Election Section

Philosophical Frogs

By John Maes
Friday December 21, 2007

George Lakoff, linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mark Johnson, professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, collaborated to produce Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (Basic Books, 1999), but oh what a tangled web of words they wove in the process—and one of them a renowned linguist by trade, at that. Beginning with the first sentences of the book, readers should fasten their seatbelts tightly because they’re in for a bumpy read. 

Sentence four of their book proclaims the previous three sentences to be “major findings of cognitive science.” Apparently the authors share a curiously anthropomorphic view of science. The reality is that cognitive science, and any other science for that matter, is inherently incapable of finding anything. Science is a method. It does not think or find. It is obvious the authors phrased this sentence in a blatant attempt to convince readers that their point of view is the indisputable, authoritative objective truth decreed by Science, when in fact this is not the case at all. By their own admission later in the book, not all cognitive scientists agree with their so called “findings”. 

As regards these “findings”, where is it cognitive science was supposed to have found them? Were they under a rock, alongside a road, or where exactly? The ideas presented are not findings at all, but are theories invented by the authors. The contention that they are findings contradicts the authors’ position regarding the concept of reason—that the traditional view of reason as a pre-existing indepen-dent phenomena is incorrect. In their view reason “arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience” (p. 4). In other words, reason is an invention rather than a discovery.  

After emphatically making this point, how can the authors possibly justify that their theories are “findings” and “empirical discoveries”? In effect Lakoff and Johnson are saying that reason is an invention and not a finding, except those reasons presented by themselves are findings and not inventions.. These are really subjective theories conceived by the authors and deceptively presented as objective and disembodied facts cloaked in a misleading veil of objective science. 

Much of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s ideas are in reaction to the philosophy of Rene Descartes, who died in 1650. His flesh has since decomposed, but his philosophy has not. Philosophy does not really inhere in flesh the same way as do blood vessels, which is why philosophy is not found in anatomy textbooks. Lakoff and Johnson are self-described philosophical materialists, or physicalists as they prefer to say, but they are not thorough going materialists who believe all of reality to be composed only of matter. They are dualistic materialists who admit the existence of non-material phenomena, such as pho-nemes, verbs and metaphors, to use their examples (p. 109). Philosophy and mind also fit in this category. In their view these aspects of reality do indeed exist, but only in that their existence is derived from matter, i.e. the brain.. Thus, mind does exist but it cannot, as Descartes maintained, survive bodily death and become disembodied because mind is, in their view, entirely dependent on matter.  

Whether or not their view is accurate, it just is not the case that philosophy exists only in the flesh or the body. I myself have a shelf full of disembodied philosophy in my bookcase, where it remains if I am at home or not. The authors may argue that when they use the phrase “philosophy in the flesh” they do not literally mean that philosophy is in the flesh, but why then do they not frame their phrase metaphorically rather than literally? Metaphor works best when it is unequivocally clear that metaphor is what is intended, as in stating “it is as if philosophy is in the flesh.” The phrase “philosophy in the flesh” is in the form of a literal statement, implying that philosophy is actually in the flesh. To protest that they are speaking only metaphorically is to say they do not really mean what they say, but if it is the case that they are not really serious about the claim of the title of their book then what do they really mean? Philosophy may be a meaty subject, but it is much more than skin deep. If one could slice into flesh and come upon philosophy this would really be both a finding and an empirical discovery, but search as one may philosophy cannot be gotten at in this way. The reason is that philosophy is simply a different kind of thing than flesh. Philosophy is a non-material phenomenon, and flesh is material. 

It is fine and well to debate the origins of things that exist, but in the end all that can be said is that which exists does indeed exist. Philosophy, reason and minds exist just as material objects exist, regardless of their genesis. Beyond that, theories abound. Maybe god created the continuously evolving universe. Maybe there is no god and the universe and everything in it just accidentally came about. There are many such maybes. Most people have speculative beliefs of some sort on these intellectually unresolvable issues. Lakoff and Johnson have now revealed their beliefs, but have presented them as facts. Philosophy certainly is an invention, but no one seriously disputes that it is not. It was not found in the way that trees and rocks were found. Philosophy was and continues to be thought up by people, and certainly every known philosopher did indeed have a body. This seems so obvious. Is this really all the authors decided to write a 583-page book about? One might wonder also if Lakoff and Johnson believe philosophy is supposed to be in the flesh of frogs and dogs and such?