The relationship between thought and biology
PHILOSOPHY IN THE FLESH: THE EMBODIED MIND AND ITS CHALLENGE TO WESTERN THOUGHT By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson Basic Books 624 pp., $30 624 pp., $30
In this huge new book, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson attempt to distill what has been learned in recent years about the mechanism of the human mind. According to these authors, three important facts have now been scientifically established:
(1) The mechanism of the human mind is inherently embodied.
(2) This mechanism is mostly unconscious.
(3) The abstract concepts in which this mechanism trades are largely metaphorical.
The first of these discoveries means that the mechanism of human thought is only a bodily function. The working of this mechanism is not determined by an ideal of good thinking but by human biology and the evolutionary process that produced it. "The architecture of your brain's neural networks determines what concepts you have and hence the kind of reasoning you can do," the authors claim.
It follows that the ability to think and reason links human beings with other animals rather than distinguishing them. Even more deflating, the human sense of the world does not tell what really exists but only how the body interacts with this world.
"The qualities of things as we can experience and comprehend them," the authors observe, "depend crucially on our neural makeup, our bodily interactions with them, and our purposes and interests."
Discovery No. 2 means that the mechanism of the human mind is not only a bodily function, but most of it is not under human control. According to Lakoff and Johnson, it is a major accomplishment of modern research to have uncovered the unseen working of this mechanism and its role in producing the phenomena of human thought.
Discovery No. 3 tells us how this unseen mechanism works. It begins with a few literal concepts, such as near and far, warm and cold, heavy and light, and then builds an entire structure of thought by applying these metaphorically to experience. Thus, the water in a bath can be literally warm and the morning greeting from a colleague at work can be metaphorically warm. Lakoff and Johnson then proceed to argue that all human thought consists of nothing more than this, mostly metaphorical, structure.
A widely shared concept of God, for example, results from applying the literal experience with biological families to the entire universe. Metaphorically, then, people understand the universe as having a divine Parent.
A more theological concept of God results from people's literal experience with containers. Literally, a house may contain chairs and tables and other furniture. Metaphorically, the concept of furniture "contains" the concepts of chair and table. By further metaphorical thinking, Western philosophers thus arrived at a concept of "Being" that contains every other concept and identified this Being with God.
If Lakoff and Johnson are right, human thinking consists of nothing more than building up a structure of such religious, scientific, ethical, and other metaphors on a small base of bodily experience with families, containers, heat, cold, distance, etc.
Critics, however, have already pointed out aspects of human thought that do not seem to be reached by this body-upward approach. Lakoff and Johnson, for example, offer no explanation of the conscious nature of individual experience. Their body-upward approach also falls short of explaining why bodily differences, like those between men and women, do not produce equally large differences in how we view the world.
Even so, the provocative explanations given here do challenge us to clarify our own understanding of the mechanism of the human mind.
*David K. Nartonis is a writer for the history department of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.