolution, newer parts of the brain have built on, taken input from, and used older parts of the brain. Is it really plausible that, if the sensorimotor system can be put to work in the service of reason, the brain would build a whole new system to duplicate what it could do already?…

From a biological perspective, it is eminently plausible that reason has grown out of the sensory and motor systems and that it still uses those systems or structures developed from them. This explains why we have the kinds of concepts we have and why our concepts have the properties they have. It explains why our spatial-relations concepts should be topological and orientational. And it explains why our system for structure and reasoning about events of all kinds should have the structure of a motor-control system…

Philosophically, the embodiment of reason via the sensorimotor system is of great importance. It is a crucial part of the explanation of why it is possible for our concepts to fit so well with the way we function in the world. They fit so well because they have evolved from our sensorimotor systems, which have in turn evolved to allow us to function well in our physical environment. The embodiment of mind thus leads to a philosophy of embodied realism. Our concepts cannot be a direct reflection of external, objective, mind-free reality because our sensorimotor system plays a crucial role in shaping them. On the other hand, it is the involvement of the sensorimotor system in the conceptual system that keeps the conceptual system very much in touch with the world. (43-4)

This last point––that the embodied mind both cuts us off from objective reality but also keeps us firmly grounded in the real world––is crucial. Embodied realism demands that we become comfortable with splitting the difference between ideological camps seeking to discover the “one true reality” and ones that claim no such reality exists. I’ll return to this later in the review.

The dominant role of metaphor in human cognition is the third component of Johnson and Lakoff’s perspective; it is also their most controversial and esoteric. Metaphor, they argue, is no mere artifact of artful language, nor is it some ancillary function of the mind. Rather, metaphor is pervasive and fundamental, inextricable from all of our linguistic and conceptual systems:

If you are a normal human being, you inevitably acquire an enormous range of primary metaphors just by going about the world constantly moving and perceiving. Whenever a domain of subjective experience or judgement is coactivated regularly with a sensorimotor domain, permanent neural connections are established via synaptic weight changes. Those connections, which you have unconsciously formed by the thousands, provide inferential structure and qualitative experience activated in the sensorimotor system to the subjective domains they are associated with.

Our enormous metaphoric conceptual system is thus built up by a process of neural selection. Certain neural connections between the activated source- and target-domain networks are randomly established at first and then have their synaptic weights increased through their recurrent firing. The more times those connections are activated, the more the weights are increased, until permanent connections are forged. (57)

We do not have a choice as to whether to acquire and use primary metaphor. Just by functioning normally in the world, we automatically and unconsciously acquire and use a vast number of such metaphors. Those metaphors are realized in our brains physically and are mostly beyond our control. They are a consequence of the nature of our brains, our bodies, and the world we inhabit. (59, emphasis theirs)

Johnson and Lakoff provide reams of evidence to support their theory, most of which involves revealing the actually-metaphorical nature of seemingly-literal ideas and phrases. For example, “We’re coming up on Christmas” and “Christmas is coming” are separate metaphors––Moving Observer vs. Moving Time, respectively––that communicate the same sentiment (148). We use expressions like this constantly and think of them as literal statements, rarely stopping to reflect on the spatial metaphors required to understand their meanings.

A robust and nuanced understanding of conceptual metaphor, Johnson and Lakoff posit, is the key to navigating murky epistemological waters. Since our metaphors describe and mediate our embodied experience of reality, we have a strong interest in identifying and utilizing “apt” metaphors that generate beneficial and empirically-responsible frameworks to help us understand ourselves and act intelligently in the world. It follows that we have an equally-strong interest in rooting out and suppressing “inapt” metaphors that don’t serve our goals or convey empirically-responsible information about the world:

One cannot ignore conceptual metaphors. They must be studied carefully. One must learn where metaphor is useful to thought, where it is crucial to thought, and where it is misleading. Conceptual metaphor can be all three.

The very notion of the aptness of a metaphorical concept requires an embodied realism. Aptness depends on the basic-level experience and upon a realistic body-based understanding of our environment. (73)

How we employ science to pursue truth is of great concern here, since we need to have a plan for when scientific findings “contradict” aspects of our conscious experience. A good example is the problem of color, which is understood simultaneously at the neural (scientific) level as “a multiplace interactional property” and at the phenomenological (experiential) level as “a one-place predicate characterizing a property that inheres in an object.” More simply, science tells us that color doesn’t “really” exist in the world (just in our heads), but we “know” it as a feature of the world because we see it. In a nontrivial way, both versions of reality are “true.” This violates the quest for a “consistent, level-independent truth” that lies at the heart of the Western philosophical enterprise (105). This quest, Johnson and Lakoff tell us, must be abandoned and replaced with an ongoing search for apt metaphors that are always under scrutiny and subject to revision and/or replacement as new evidence arises. In this paradigm, philosophical projects that are not calibrated with scientific knowledge are essentially useless.

After familiarizing readers with their main goals, Johnson and Lakoff provide extensive commentary on a series of basic philosophical ideas (Part 2), and also take on various thinkers/eras in the history of Western philosophy (Part 3). Each of these parts is long (200+ pages) and fairly abstruse. One potential problem is that Philosophy in the Flesh doesn’t seem to be written either for nontechnical or technical readers; it contains far too much detail for nontechnical readers, and too much basic-level explanation for purely technical ones. Perhaps this was Johnson and Lakoff’s intention, but given the book’s length and density, it may have been a better idea to split it into two separate-but-related publications aimed at different audiences. The text is also excessively repetitive and pedantic, which makes the large page-count more frustrating.

I was especially mystified by the many linguistics-heavy sections, which felt impenetrable for someone without a firm background in that field. I am, therefore, unable to comment on whether the linguistic claims in this book hold water. But if they’re roughly the quality of the philosophical claims, they are probably sound or at least worth serious consideration. As it is, I’d say nontechnical readers can get by just fine reading Part 1 and Chapter 23 through the end. If like me you have a special interest in ethics, Chapters 13, 14, and 20 will also be appealing.

My favorite aspect of the book is how Johnson and Lakoff strike a balance between objective and subjective interpretations of their research. They consistently and passionately advocate for a body-based objectivity that rejects strong versions of relativism while also making space for plurality and diversity:

Since embodied realism denies, on empirical grounds, that there exists one and only one correct description of the world, it may appear to some to be a form of relativism. However, while it does treat knowledge as relative––relative to the nature of our bodies, brains, and interactions with our environment––it is not a form of extreme relativism, because it has an account of how real, stable knowledge, both in science and the everyday world, is possible. That account has two aspects. First, there are the directly embodied concepts, such as basic-level concepts, spatial-relations concepts, and event structure concepts. These concepts have an evolutionary origin and enable us to function extremely successfully in our everyday interactions in the world. They also form the basis of our stable scientific knowledge.

Second, primary metaphors make possible the extension of these embodied concepts into abstract theoretical domains. The primary metaphors are anything but arbitrary social constructs, since they are highly constrained both by the nature of our bodies and brains and by the reality of our daily interactions.

Embodied realism, however, does recognize a central insight of relativist thought, namely, that in many important cases concepts do change over time, vary across cultures, have multiple inconsistent structures, and reflect social conditions. Embodied realism also provides mechanisms for characterizing these changes, variations, multiplicities, and instances of “social construction.” The formation of complex metaphors and other conceptual blends appears to be the major mechanism for them. (96-7, emphasis theirs)

This distinction is especially helpful in discussions about morality:

Virtually all of our abstract moral concepts––justice, rights, empathy, nurturance, strength, uprightness, and so forth––are defined by metaphors. That is why there is no ethical system that is not metaphorical. We understand our experience via these conceptual metaphors, we reason according to their metaphorical logic, and we make judgments on the basis of the metaphors. This is what we mean when we say that morality is metaphoric.

Because our metaphorical moral concepts are grounded in aspects of basic experiential morality, they tend to be stable across cultures and over large stretches of time. The question of whether they are universal is an empirical one, and the research has not yet been carried out to make this determination. The evidence available so far does suggest that they are very good candidates for universal moral concepts.

However, It is extremely important to qualify this claim about universality with the point that the way each metaphor is developed in a particular setting may vary widely from culture to culture. For example, generally speaking, balance may be universally regarded as a good thing, and moral balance, too. But what gets balanced and precisely what it means to achieve balance may well vary across cultures. Moral Balance is a good thing in America and Europe, but in some cultures, such as the Japanese, it takes on an importance far beyond anything found in the West.

Our moral concepts, then, are not absolute, but they are also not arbitrary and unconstrained. To think of these polar opposites as the only two alternatives is to miss the most important dimensions of our moral understanding. The fact that our moral concepts are grounded and situated gives them relative stability, while their imaginative character makes it possible for us to apply them sensibly to novel situations. (325-6, emphasis theirs)

Because each person’s conceptual system contains a multiplicity of moral metaphors, some of which are mutually inconsistent, we each have within us a moral pluralism. (557)

Another praise-deserving feature is Johnson and Lakoff’s takedown of the Theory of Rational Action (Rational Choice Theory) in Chapter 23. This theory has been widely discredited in recent years, but in 1999 it was still normal to treat it as the gold standard in economics, psychology, game theory, and foreign policy. The authors reveal the Theory of Rational Action as a problematic model with an extremely limited range of responsible applications, and also wrap up their analysis with some wonderful suggestions about how we should understand the autonomy of the embodied mind:

The ways in which our rationality is embodied makes anything like full autonomy impossible. There are two reasons. First, many of our concepts arise from built-in constraints on the body, for example, spatial-relations concepts. Second, as we learn our concepts, they become part of our bodies. Learned concepts are embodied via permanent or a very long-term changes in our synapses. Much of our conceptual system, so deeply embodied, cannot become unlearned or overridden, at least not by some act of will and almost never quickly and easily.

Does this mean that we are forever enslaved to our unconscious conceptual systems? To some extent, yes. But to an important extent, no. We will always think in terms of containment, paths, the Event-Structure metaphor, and many other concepts that are so strongly and deeply embodied in our brains that we will always be using them.

But we also have considerable cognitive flexibility, which provides for a limited but crucial freedom of conceptualization. Because we have multiple metaphors for our most important concepts, those metaphors can sometimes be reprioritized. It may be possible to learn to use certain metaphors rather than others and to learn new metaphors. Occasionally we become aware of some of our metaphors and their connections to each other, which may generate new ways of understanding. Because complex concepts and worldviews consist of basic concepts and metaphors bound together in complexes, it may be possible to learn new complexes. And because we are conscious beings capable of reflection, we may be able to learn to monitor the use of our cognitive unconscious, provided that we learn how it operates.

Cognitive science has something of enormous importance to contribute to human freedom: the ability to learn what our unconscious conceptual systems are like and how our cognitive unconscious functions. If we do not realize that most of our thought is unconscious and that we think metaphorically, we will indeed be slaves to the cognitive unconscious. Paradoxically, the assumption that we have a radically autonomous rationality as traditionally conceived actually limits our rational autonomy. It condemns us to cognitive slavery––to an unaware and uncritical dependence on our unconscious metaphors. To maximize what conceptual freedom we can have, we must be able to see through and move beyond philosophies that deny the existence of an embodied cognitive unconscious that governs most of our mental lives. (537-8, emphasis theirs)

In order to cultivate the “cognitive flexibility” that can liberate us from “cognitive slavery,” the authors call for “a dialogue between philosophy and cognitive science. Ideally, they should co-evolve and mutually enrich each other” (552, emphasis theirs). Happily, and thanks in part to Johnson and Lakoff’s laudable efforts, this dialogue is alive and well.

Rating: 8/10