Thursday, June 30, 2016

Lakoff and Johnson, Take Two

While I regret a bit that this post is so far behind schedule, I can’t fault myself too hard, as this book is nearly 600 pages of dense cognitive philosophy, and this quarter was quite busy. I am also well aware that the next blog post won’t come around for another while, as the time I usually use for blog-related reading will be devoted this summer to job market materials. Yes, that time is approaching – with two of my four chapters completely drafted, and the third in its pre-writing phase, I am ready to venture onto the academic job market this coming fall, which will necessitate spending most of the summer prepping my materials. I might check in on the blog once or twice with updates on that status, but I probably won’t return to my “Things I Should Read” posts until October or November.

Given all of that, I feel like Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, is a good book to have as my last blog book for a while, both for the blog and for my own conceptual and theoretical thought process. In Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson use the ideas initially defined in Metaphors We Live By, and expand those approaches to explain, explore, critique, and ultimately dismantle Western philosophical thought of the past 2500 or so years. At the center of Lakoff and Johnson’s argument, as their title suggests, is that the embodiedness and corporeality of human thought processes is fundamental and inescapable. In their exploration of embodied cognition and philosophy I find helpful ways of forming my own arguments about the necessarily physical experience of vulnerability so crucial to my dissertation.

Lakoff and Johnson begin their tome with a section on the embodied mind, and the cognitive processes they explore. They both repeat and expand upon their argument from Metaphors We Live By, explaining the embodied nature of our metaphorical cognition. From there, they turn to a section they title “The Cognitive Science of Basic Philosophical Ideas,” in which they use their reasoning and arguments about metaphorical thought to explain the human cognitive processes behind understanding the concepts of time, events and causes, the self, and morality. In the penultimate section of the book, they turn their attention to major philosophical movements of the past two thousand years and more in the West, including thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Chomsky, and use the theory of embodied cognition to reveal the fundamental flaws and inconsistencies in each. They conclude the book with an exploration of just how a new “embodied philosophy” works, applying their understanding of cognitive science to the essential questions of philosophy in a way far more successful than all of the approaches dismantled in the preceding chapters.

As I mentioned above, I find this book primarily useful as a means of understanding the ways that people understand themselves and the world around them. Lakoff and Johnson’s focus on the necessarily embodied nature of human cognition helps me formulate my arguments about bleeding and physical vulnerability in medieval literature. While bleeding is sometimes just the literal loss of blood through an open wound, more often than not, I find that medieval poets approach and use bleeding as an embodied metaphor for the porousness of the human identity. And even when bleeding is “just bleeding,” I also see in its medieval representation a clear understanding of that physical vulnerability as an outward expression (pun not intended, although I am currently hung up in my dissertation research on the manifold meanings of the word “expression”) of the mental experience of vulnerability. Lakoff and Johnson end their Appendix, which details some graduate student work performed on embodied cognition, with the lines: “Our neural capacities for motor control can be used to carry out abstract reasoning. The same neural circuitry that can move the body can be used to reason with.” While my work is not expressly interested in motor control, the knowledge that the parts of the brain used in experiencing and adjusting the body are also involved in the experience and adjustment of the philosophical self is incredibly valuable for me as I continue my dissertation.

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