EDGE 51 March 9, 1999
"PHILOSOPHY IN THE FLESH"
A Talk with George
"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
IN THE NEWS
Editorial: "The Elite Inventions" by John
Rennie, Editor In Chief, Scientific American, March 1999
starts a debate over the most important anything in the hope of settling it--the
point is to ignite the argument, then sit back and enjoy the conversation. Not
content to be merely right (what fun would that be?), Brockman's invitees vied
for originality, provocativeness and intellectual panache. Of course, many couldn't
resist bending the rules to interpret the question as they wished. Some drifted
outside the 2,000-year limit. A few nominated more than one invention. And so
on. (Most of these thinkers didn't get where they are by following the rules.
Mary Catherine Bateson on "the dullest invention"
"Gregory's candidate for dullest invention was "economic man." ..... The dangerous
idea that lies behind "economic man" is the idea that anyone can be entirely rational
or entirely self-interested.
Annual "Billionaires' Dinner" Photo Album
The Annual "Billionaires' Dinner"(upgraded
from last year's "Millionaires' Dinner") was held on Thursday, February 18th at
Cibo in Monterey during Richard Saul Wurman's TED (Technology, Entertainment,
Design") Conference. Among those emerging from the Gulfstream jets parked behind
the restaurant were Steve Case, Nathan Myhrvold, Jeff Bezos, Steve Riggio, Danny
Hillis, Bran Ferren, Douglas Adams, Terry Gilliam, Kai Krause, and Joichi Ito.
Fortunately, Curtis Wong was there with a digital camera to capture the action
as well famed industry pioneer and gossip David Bunnell who was taking notes (with
a pen, by the way). Here is his report (published on Upside.com)...
IN THE NEWS
Editorial: "The Elite Inventions"
by John Rennie, Editor In Chief
Scientific American, March 1999
THE ELITE INVENTIONS
The editor and literary agent John Brockman recently
challenged the salon of scientists that he hosts on his EDGE Web site by asking,
"What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years?" Luckily,
my job buys me admission to that on-line gathering and the chance to kibitz with
Nobody starts a debate over the most important anything
in the hope of settling it--the point is to ignite the argument, then sit back
and enjoy the conversation. Not content to be merely right (what fun would that
be?), Brockman's invitees vied for originality, provocativeness and intellectual
panache. Of course, many couldn't resist bending the rules to interpret the question
as they wished. Some drifted outside the 2,000-year limit. A few nominated more
than one invention. And so on. (Most of these thinkers didn't get where they are
by following the rules.)
What were the results? Gutenberg's printing press
won the most endorsements and passing nods. But neuroscientist Colin Blakemore
and others argued for the birth-control pill. Biologist Richard Dawkins nominated
the spectroscope. Physicist Freeman Dyson made a case for hay. John Maddox, the
former editor of Nature, favored the calculus. Technologist W. Daniel Hillis suggested
the clock. Psychologists Howard Gardner and Nicholas Humphrey respectively liked
Western classical music and reading glasses. Computers, the atomic bomb, electricity,
the telescope, the mirror, airplanes, anesthesia, waterworks, paper, space travel
and the Internet all had their champions. And as many of the contributors wrote,
ideas are inventions, too: the scientific method, democracy, the number zero,
the concept of the unconscious mind, evolution by natural selection ...
own choice--oh, let's face it, the correct choice--was Volta's electric battery.
But if you want to know my reasoning, or to read the musings of better minds,
visit www.edge.org and browse the complete list of entries. You might change your
opinion of the most important invention while reading it; I did, several times.
For inventors, the National Medal of Technology is this country's highest honor.
Our coverage of the most recently named winners, beginning on page 46 and also
on www.sciam.com, shows how deserving they are. Achievements in computer science,
genetic engineering for medicine and agriculture, cardiology, and pharmacological
development have all been recognized. The computer, you will notice, was suggested
as the most important invention of the past two millennia. Given another few years,
who's to say that recombinant DNA, artificial hearts and rational drug design
wouldn't be, too?
The Annual "Billionaires' Dinner" Photo
The Annual "Billionaires' Dinner" (upgraded from last year's "Millionaires'
Dinner") was held on Thursday, February 18th at Cibo in Monterey during Richard
Saul Wurman's TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design") Conference. Among those
emerging from the Gulfstream jets parked behind the restaurant were Steve Case,
Nathan Myhrvold, Jeff Bezos, Steve Riggio, Danny Hillis, Bran Ferren, Douglas
Adams, Terry Gilliam, Kai Krause, and Joichi Ito. Fortunately, Curtis Wong was
there with a digital camera to capture the action as well famed industry pioneer
and gossip David Bunnell who
was taking notes (with a pen, by the way). Here is his report (published on Upside.com).....
Restaurant Owner Buys TED
February 2, 1999
Monterey, Calif.'s delectable
Cibo Ristorante Italiano was packed like sardines for John Brockman's annual Billionaires'
Dinner at the Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) Conference last week.
Of course, there aren't enough billionaires on the entire planet to fill up
the spacious dinning room at Cibo, but Upside Today counted six of them, and for
every billionaire there was a gaggle of famous artists, writers, technologists,
entrepreneurs and the like.
Monty Python co-creator, screenwriter and genius
Terry Gilliam sat in one corner with intergalactic hitchhiker Douglas Adams and
pop-comic Sinbad, who had wowed the crowd earlier in the evening with surprisingly
insightful observations he's gained from using computers and cell phones.
The three creative wonders were having a jovial and intense conversation. Several
table-hoppers hovered nearby, straining to overhear what turned out to have something
to do with how many phones numbers each of them has these days.
room, AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case was spotted as he sat totally engrossed
in a deep, deep discussion with Dale Chihuly, the famous glass sculpturist who
was named the first National Living Treasure in the United States. Colorful Chihuly
lamps and chandeliers--beautiful, huge pieces of twisting glass worth millions
of dollars--where scattered everywhere throughout the Monterey Convention Center,
across the street from Cibo. They added a real note of enlightened snobbery to
this year's TED Conference, though in a much more understated way than the General
Motor's concept cars parked out front.
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos just
seemed to be everywhere, grinning, giggling and relaxed like someone who won the
biggest lottery of the 20th century--and has now had time to become comfortable
with it. Billionaire Microsoft scientist Nathan Mhyrvold and Disney Imagineering
Fellow Danny Hillis excitedly jabbed each other with their index fingers like
Mickey and Pluto as they speculated about which would destroy California first,
a tsunami or an earthquake.
Marimba's brilliant CEO Kim Polese talked about
her company's upcoming IPO with venture capitalist Hummer Winblad Partner Bill
Gurley and PR Royalty Pam Alexander. Meanwhile, host, author and literary agent
Brockman expertly worked the room and took digital photos--which will no doubt
show up on his Web site. And the world's greatest designer of graphic software,
Kai Krause of MetaCreations (whose mantra seems to be "always be demo-ing)" pranced
about with a portfolio of new work.
The waiters scurried by filling up wineglasses.
Cibo seems to have a rule that you can never have an empty wineglass. In fact,
the vino flowed like the lava in one of the vacation slides Mhyrvold showed during
his TED presentation. And as the wine flowed, the volume of the conversations
grew louder and louder until TED Founder Richard Saul Wurman stopped by, and everyone
tried to elbow their way up to him to thank him for creating such an amazingly
This year's TED, TED IX, lived up to its billing as a
"wildly eclectic conference of remarkable thinkers and doers." For three full
days from 8:30 a.m. to late into the night, some of the world's most interesting
and important people make presentations or performances to an audience of about
700 people who are mostly also interesting and important. Included in this year's
lineup were technologists Nicholas Negroponte and Rob Glaser; "The Simpsons" creator
Matt Groening; primatologist Jane Goodall and the world's most famous gorilla,
Koko; artists Chihuly and Maya Lin; broadcaster Forrest Sawyer; corporate cheerleader
Tom Peters; architect Frank Gehry; Chinese dissident and author Li Lu; musicians
Quincy Jones and Gary Burton; and America's most interesting astronaut, F. Story
As people crowded around Wurman, who is affectionately known to
the TED crowd as "Ricky," he picked up a glass and bonged it with a spoon, calling
for silence. People responded almost instantaneously, proving in case anyone doubted
it, Ricky Wurman and only Ricky Wurman could get so many elite people to shut
up so quickly. It was impressive.
Ricky motioned to Cibo's dapper owner and
man-about-town Mario Catalano to stand by his side for what appeared at first
to be a toast, but shockingly turned out to be a major business announcement.
At first, everyone laughed as Ricky announced his retirement--and that he has
sold the TED Conference to Mario. But as Mario quickly explained that he intended
to make no major changes to the format of TED, and, in fact, he intended to invest
in it so the conference could run continuously except for the summer months when
Monterey is overrun by "tacky tourists who get all their clothes from Wal Mart,"
it became clear that this was no joke.
Shocked but appreciative of Mr. Catalano's
excellent idea to expand TED and not tamper with its time-tested format, the Brockman
party gave Ricky and Mario a prolonged standing ovation, and then went back to
eating, drinking and being merry as if nothing had happened. Upside Today can't
help being skeptical of this arrangement because we find it hard to believe that
Ricky, who says he will still come to TED from time to time as a speaker, will
be able to keep his hands free of the details of an event run by Mr. Catalano.
Cibo is an excellent restaurant, the very best in Monterey for sure, but can
a restaurant guy successfully run a world-class conference, even if he's right
across the street? We won't know for sure until TED X, scheduled for February-May
2000, which, by the way, is already sold out. Upside Today will be there to follow
THE REALITY CLUB
Mary Catherine Bateson on our dullest invention
You asked me to comment on Gregory's
(Bateson) economic man quote: "Of all our inventions, economic man is by far the
Gregory's candidate for most dullest invention was "economic man."
We can be grateful that in this case no one has cleaned up his gender biased language
because the concept is not and never was a gender neutral one. The dangerous idea
that lies behind "economic man" is the idea that anyone can be entirely rational
or entirely self-interested. One of the corollaries, generally unspoken in economics
texts, was that such clarity could not be expected of women who were liable to
be distracted by such things as emotions or concern for others. Economic man belongs
with a set of older ideas separating mind from body and emotion from thought,
a whole family of bad inventions. Gregory argued, with Pascal, that the heart
has its reasons which the reason does not know, and that decisions are less likely
to be destructive if made by whole persons.
MARY CATHERINE BATESON is Clarence
Robinson Professor of Anthropology and English at George Mason University in Fairfax,
Virginia. Her books include With a Daughter's Eye (on her parents Margaret
Mead and Gregory Bateson),
Our Own Metaphor, Angels Fear: Toward an Epistemology of the Sacred
(written with Gregory Bateson), Composing
a Life; and Peripheral
Visions: Learning Along The Way .
"PHILOSOPHY IN THE FLESH"
A Talk with
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
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."
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."
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,
Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (with Mark Turner),
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.
IN THE FLESH" A Talk with George Lakoff
JB: What is a body?
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.
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.
JB: Distinguish cognitive science from philosophy?
LAKOFF: That is a deep and
important question, and central to the enterprise of Philosophy In The Flesh.
The reason that the question doesn't have a simple answer is that there are two
forms of cognitive science, one fashioned on the assumptions of Anglo-American
philosophy and one (so far as we can tell) independent of specific philosophical
assumptions that determine the results of the inquiry.
Early cognitive science,
what we call "first-generation" cognitive science (or "disembodied cognitive science"),
was designed to fit a formalist version of Anglo-American philosophy. That is,
it had philosophical assumptions that the determined important parts of the content
of the scientific "results." Back in the late 1950's, Hilary Putnam (a noted and
very gifted philosopher) formulated a philosophical position called "functionalism."
(Incidentally, he has since renounced that position.) It was an apriori philosophical
position, not based on any evidence whatever. The proposal was this:
can be studied in terms of its cognitive functions - that is, in terms of the
operations it performs - independently of the brain and body.
performed by the mind can be adequately modeled by the manipulation of meaningless
formal symbols, as in a computer program.
This philosophical program fit paradigms
that existed at the time in a number of disciplines.
In formal philosophy:
The idea that reason could be adequately characterized using symbolic logic, which
utilizes the manipulation of meaningless formal symbols.
In generative linguistics:
The idea that the grammar of a language can be adequately characterized in terms
of rules that manipulate meaningless formal symbols.
In artificial intelligence:
The idea that intelligence in general consists in computer programs that manipulate
meaningless formal symbols.
In information processing psychology:
that the mind is an information-processing device, where information-processing
is taken as the manipulation of meaningless formal symbols, as in a computer program.
All of these fields had developed out of formal philosophy. These four fields
converged in the 1970's to form first-generation cognitive science. It had a view
of mind as the disembodied manipulation of meaningless formal symbols.
How does this fit into empirical science?
LAKOFF: This view was not empirically
based, having arisen from an apriori philosophy. Nonetheless it got the field
started. What was good about it was that it was precise. What was disastrous about
it was that it had a hidden philosophical worldview that mascaraded as a scientific
result. And if you accepted that philosophical position, all results inconsistent
with that philosophy could only be seen as nonsense. To researchers trained in
that tradition, cognitive science was the study of mind within that apriori philosophical
position. The first generation of cognitive scientists was trained to think that
way, and many textbooks still portray cognitive science in that way. Thus, first
generation cognitive science is not distinct from philosophy; it comes with an
apriori philosophical worldview that places substantive constraints on what a
"mind" can be. Here are some of those constraints:
Concepts must be literal.
If reasoning is to be characterized in terms of traditional formal logic, there
can be no such thing as a metaphorical concept and no such thing as metaphorical
Concepts and reasoning with concepts must be distinct from mental
imagery, since imagery uses the mechanisms of vision and cannot be characterized
as being the manipulation of meaningless formal symbols.
Concepts and reasoning
must be independent of the sensory-motor system, since the sensory motor system,
being embodied, cannot be a form of disembodied abstract symbol-manipulation.
Language too - if it was to fit the symbol-manipulation paradigm - had to be literal,
independent of imagery, and independent of the sensory-motor system.
perspective, the brain could only be a means to implement abstract "mind" - wetware
on which the "programs of the mind" happened to be implementable. Mind on this
view does not arise from and is not shaped by the brain. Mind is a disembodied
abstraction that our brains happen to be able to implement. These were not empirical
results, but rather followed from philosophical assumptions.
In the mid-1970's,
cognitive science was finally given a name and outfitted with a society and a
journal. The people who formed the field accepted the symbol-manipulation paradigm.
I was originally one of them (on the basis of my early work on generative semantics)
and gave one of the invited inaugural lectures at the first meeting of the Cognitive
Science Society. But just around the time that the field officially was recognized
and organized around the symbol-manipulation paradigm, empirical results started
coming in calling the paradigm itself into question.
This startling collection
of results pointed toward the idea that mind was not disembodied - not characterizable
in terms of the manipulation of meaningless symbols independent of the brain and
body, that is, independent of the sensory- motor system and our functioning in
the world. Mind instead is embodied, not in the trivial sense of being implementable
in a brain, but in the crucial sense that conceptual structure and the mechanisms
of reason arise ultimately and are shaped by from the sensory-motor system of
the brain and body.
JB: Can you prove it?
LAKOFF: There is a huge body of
work supporting this view. Here are some of the basic results that have interested
me the most: The structure of the system of color categories is shaped by the
neurophysiology of color vision, by our color cones and neural circuitry for color.
Colors and color categories are not "out there" in the world but are interactional,
a nontrivial product of wave length reflactances of objects and lighting conditions
on the one hand, and our color cones and neural circuitry on the other. Color
concepts and color-based inferences are thus structured by our bodies and brains.
Basic-level categories are structured in terms of gestalt perception, mental imagery,
and motor schemas. In this way the body and the sensory-motor system of the brain
enters centrally into our conceptual systems.
Spatial relations concepts in
languages around the world (e.g, in, through, around in English, sini in Mixtec,
mux in Cora, and so on) are composed of the same primitive "image-schemas", that
is, schematic mental images. These, in turn, appear to arise from the structure
of visual and motor systems. This forms the basis of an explanation of how we
can fit language and reasoning to vision and movement.
Aspectual concepts (which
characterize the structure of events) appear to arise from neural structures for
Categories make use of prototypes of many sorts to reason about
the categories as a whole. Those prototypes are characterized partly in terms
of sensory-motor information.
The conceptual and inferential system for reasoning
about bodily movements can be performed by neural models that can model both motor
control and inference. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical, based on metaphors
that make use of our sensory-motor capacities to perform abstract inferences.
Thus, abstract reason, on a large scale, appears to arise from the body.
are the results most striking to me. They require us to recognize the role of
the body and brain in human reason and language. They thus run contrary to any
notion of a disembodied mind. It was for such reasons that I abandoned my earlier
work on generative semantics and started studying how mind and language are embodied.
They are among the results that have led to a second-generation of cognitive science,
the cognitive science of the embodied mind.
JB: Let's get back to my question
about the difference between cognitive science and philosophy.
Cognitive science is the empirical study of the mind, unfettered by apriori philosophical
assumptions. First-generation cognitive science, which posed a disembodied mind,
was carrying out a philosophical program. Second-generation cognitive science,
which is working out the nature of the mind as it really is - embodied! - had
to overcome the built-in philosophy of earlier cognitive science.
"second-generation cognitive science" presuppose a philosophy?
LAKOFF: We have
argued that it does not, that it simply presupposes commitments to take empirical
research seriously, seek the widest generalizations, and look for convergent evidence
from many sources. That is just what science is committed to. The results about
the embodied mind did not begin from, and does not presuppose, any particular
philosophical theory of mind. Indeed, it has required separating out the old philosophy
from the science.
JB: Where does this leave philosophy?
LAKOFF: In a position
to start over from an empirically responsible position. Young philosophers should
be thrilled. Philosophy is anything but dead. It has to be rethought taking the
empirical results about the embodied mind into account. Philosophy considers the
deepest questions of human existence. It is time to rethink them and that is an
JB: What about the academic wars between postmodern and
analytic philosophy? LAKOFF: The results suggest that both sides were insightful
in some respects and mistaken in others. The postmodernists were right that some
concepts can change over time and vary across cultures. But they were wrong in
suggesting that they all concepts are like that. Thousands are not. They arise
around the world in culture after culture from our common embodiment.
were right in observing that there are many places where the folk theory of essences
fails. But they were wrong in suggesting that such a failure undercuts our conceptual
systems and makes them arbitrary. The analytic tradition insightfully characterized
the theory of speech acts. Although formal logic does not work for all, or even
most, of reason, there are places where something akin to formal logic (much revised)
does characterize certain limited aspects of reason. But the analytic tradition
was wrong in certain of its central theses: the correspondence theory of truth,
the theory of literal meaning, and the disembodied nature of reason.
world is now in a position to transcend both positions, each having contributed
something important and each needing revision.
JB: Is there an East Coast and
West Coast divide?
LAKOFF: Dan Dennett referred to the "East Pole" and "West
Pole" back in the early-to-mid 1980's, as if the proponents of the disembodied
mind were all on the East Coast and the proponents of the embodied mind were all
on the West Coast. Research on the embodied mind did tend to start on the West
Coast, but even then the geographical characterization was oversimplified. By
now, both positions are represented on both coasts and throughout the country.
Cambridge and Princeton in the past have tended largely toward the old disembodied
mind position, at least in certain fields. But there are so many interesting thinkers
on both coasts and spread across the country that I think that any geographical
divisions that still exist won't last long.
When Dennett first made that distinction,
the great revolutions in neuroscience and neural modeling were just starting.
Cognitive linguistics was just coming into existence. Metaphors We Live By
had barely come out and Women, Fire, And Dangerous Things had not yet been
written. Nor had Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire nor Damasio's Descartes
Error, nor Regier's The Human Semantic Potential, nor the various books
by Pat and Paul Churchland. Over the past decade and a half, neuroscience and
neural computation have changed the landscape of cognitive science and they will
change it even more in next decade or two. Those changes will inevitably move
us further toward an appreciation of the embodiment of mind. You cannot think
anything without using the neural system of your brain. The fine structure of
neural connections in the brain, their connections to the rest of the body, and
the nature of neural computation will keep being developed. The more we discover
about the details, the more we will come to understand the detailed nature of
how reason and the conceptual systems in which we reason are embodied.
idea of disembodied reason was an apriori philosophical idea. It lasted 2500 years.
I can't imagine it lasting another 30 years in serious scientific circles.
JB: And what do we have to look forward to?
LAKOFF: Cognitive science and neuroscience
are triggering a philosophical revolution. Philosophy In The Flesh is just
part of the first wave. Over the next decade or two, the neural theory of language
should develop sufficiently to replace the old view of language as meaningless
disembodied symbol manipulation that one finds in the old Chomskyan tradition.
But the biggest, and one of the most important, changes will come in our understanding
The precursor of that change was Stanislas Dehaene's The
Number Sense, which reviewed the evidence from neuroscience, child development,
and animal research indicating that we (and certain other animals) have evolved
with a part of our brains dedicated to enumeration and simple arithmetic up to
a small number of objects (around four). Rafael Núñez and I begin
with those findings and ask how sophisticated arithmetic (with the laws of arithmetic)
developed, that is, how could ordinary conceptual mechanisms for human thought
have given rise to mathematics?
Our answer is that the ordinary embodied mind,
with its image schemas, conceptual metaphors, and mental spaces, has the capacity
to create the most sophisticated of mathematics via using everyday conceptual
mechanisms. Dehaene stopped with simple arithmetic. We go on to show that set
theory, symbolic logic, algebra, analytic geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and
complex numbers can all be accounted for using those everyday conceptual mechanisms.
Moreover, we show that conceptual metaphor is at the heart of the development
of complex mathematics. This is not hard to see. Think of the number line. It
is the result of a metaphor that Numbers Are Points on a Line. Numbers don't have
to be thought of as points on a line. Arithmetic works perfectly well without
being thought of in terms of geometry. But if you use that metaphor, much more
interesting mathematics results. Or take the idea, in set-theoretical foundations
for arithmetic, that Numbers Are Sets, with zero as the empty set, one as the
set containing the empty set, and so on. That's a metaphor too. Numbers don't
have to be thought of as being sets. Arithmetic went on perfectly well for 2000
years without numbers being conceptualized as sets. But if you use that metaphor,
then interesting mathematics results. There is a third less well-known metaphor
for numbers, that Numbers Are Values of Strategies in combinatorial game theory.
So which is it? Are numbers points? Are they sets? Are numbers fundamentally just
values of strategies in combinatorial games?
These metaphors for numbers are
part of the mathematics, and you make a choice each time depending on the kind
of mathematics you want to be doing. The moral is simple: Conceptual metaphor
is central to conceptualization of number in mathematics of any complexity at
all. It's a perfectly sensible idea. Conceptual metaphors are cross-domain mappings
that preserve inferential structure. Mathematical metaphors are what provide the
links across different branches of mathematics. One of our most interesting results
concerns the conceptualization of infinity. There are many concepts that involve
infinity: points at infinity in projective and inversive geometry, infinite sets,
infinite unions, mathematical induction, transfinite numbers, infinite sequences,
infinite decimals, infinite sums, limits, least upper bounds, and infinitesimals.
Núñez and I have found that all of these concepts can be conceptualized
as special cases of one simple Basic Metaphor of Infinity. The idea of "actual
infinity"-of infinity not just as going on and on, but as a thing- is metaphorical,
but the metaphor, as we show turns out to quite simple and exists outside of mathematics.
What mathematicians have done is to provide elaborate carefully devised special
cases of this basic metaphorical idea.
What we conclude is that mathematics
as we know it is a product of the human body and brain; it is not part of the
objective structure of the universe - this or any other. What our results appear
to disprove is what we call the Romance of Mathematics, the idea that mathematics
exists independently of beings with bodies and brains and that mathematics structures
the universe independently of any embodied beings to create the mathematics. This
does not, of course, result in the idea that mathematics is an arbitrary product
of culture as some postmodern theorists would have it. It simply says that it
is a stable product of our brains, our bodies, our experience in the world, and
aspects of culture. The explanation of why mathematics "works so well" is simple:
it is the result of tens of thousands of very smart people observing the world
carefully and adapting or creating mathematics to fit their observations. It is
also the result of a mathematical evolution: a lot of mathematics invented to
fit the world turned out not to. The forms of mathematics that work in the world
are the result of such an evolutionary process.
It is important to know that
we create mathematics and to understand just what mechanisms of the embodied mind
make mathematics possible. It gives us a more realistic appreciation of our role
in the universe. We, with our physical bodies and brains, are the source of reason,
the source of mathematics, the source of ideas. We are not mere vehicles for disembodied
concepts, disembodied reason, and disembodied mathematics floating out there in
the universe. That makes each embodied human being (the only kind) infinitely
valuable - a source not a vessel. It makes bodies infinitely valuable - the source
of all concepts, reason, and mathematics.
For two millenia, we have been progressively
devaluing human life by underestimating the value of human bodies. We can hope
that the next millenium, in which the embodiment of mind will come to be fully
appreciated, will be more humanistic.
JB: Where are you headed next?
I've plunged myself as fully as possible into the research that Jerry Feldman
and I have been doing for the past decade at the International Computer Science
Institute on the Neural Theory of Language (www.ics i.berkeley.edu/NTL). That's
where most of my technical research effort is going to go for quite a while.
Jerry developed the theory of structured connectionism (not PDP connectionism)
beginning in the 1970's. Structured connectionism allows us to constructed detailed
computational neural models of conceptual and linguistic structures and of the
learning of such structures.
Since 1988, we've been running a project takes
up a question that has absorbed both of us: From the perspective of neural computation,
a human brain consists of a very large number of neurons connected up in specific
ways with certain computational properties. How is it possible to get the details
of human concepts, the forms of human reason, and the range of human languages
out of a lot of neurons connected up as they are in our brains? How do you get
thought and language out of neurons? That is the question we are trying to answer
in our lab through the computational neural modeling of thought and language.
JB: How do you connect structures in the brain to ideas of space?
Regier has taken the first step to figuring that out in his book The Human
Semantic Potential. He has hypothesized that certain types of brain structures
- topographic maps of the visual field, orientation-sensitive cells, and so on
- can compute the primitive spatial relations (called "image-schemas") that linguists
have discovered. The amazing thing to me is that not only do we actually have
a reasonable idea of how certain types of neural structures can give rise to spatial
relations concepts. Recent neural modeling research by Narayanan has similarly
given us an idea of how brain structures can compute aspectual concepts (which
structure events), conceptual metaphors, mental spaces, blended spaces, and other
basics of human conceptual systems. The next breakthrough, I think, will be a
neural theory of grammar.
These are remarkable technical results. When you
put them together with other results about the embodiment of mind coming from
neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive linguistics, they tell us a great deal
about things that are important in the everyday lives of ordinary people - things
that philosophers have speculated about for over 2500 years. Cognitive science
has important things to tell us about our understanding of time, events, causation,
and so on.
JB: Like what?
When Mark Johnson and I looked over these results
from the cognitive sciences in detail, we realized that there were three major
results that were inconsistent with almost all of Western philosophy (except for
Merleau-Ponty and Dewey), namely:
The mind is inherently embodied.
thought is unconscious.
Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
realization led us to ask the following question in Philosophy In The Flesh:
What would happen if we started with the new results about the mind and reconstructed
philosophy from there? What would philosophy look like?
It turns out that it
looks entirely different from virtually all the philosophy that went before. And
the differences are differences that matter in your life. Starting with results
from cognitive semantics, we discovered a lot that is new about the nature of
moral systems, about the ways that we conceptualize the internal structure of
the Self, even about the nature of truth.
JB: This seems like a distinctively
new kind of enterprise.
LAKOFF: It's an interesting enterprise to take philosophy
as a subject matter for empirical study in cognitive science. Most philosophers
take philosophy as an apriori discipline, where no empirical study of the mind,
reason, and language is necessary. In the Anglo-American tradition, you are taught
to think like a philosopher and then it is assumed that you can, on the basis
of your philosophical training, make pronouncements about any other discipline.
Thus, there are branches of philosophy like the Philosophy of Language, the Philosophy
of Mind, the Philosophy of Mathematics, and so on. Johnson and I realized that
philosophy itself, which consists of systems of thought, needed to be studied
from the perspective of the cognitive sciences, especially cognitive semantics,
which studies systems of thought empirically. Our goal has been to bring a scientific
perspective to philosophy, especially a perspective from the science of mind.
JB: How does this connect with traditional philosophy?
Lakoff: It is a startling
thing to realize that most of Western philosophy is inconsistent with fundamental
results from the science of the mind. But that is negative. We respect and value
philosophy. Our work comes out of a deep love for philosophy and a disappointment
over what it has been over the past couple of decades. We wanted to look at great
moments in the history of philosophy - the Presocratics, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes,
Kant - even the analytic philosophers - and show what shining the light of cognitive
science oh philosophy could reveal about the nature of philosophy.
discovered was fascinating: Each major philosopher seems to take a small number
of metaphors as eternal and self-evident truths and then, with rigorous logic
and total systematicity, follows out the entailments of those metaphors to their
conclusions wherever they lead. They lead to some pretty strange places. Plato's
metaphors entail that philosophers should govern the state. Aristotle's metaphors
entail that there are four causes and that there cannot be a vacuum. Descartes'
metaphors entail that the mind is completely disembodied and that all thought
is conscious. Kant's metaphors lead to the conclusions that there is a universal
reason and that it dictates universal moral laws. These and other positions taken
by those philosophers are not random opinions. They are consequences of taking
commonplace metaphors as truths and systematically working out the consequences.
JB: What's the import of recognizing that metaphors are central to the work of
LAKOFF: It is not just earlier philosophers, but contemporary
philosophers as well. Our moral is not that their work should be disregarded because
it is metaphorical. Quite the opposite. Because most abstract thought is, and
has to be, metaphorical, all rigorous abstract systems of thought will be like
those of the great philosophers whose systems of thought we analyze. Moreover,
everyone's everyday reasoning is often of the same character, though hardly as
consistent overall. A cognitive perspective on philosophy not only teaches us
how the great philosophers thought, but it gives us deep insights on how all of
us think - at least when we're being consistent and systematic. It also tells
us that, in most cases, the answers to the deepest questions of human existence
will most likely be metaphorical answers. There is nothing wrong with this. We
just need to be aware of just what our metaphors are and what they entail.
Another positive thing we sought to do was to look at the most fundamental of
philosophical concepts from the perspective of cognitive semantics. Mark made
a list of the basics. In addition to Truth, we looked in detail at Time, Causation,
Events, The Mind, The Self, Morality and Being. Luckily, a fair amount of work
had already been done on these within cognitive semantics. We pulled the results
together, unified them, and worked out further details. Not surprisingly all of
these abstract concepts turned out to be mostly metaphorical, using multiple metaphors,
each with a different logic. Thus, there is not one concept of causation, but
around 20, each metaphorical and each with different inference patterns. Thus,
causes can be links, paths, sources, forces, correlations, essences, and so on.
Pick a metaphor for causation and different inferences come with the metaphor.
The science and the social sciences all use causal theories, but the metaphors
for causation can vary widely and thus so can the kinds of causal inferences you
can draw. Again, there is nothing wrong with this. You just have to realize that
causation is not just one thing. There are many kinds of modes of causation, each
with different logical inferences, that physical, social, and cognitive scientists
attribute to reality using different metaphors for causation. Again, it is important
to know which metaphor for causation you are using. Science cannot be done without
metaphors of all sorts, starting with a choice of metaphors for causation. Most
interestingly, if you look at the history of philosophy, you will find a considerable
number of "theories of causation." When we looked closely at the philosophical
theories of causation over the centuries, they all turned out to be one or another
of our commonplace metaphors for causation. What philosophers have done is to
pick their favorite metaphor for causation and put it forth as an eternal truth.
JB: Where does morality come into all this?
LAKOFF: One of the most satisfying
set of results is the collection of metaphors governing moral thought. We found
that they all seem to arise naturally in an embodied way from forms of well being
- health, wealth, uprightness, light, wholeness, cleanliness, and so on. A particularly
interesting result is that moral systems as a whole seem to organized metaphorically
around alternative models of the family. Again, this should not be surprising,
since it is in our families that we learn what we take as moral behavior.
are now in a position to study the metaphorical structure of various moral systems.
We think that cognitive science allows one to give much more detailed and insightful
analyses of metaphorical systems than has ever been available before. For example,
in our study of Kant's moral theory, we argue that this great intellectual edifice
arose from just four basic metaphors, and that this allows us to see just how
the various aspects of Kant's moral theory fits together.
not only sheds light on the conceptual structure of moral systems, but also on
politics and social issues. Some colleagues and I are now in the process of forming
a political think tank to apply these methods of cognitive analysis to everyday
political and social issues.
Perhaps the most sobering result is the most fundamental.
We are neural beings. Our brains take their input from the rest of out 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.
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, 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.
Is it adequate to understand the world scientifically?
There is reason to think
that our embodied conceptual resources may not be adequate to all the tasks of
science. We take case studies from physics and discuss them in our sections on
Time and Causation. General relativity is a good example.
JB: So, what's the
big change here?
LAKOFF: In characterizing space-time, Einstein, like Newton
before him, used the common metaphor that time is a spatial dimension. My present
time and location is metaphorically conceptualized as a point in a four-dimensional
space, with the present as a point on the time axis. In order for there to be
curvature in space time, the time axis must be extended - it cannot be just one
point, the present. In addition to the present, the time axis must include portions
of the time axis understood as future and past if there is to be enough of the
time axis to form a curved space time. This seems to imply, as philosophers have
repeatedly observed, that at least portions of the future and past coexist with
present. And if the future exists at present, then the universe is deterministic.
Frankly, it seems nutty to say that the past, present, and future are coexistent
- and yet the curvature of space-time seems to imply it.
JB : Does the problem
lie with the physical theory or the mathematics used to express it?
It lies with the common metaphor "Time Is A Spatial Dimension", which is used
to understand Einstein's mathematical theory of the physical universe. The philosophical
entailment of determinism is coming not out of the mathematical physics, but out
of that metaphor applied to the mathematical physics. Does that mean that we should-or
can-try to jettison the metaphor?
For better or worse, we cannot get rid of
it - even if it does have a nutty entailment. Physics is about something. We need
to link the mathematics of relativity to an understanding of space and time. "The
Time Is A Spatial Dimension metaphor does that job." We have no better metaphor
and no literal concept arising from our embodied minds to replace it with. The
commonplace metaphor may be imperfect in having a nutty entailment, but it's the
best that embodied human conceptual systems are likely to come up with. What this
means is that it is important to separate the mathematical physics from the commonplace
metaphors used to comprehend it. And it is vitally important not to take those
metaphors literally, even if that leaves us with no literal understanding at all.
We should not take time literally to be a spatial dimension; we should recognize
that we are using a common metaphor, and that the metaphor has the unwanted baggage
of determinism-the entailment that present, past, and future coexist.
is that you cannot take conceptual systems for granted. They are neither transparent
nor simple nor fully literal. From the perspective of the science of mind, science
itself looks very different from what we are commonly taught it is. Scientific
understanding, like all human understanding, must make use of a conceptual system
shaped by our brains and bodies.
John Brockman, Publisher & Editor
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Kip Parent, Executive Producer Jake McGowan,
Sponsored by Silicon Graphics, Inc.
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