Home|Third Culture|Digerati|Reality Club

"Philosophy In The Flesh"
A Talk With George Lakoff

JB: What is a body?

LAKOFF: That's an interesting question. Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out that our bodies and what we do with them differ significantly from culture to culture. Frenchmen do not walk like Americans do. Women's bodies are different than men's bodies. The Chinese body is not like the Polish body. And our understanding of what the body is has changed drastically over time, as postmodernists have often observed.

But nonetheless, our bodies do share a lot. We have two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, blood that circulates, lungs used to breathe, skin, internal organs, and on and on. The common conventionalized aspects of our conceptual systems tend to be structured by what our bodies have in common, which is a lot.

JB: But we go from being a machine to an information system, and eventually those orifices may not be part of the conversation.

LAKOFF: When you start to study the brain and body scientifically, you inevitably wind up using metaphors. Metaphors for the mind, as you say, have evolved over time -- from machines to switchboards to computers. There's no avoiding metaphor in science. In our lab, we use the Neural Circuitry metaphor ubiquitous throughout neuroscience. If you're studying neural computation, that metaphor is necessary. In the day to day research on the details of neural computation, the biological brain moves into the background while the Neural Circuitry introduced by the metaphor is what one works with. But no matter how ubiquitous a metaphor may be, it is important to keep track of what it hides and what it introduces. If you don't, the body does disappear. We're careful about our metaphors, as most scientists should be..

JB: There were no information processing metaphors 35-40 years ago - and so is the body real, or is it invented?

LAKOFF: There's a difference between the body and our conceptualization of it. The body is the same as it was 35 years ago; the conception of the body is very different. We have metaphors for the body we didn't have then, with relatively advanced science built on those metaphors. In this respect, the contemporary body and brain, conceptualized in terms of neural circuitry and other information processing metaphors, were "invented." Such inventions are crucial to science. Our emerging understanding of the embodiment of mind would not be possible without them.

JB: How does this approach depart from your early work?

LAKOFF: My really early work was done between 1963 and 1975, when I was pursuing the theory of Generative Semantics. During that period, I was attempting to unify Chomsky's transformational grammar with formal logic. I had helped work out a lot of the early details of Chomsky's theory of grammar. Noam claimed then-and still does, so far as I can tell-that syntax is independent of meaning, context, background knowledge, memory, cognitive processing, communicative intent, and every aspect of the body.

In working through the details of his early theory, I found quite a few cases where semantics, context, and other such factors entered into rules governing the syntactic occurrences of phrases and morphemes. I came up with the beginnings of an alternative theory in 1963 and, along with wonderful collaborators like Haj Ross and Jim McCawley, developed it through the sixties. Back in 1963, semantics meant logic - deductive logic and model theory - and our group developed a theory of Generative Semantics that united formal logic and transformational grammar. In that theory, semantics (in the form of logic) was taken as prior to syntax on the basis of evidence that semantic and pragmatic considerations entered into generalizations governing syntactic structure. Chomsky has since adopted many of our innovations, though he fought them viciously in the 60's and 70's.

In 1975, I became acquainted with certain basic results from the various cognitive sciences pointing toward an embodied theory of mind - the neurophysiology of color vision, prototypes and basic-level categories, Talmy's work on spatial relations concepts, and Fillmore's frame semantics. These results convinced me that the entire thrust of research in generative linguistics and formal logic was hopeless. I set about, along with Len Talmy, Ron Langacker, and Gilles Fauconnier, to form a new linguistics - one compatible with research in cognitive science and neuroscience. It is called Cognitive Linguistics, and it's a thriving scientific enterprise. In 1978, I discovered that metaphor was not a minor kind of trope used in poetry, but rather a fundamental mechanism of mind. In 1979, Mark Johnson visited in the Berkeley Philosophy Department and we began working out the details and their implications for philosophy. We've been collaborating for 20 years. Mark is now Chair of Philosophy at Oregon.