Book Review

Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark.

Philosophy in the Flesh: Embodied Mind and it’s Challenge to Western Thought

Basic Books, 1999

By: Joao Queiroz

Not only is it obvious that metaphors are powerful heuristic tools to approach scientific problems but there is extensive literature to support this. Which is your favourite metaphor for the mind? For the mainstream of Cognitive Science it is a machine, specifically a computer, and cognition is a kind of transformation of certain entities according to procedures established in the machine.

Dubbed cognitivism, or the computational theory of the mind, it constitutes a dominant paradigm in cognitive science. For, in its defence, it is "far the best theory of cognition that we've got; indeed, the only one we've got that's worth the bother of a serious discussion" (Fodor 2000). According to cognitivism, the mind is a kind of digital device that stores and manipulates representations through syntactical procedures. Three subsidiary thesis supports this paradigm: (i) the computational thesis, according to which cognition is information processing; (ii) the representational thesis, according to which thoughts are mental representations; (iii) the semantical thesis, according to which mental representations map objects onto the world.

Nevertheless, in recent years philosophers and scientists from many fields have rejected such theses, especially the subsidiary doctrines which provide their metaphysical basis — substantialist dualism and functionalism. The empirical and theoretical impacts of this have radical consequences and a wide-ranging revision is in the air. This revision, known as "embodied and situated cognitive science," is an assembly of research efforts bound together by the idea that in order to explain the adaptive success of creatures we need new metaphors, theories, models, design protocols and mathematical tools. The traditional presuppositions, based on the concept of a disembodied mind connected to a structured environment of inputs must be reconsidered. Cognition is the space where the body, the environment (physical and cultural) and the brain are densely coupled. An adequate study of its processes must adopt this metaphor as a basic premise. 

For Lakoff & Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh: Embodied Mind and it's Challenge to Western Thought this is more than a revision of cognitivism. This metaphor offers the conditions for a radical revision of the foundations of Western philosophy — from naïve realism to Cartesian dualism, from transcendental reason to the Kantian autonomy of person and from the Fregean notion of reference to Chomskian inatism.

The key ideas of Lakoff & Johnson can, very schematically, be divided into the following items, which are articulated as a kind of system in which initial agreement necessarily leads the reader to accept the subsequent arguments.

The consequences and implications of this set of conclusions are devastating. An "empirically responsible" philosophy, i.e., in constant dialogue with cognitive science, must radically reconsider the established domains: epistemology, ethics, logic, ontology, etc., and the topics traditionally covered by these domains: knowledge, reason, morality, consciousness, free will, etc.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, Philosophy in the Flesh must be read in the context of the revision that cognitive science is passing through, although in this context it is a conservative book. Its main lines of development are based on models of connectionist computation and mental representation processing — important pieces of the disembodied cognitive science arsenal. Several researchers have gone much further in their revisions. Even the notion of computation and mental representation have been rejected in several areas: antirepresentationalist hypotheses have been tested in the psychology of development (Thelen 1994), neuroscience (Skarda & Freeman 1987, Kelso 1995), robotics (Brooks 1991) and philosophy (van Gelder 1995). Moreover, the book surprisingly says nothing about Dynamical System Theory — the theoretical-mathematical approach of cognition which has the potential to substitute the classical notion of computation by a notion of cognition as an emergent property of dynamic systems, evolving in time and described in terms of topological entities (Beer 2000).

At the same time Philosophy in the Flesh totally omits to mention the systematic resistance (with which the book is aligned and from which it is a extension) developed in the 20th century to the general, rational, biologically and culturally detached model of cognition by C.S.Peirce, Heidegger, M.Ponty, Bergson, Gilbert Hile, Jacob von Uexkull, James Gibson and Hupert Dreyfus, to mention just the most quoted authors.


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