Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought

philosophyinthefleshI am currently reading Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Authored by Cognitive Scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, this book asks 1) What do major lines of Western philosophical thought assume about the mind? 2) What has cognitive science learned about the mind through rigorous research? 3) Are there discrepancies between Western philosophical assumptions about the mind and leading cognitive scientific theories of the mind? and 4) What implications do these discrepancies have for various streams of Western philosophy that build upon what now appear to be shaky premises regarding the mind?

Philosophy…

In terms of philosophy, Lakoff and Johnson go broad. They consider metaphysics (what is real), ethics (what is moral), who are we (e.g., the self, the mind, the brain and nervous system), and epistemology (what is knowledge, what do we know, can we know, how can we know). They consider the philosophies of the Pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, and Noam Chomsky’s views on mind and language.

I’m about to start into one of the chapters that I was most intrigued by when I picked up this book: the one dedicated to cognition and metaphysics of time.

…in the flesh. The Embodied Mind…

Lakoff and Johnson consider cognitive scientific research findings on the nature and development of our conceptual systems, linguistic cognition, and cognition about the abstract, symbolic and social (e.g., time, causation, money, social relations and status, morality). The “embodied mind” refers to the authors’ well-supported description of the mind as being shaped by our physical bodies, sensorimotor systems, and how we physically interact with the physical world.The mind is also embodied in the sense that the qualities of the mind are shaped by the physical properties of the brain. This latter aspect of embodiment, however, is far from novel.

The embodied mind is one of the three core foundational concepts of the book. The next pillar is that cognition/thought is mostly unconscious. Our conscious experience is the metaphorical tip of an iceberg which is almost entirely below sea-level submerged in our unconscious. This extremely well supported idea is far from new.

The third pillar is that, like every sentence in the preceding paragraph, abstract cognition is fundamentally metaphorical. That is, metaphor is not just a matter of rhetorical or poetic flourish meant to decorate our more basic thoughts. Rather, metaphor plays a foundational role in how we make sense of the abstract. For example, we may speak of saving UP money, FALLING in love, RUNNING OUT of time, getting LEFT BEHIND, being at a CROSSROADS in one’s life, CATCHING a cold, GRASPING an idea or having it GO OVER our heads, SEEING what someone means, DROPPING the ball, being LOST,  STAYING THE COURSE, being ON TRACK, or getting a very WARM vibe from someone.

As is evident the several examples above, the metaphorical cores that underlie our more abstract concepts tend to be rooted in our physical, sensorimotor experiences of the world. Evolutionarily, this could hardly be more perfect. The evolutionary heritage of humanity is rich in physical cognition. Evolution is a tinkerer that works with what is there. Alongside opposable thumbs and bipedalism, distinctive human adaptations include our advanced social, symbolic and abstract cognition. That these evolutionarily newer cognitive adaptations would be built upon a longstanding framework for physical/concrete (i.e., non-abstract, non-symbolic) cognition is more than plausible.

steven_pinker_-_the_stuff_of_thought1-1In The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Steven Pinker discussed how the linguistic behaviour of verbs (i.e., action words like go, throw, think, send) is critically determined by the sort of concrete action pattern that the verb is (metaphorically) based on. For example, fax, send, throw, and give take on similar sentence structures (e.g., Throw/fax/send/give me the ball; I threw/sent/faxed/gave Jim the document. They also disallow the same types of constructions; e.g., we can say I ate. But we can’t say *I threw/faxed/sent/gave). Why? Because they are all rooted in the same concrete concept of one agent causing an item to go from one place in space to another.

In the case of give, the object need not actually move (e.g., I can give you my house). In this case, we can see that the concept of ownership is being metaphorically mapped onto space. When the house is owned by me, it is present at one point in the ownership landscape – the point that corresponds to me. If I give the house to you, I transmit ownership of the house from my point in ownership space to your point. But in all of this, the house stayed firmly planted.

Research has shown that people (including young children) 1) implicitly grasp the concrete concepts underlying their more abstract verbs, 2) that the underlying conceptual backbone of abstract concepts is a central component to how people learn, think about and recall these concepts and how they use the corresponding words in language. Indeed, a young child’s ability to pick up the semantic foundations of concepts is a huge source of information for them to employ with respect to language acquisition, social/cultural learning more broadly, and learning about the world through others.

As I once said in a cognitive science graduate seminar – to the annoyance of some of my linguist peers – the Chomskyan view of linguistic modularity is dying a brutal death. Chomsky was absolutely right that Behaviourism was positively wrong. There needs to be structure in the mind beyond a general learning mechanism and a Cartesian blank slate if one is to learn a language. Where Chomsky appears to have been wrong, however, was when he postulated a dedicated linguistic module in the brain that was built ready to tag and set parameters for noun and verb phrases. In recent decades, researchers have found that the requisite internal cognitive structure is coming from such non-linguistic domains as the conceptual system (as well as theory of mind). Researchers such as Michael Tomasello – my cognitive science hero back when I was a grad student studying the cognitive science of language development – have also done a good job of demonstrating major problems that are created if one assumes a dedicated language module (e.g., where is the dividing line between a syntax and semantics, words and rules – because the more we look, the more they all blend into one another; how does the language module identify noun phrases in nature – they don’t come tagged).

…and its Challenge to Western Thought

rodin-thinker-main_full

Rodin’s “Thinker”. An icon of Western philosophical thought. Lakoff and Johnson contend that modern cognitive science encourages a serious rethinking of vast swaths of Western philosophy.

Lakoff and Johnson cross reference their three well supported pillars of cognitive science with corresponding but disagreeing ideas on the mind from Western philosophy. They point to Cartesian dualism (i.e., that the mind is separate from the body), more ideally objective symbolic accounts of mind and reality (i.e., that the mind is comprised of symbolic representations that adequately correspond to what is truly out there in an objective, independent-of-the-perceiver sense), and that metaphor is a decorative prop of language, not a core element of thought. To varying degrees, several of these lines of thought have diminished in popularity, particularly among cognitive scientists and cognitive philosophers. However, given that these perspectives were well entrenched during the eras in which still-influential foundations of Western philosophy were first penned, it surely made sense for Lakoff and Johnson to reconsider vast swaths of Western philosophy from their embodied cognitive perspective.

Feel free to share any thoughts you may have on Lakoff and Johnson’s book, Cognitive Linguistics, cognitive modularity, the linguistic nativist debate, or this post.

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18 thoughts on “Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought

  1. Philosophy, as with most religions, and in particular the stories they present, are themselves a problem, when trying to understand, or simply ask questions, as to who and what we are. In this, the two are mutually linked, yet not in how they attempt to portray human nature, but through each of their own story’s incomplete narrative, when clarifying where and how it is we actually originated. It is as though they have both opened up a book and began to read only from the last chapter on, then determined that the butler was the murderer, when in fact, on the very first page, if read, the butler was indeed, in the end, the hero. Perhaps this is why, with the bewildering amount of knowledge we have accumulated, about ourselves, we still cannot understand it.

  2. Stew: Philosophy is absolutely needed. Humans have finite minds. We HAVE to construct narratives that link data together, that say that these data here are relevant and they’re relevant in this way, and other data is unimportant. We absolutely have to do that. Science does this, too. It speculates that this or that potential independent variable may be relevant to the state of this or that potential dependent variable. It makes large scale theories of such relationships, e.g., evolution by natural selection.

    The problem isn’t in the construction of narratives. It’s when people dogmatically accept a narrative or simply don’t even try to test it. Scientists and philosophers can each often use both scientific/empirical and philosophical/a-priori methods to test their speculative narratives. They should do this. But scientists, philosophers and all the rest of us would be at a comprehensive, endless stand still if we stopped trying to form narratives to understand experiences.

  3. I find nothing wrong, with the pursuits of philosophy, or science. In fact Ron, I do both. I merely point out, rather clumsily I must admit, that without knowing more precisely, what was involved in the process of our differentiated, shared beginning and ancestral survival, which started some six million years ago, we may at best continue, today, to circle over what could be tantamount to an archetypal dead horse.

    Regrettably, the refining, reducing, and retabulating, of what has been laid out only recently, over the last 7000 years, or so, of written history and thought, may not help us resuscitate such mouldered remains. Especially if the metaphors created and employed over that short mythopoeic history, have been misplaced by time or used for something other purpose, that we can know little of, or worst still, blindly exist in recursive, habituating fictions, that only appear complete and eternal. Is there a God?. There has as yet been a sufficient, indubitable answer to this little chestnut, but nonetheless, we have spoken and written libraries worth on its account.

    Indeed, it could very well be, that we are led at times, by a nose, which we know nothing about. That is, however, if you believe our nose evolved to hold our glasses in place, so that we may compensate for nearsightedness.

  4. Stew: I see what you’re saying with regard to evolutionary speculation. However, looking at how things actually do work (not how they evolved to work that way) is testable, so that’s a good check against barking up the wrong tree. Of course, it doesn’t mean we won’t go wrong. Scientists have spent massive amounts of time barking up wrong trees. So that would put studying the workings of the mind on a par with other sciences. Having said that, cognitive science is often brought down several notches given ethical and pragmatic restrictions on research – restrictions that chemists and physicists don’t have to worry about. As for the evolutionary speculation, we can surely make hypotheses that account for a confluence of interdisciplinary findings, but yeah, much greater epistemological challenge, here.

    On another note, have you ever read “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn? If not, I HIGHLY recommend it. Your comments regarding human recorded history only being the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human history and evolutionary heritage brought it to mind.

  5. Great post. I’ve heard a few good reviews of the book and I’m thinking more and more that I need to actually get about to reading it.

    I feel bad that my only contribution to your post is to comment on what was likely just a throwaway line, but I disagreed with this comment:

    Chomsky was absolutely right that Behaviourism was positively wrong. There needs to be structure in the mind beyond a general learning mechanism and a Cartesian blank slate if one is to learn a language.

    Was Chomsky right? Historical records seem to indicate he was tilting at windmills, rather than destroying a system of thought. Like the reply from MacCorquodale here: “On Chomsky’s Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior“. The idea that behaviorism advocated blank slatism is in fact one particular windmill that Chomsky needn’t have fought, since no behaviorist has ever proposed any position remotely similar to blank slatism – certainly none of the main figures, at least. Watson, for example, was keenly interested in instincts and innate behavior (as a result of his ethology background), and dedicated entire chapters to the topics in his books on behaviorism. Similarly, Skinner was obsessed with evolutionary biology and natural selection (which is why he referred to operant conditioning as “selection by consequences”), and he constantly argued that it is impossible to understand a behavior without looking at the environmental and evolutionary causes of it.

    Interestingly, and perhaps of more relevancy to the article topic, embodied cognition is a hugely popular idea amongst behaviorists. It may simply be my skewed sample but I don’t think I’ve ever met an embodied cognition researcher who wasn’t themselves a behaviorist.

  6. Is there a reason you’re blanking out the names of the authors of the books? Are we supposed to guess who you are referring to in “Researchers such as (huge blank space) – my cognitive science hero back when I was a grad student studying the cognitive science of language development” etc.?

  7. The natural ally of embodied cognition is the concept of ecological rationality. Together they have the capacity to transform the social sciences and the arts. Instead of Kahneman’s “glass half-empty” view of our cognitive powers, ecological rationality is a “glass half-full” perspective. Instead of aspiring to Plato’s episteme and Cartesian rationality, a better model is Aristotle’s practical wisdom (phronesis). One can get to the same place via the phenomenologists such a Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. I really like the writing of Stephen Toulmin (student of Wittgenstein) on this topic for his broad (and highly readable) take on where we are intellectually at the moment. Can recommend his Return to Cosmology, Return to Reason and Cosmopolis.

    My field is management and for an essay of mine on the implications for that field see my essay here:

    http://www.linkedin.com/redirect?url=http://bit.ly/RD44oF&urlhash=8h3r&_t=tracking_disc

  8. JKindall: It looks like there may be a problem with how this blog is being presented on whatever browser it is that you have used. I actually did the opposite of blanking out the names – I bolded them! Apparently there’s glitch in how WordPress posts are appearing on at least one browser…

  9. Mike Samsa: So behaviourism has been on the receiving end of a several decade long strawmanning?

    Can you summarize what behaviourism would say about how people learn language? (I realize as I type that how incredibly broad that question is so I have all the sympathy int the world if you’re reluctant to type a multi-page answer). My understanding of behaviourism was that it’s basically learning through association with a general purpose learning mechanism and what amounts to a blank slate. My understanding is that behaviourism was all about only theorizing based on the observable. Therefore, hypothesizing invisible cognitive structure/machinery was avoided. Can you correct any errors I may have made in this basic overview of behaviourism?

    Does it make sense to talk about a behaviourism that does accept cognitive modularity in the form of cognitive/neurological/genetic preparation to attend to and pick up certain types of skills and knowledge sets – e.g., theory of mind, social learning, culture, language.

  10. Ron Brown: Can you summarize what behaviourism would say about how people learn language? (I realize as I type that how incredibly broad that question is so I have all the sympathy int the world if you’re reluctant to type a multi-page answer).

    Hey Ron, yeah that is a little difficult to answer as a number of behaviorist researchers have had different ideas on it, like Skinner’s “verbal behavior” or Hayes’ “relational frame theory”. A lot of them simply make no reference to biological underpinnings though simply because most behaviorists are behavioral psychologists, not neuroscientists so it’s outside their area of expertise – Skinner himself said that it is essentially undeniable that there are biological structures in the brain which are vital for many processes but he’s not a neuroscientist so he preferred to refrain from discussing them.

    So mostly behaviorists focus on how the learning of language actually takes place and most of the ideas are uncontroversial and pretty well-accepted (e.g. nobody thinks that kids innately know the words of their native language and so some learning must occur) and the only debatable part is the idea that language requires no innate structures to help it – but the behaviorists, for the most part, have refused to speculate on those possible processes.

    My understanding of behaviourism was that it’s basically learning through association with a general purpose learning mechanism and what amounts to a blank slate.

    No, definitely not! As I mentioned above, the biggest figures in the field (Watson and Skinner) were staunchly opposed to any position that was vaguely blank slatist and the behaviorists that followed have adopted that same line of thinking. I’m not sure where the charge of “blank slatism” actually came from but I think it was probably a combination of several factors: 1) the behaviorists’ refusal to comment on biological issues, 2) the behaviorists’ attack on ‘explanatory fictions’ and hypothetical entities (where they attacked researchers who theorised that an area of the brain must exist to control a behavior simply to fill a gap, not because there was evidence that such an area existed), and 3) the behaviorists’ focus on the unappreciated extent of learning on many aspects of behavior.

    My understanding is that behaviourism was all about only theorizing based on the observable. Therefore, hypothesizing invisible cognitive structure/machinery was avoided.

    The idea that we should only focus on the “observable” was a claim made by the early “methodological” behaviorists – like Watson. This wasn’t a claim about what existed or what the ‘real’ cause of a behavior was, and instead it was a purely pragmatic move (hence the title “methodological”). In other words, Watson (and some others) were dissatisfied with the science of psychology at the time and felt that many of the problems were caused by people speculating about what hidden processes might be causing behaviors (like Freud’s id, ego, and superego). He didn’t believe that science should be done this way and wanted to build up the field from the very basics, and to do this he argued that we should only focus on what we could observe.

    This approach was obviously far too simplistic to ever be a complete answer for the problems in science but it was undeniably a great step forward. It basically reached its pinnacle of usefulness up until around the time that Skinner came along. Skinner was not happy with the way that the methodological behaviorists studied psychology and he argued that it was absurd to have a science of psychology that ignored the mind – so he brought the concept of the mind back into science (hence why he was referred to as a “radical” behaviorist). He didn’t call it the ‘mind’ as he thought such a term was an unnecessary placeholder for the actual processes behind it, which he called the “private” and “covert” behavior. – these were physiological processes under the skin (like the brain) as well as things like thoughts, feelings, emotions, etc, which caused behavior.

    This was the big point of radical behaviorism – that thoughts could be studied scientifically. This point, however, got misunderstood as Skinner spent much time criticising cognitive psychology and referring to many cognitive concepts as ‘explanatory fictions’. He wasn’t dismissing cognition as a causal variable of behavior though, he was dismissing the unscientific practice of simply proposing “explanations” because you need an explanation, not because the evidence supported it.

    Does it make sense to talk about a behaviourism that does accept cognitive modularity in the form of cognitive/neurological/genetic preparation to attend to and pick up certain types of skills and knowledge sets – e.g., theory of mind, social learning, culture, language.

    Certainly. Many cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists are behaviorists so it would make their work hard if they couldn’t conceptualise them in some way that was consistent with their philosophy of science. I don’t think I know any behaviorists who are blank slatists and their only issue with the idea of innate structures for some skills or knowledge sets is the evidence base behind a particular claim. That is, the problem isn’t accepting the role that innate structures play, but rather it is with accepting that a specific innate structure plays a specific role in the development of a certain behavior.

    Sorry, that was more of an essay than a reply..

  11. Thanks for that very thoughtful and effortful reply!! Definitely appreciate you sharing your time with a stranger :)

    Follow-ups:

    Does methodological behaviourism translate into a sort of procedural blank slatism, if not an actual belief in a blank slate? I mean, if a behaviourist refuses to include discussion of the unseen in scientific discourse, are they not – at the level of scientific procedure – acting as if there is no structure in the learning system beyond a general purpose learning mechanism and a blank slate on which learnings will be etched?

    Behaviourism definitely seems to have been a sort of sociopolitical academic move, geared at rebranding Psych as a science and directing academic psych culture towards the unmistakably empirical and away from armchair a priori theoretical constructs.

    I don’t think there is anything at all unscientific about postulating invisible structures. Gravity is invisible. Evolution, too. But gravity, evolution, and an empirically defined hypothetical bit of innate cognitive structure/processing can be tested because they give rise to many if/then type statements. Of course, I fully assume that this is not news to you. You’d probably have described it roughly as such yourself. Though correct me if I’m wrong.

  12. I mean, if a behaviourist refuses to include discussion of the unseen in scientific discourse, are they not – at the level of scientific procedure – acting as if there is no structure in the learning system beyond a general purpose learning mechanism and a blank slate on which learnings will be etched?

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say they act as if there is ‘no structure in the learning system beyond a general purpose learning mechanism’, as many behaviorists necessarily do assume that there are structures beyond general learning systems – like the cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists who are behaviorists. So really the claim would have to be leveled at behavioral psychology, which is where the biological structures are often ‘ignored’ because they aren’t relevant to the subject matter. But I’m not sure that could be considered blank slatist, even in a procedural sense, in the same way physicists aren’t “procedural creationists” because they ignore the importance of biological evolution when studying the acceleration of objects.

    Behaviourism definitely seems to have been a sort of sociopolitical academic move, geared at rebranding Psych as a science and directing academic psych culture towards the unmistakably empirical and away from armchair a priori theoretical constructs.

    Certainly, yes. Behaviorism is a philosophy of science, not a scientific movement, and its aims are entirely grounded in its ideas on how the study of psychology should be conducted.

    But gravity, evolution, and an empirically defined hypothetical bit of innate cognitive structure/processing can be tested because they give rise to many if/then type statements.

    Exactly, and this is where it differs from the “unobservable structures” that the behaviorists argued against. That is, the problem wasn’t that cognitive processes were “invisible” but rather that they were “unobservable”; they could not be observed even through indirect methods. The early behaviorists could be accused of throwing the baby out with the bathwater by suggesting that we should only focus on external behaviors, but the radical behaviorists salvaged the importance of “invisible” behaviors that were still observable indirectly – like how other scientists study gravity or evolution, etc.

  13. Interesting.

    Thanks for all your solid responses.

    Perhaps I’ll do more posts on this book. The next chapter I’ll be reading was one of the ones that most interested me when I first scanned the Table of Contents: Philosophy and Cognition re: Time!

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  15. I’m curious to find out what blog system you happen to be working with? I’m having some small security problems with my latest website and I would like to find something more safeguarded. Do you have any suggestions?

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