Metaphors, Minds, and the Fate of Western Philosophy

By Dacey, Austin | Free Inquiry, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Metaphors, Minds, and the Fate of Western Philosophy


Dacey, Austin, Free Inquiry


A conversation with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mark Johnson, professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, first advanced their theory that human cognition is largely metaphorical in Metaphors We Live By (1983). In 1999, they published Philosophy in the Flesh, in which they claim their theory is being borne out by cognitive neuroscience.

FREE INQUIRY: In your new book, Philosophy in the Flesh, you claim that recent findings in cognitive science are "inconsistent with central parts of Western philosophy," and that an "empirically responsible philosophy would require our culture to abandon some of its deepest philosophical assumptions." I'd like to begin by talking about these cognitive-science findings. One claim is that much of our thought belongs to the unconscious, or what you call the "cognitive unconscious." What is the cognitive unconscious, and how did we find out about it?

GEORGE LAKOFF: We found out about it in a number of ways. For one, priming experiments--where words or pictures of which you're not conscious are flashed in front of subjects so quickly that they don't know they've seen them, but nonetheless have a systematic effect on how their minds process things.

MARK JOHNSON: The cognitive unconscious isn't "unconscious" in the Freudian sense of repressed experience. We're talking about these massive sets of operations and processes that go into making us have an experience of the world. We cannot be aware of the online processing that generates them.

FI: Then in what sense can we call them cognitive?

JOHNSON: Many philosophers wouldn't think of the cognitive unconscious as a cognitive structure, because they want cognitive to denote a clearly conceptual, propositional, and entirely conscious kind of processing and reflection. But we believe it is highly cognitive, because it plays a central role in the ordering of our conceptual systems. It's part of the structure of how we think about things and how we reason. So we would insist that the cognitive unconscious lays good claim to the term cognitive.

FI: You also claim, on the basis of recent findings in cognitive science, that abstract thought such as theoretical reasoning is largely metaphorical. Could you explain this conclusion and describe in general the evidence that is pointing us towards it?

LAKOFF: In Philosophy in the Flesh, we go through a list of the evidence from various fields in linguistics, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and so on. Here are some examples. If you look at the common metaphors for time, for example, you'll notice that you have expressions like "the time will come," "the time has long since gone," "the time for action has arrived," and so on. You have spatial words like come and go and arrive--and then you see them being used in a very systematic way to talk about time. We then find that words from the domain of space are mapped onto the domain of time in a systematic way. It isn't just a matter of words; inference patterns from the domain of space are being mapped over to the domain of time. And they're mapped in the same way as the mapping that accounts for the words' meanings. Now go and look at novel expressions--poetic metaphors and song lyrics and so on--you find that these new expressions people create invoke the same kind of metaphors for time, and w ork by extensions of exactly the same mapping. That gives you a third domain of evidence for the existence of this same mapping process.

Now examine the history of languages, and study how words change their meaning over time. Over and over you'll see words for space coming to mean words for time. It's the same mapping yet again, now governing the principles of historical change. If you then look at gesture evidence, as David McNeil at the University of Chicago has, you'll find almost-universal metaphorical gestures that are carried out in space to express concepts of time. …

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