The Third Culture

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Edge 51

"Philosophy In The Flesh"
A Talk With George Lakoff [3.9.99]

Introduction by
John Brockman

"We are neural beings," states Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff. "Our brains take their input from the rest of our bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything - only what our embodied brains permit."

His new book Philosophy In The Flesh, coauthored by Mark Johnson, makes the following points: "The mind is inherently embodied. Thought is mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical."

Lakoff believes that new empirical evidence concerning these finding of cognitive science have taken us over the epistemological divide: we are in a new place and our philosophical assumptions are all up for grabs.

He and Johnson write: "When taken together and considered in detail, these three findings from the science of the mind are inconsistent with central parts of Western philosophy, and require a thorough rethinking of the most popular current approaches, namely, Anglo-American analytic philosophy and postmodernist philosophy."

According to Lakoff, metaphor appears to be a neural mechanism that allows us to adapt the neural systems used in sensory-motor activity to create forms of abstract reason. "If this is correct, as it seems to be," he says, "our sensory-motor systems thus limit the abstract reasoning that we can perform. Anything we can think or understand is shaped by, made possible by, and limited by our bodies, brains, and our embodied interactions in the world. This is what we have to theorize with."

He then raises the interesting question: "Is it adequate to understand the world scientifically?


GEORGE LAKOFF has been Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley since 1972, where he is on the faculty of the Institute of Cognitive Studies. He has been a member of the Governing Board of the Cognitive Science Society, President of the International Cognitive Linguistics Association, and a member of the Science Board of the Santa Fe Institute. He is the author of Metaphors We Live By (with Mark Johnson), Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (with Mark Turner), Moral Politics, an application of cognitive science to the study of the conceptual systems of liberals and conservatives. His most recent bookPhilosophy in the Flesh (with Mark Johnson), has just been published. It is a re-evaluation of Western Philosophy on the basis of empirical results about the nature of mind, and he is now working with Rafael Nunez on a book tentatively titled Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Creates Mathematics, a study of the conceptual structure of mathematics.

George Lakoff talks with John Brockman...

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