Citizens can go now and listen to the Not School discussion of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Philosophy In The Flesh. The rest of you can listen to an excerpt as part of our PEL Not School Digest #3 Quasisode. The following is brought to you by the group leader and now-PEL-Not-School Guardian Evan Gould:
I want you to think about Time for a “moment.”
How do you conceive of it? What analogies do you use to get a grasp of the essential nature of Time? You probably think of Time in terms of “greater” or “lesser” “expanses” within “spaces of possibilities” or something close to that. Time always seems to present itself in our conceptions as fluid and ever changing “potentials for action/direction” and concomitantly as “volumes of space” between oneself and any of those possible destinations.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Most any fish that you talk to will give you a similar picture of Time. Myself included. It seems pretty clear to us that this picture does in fact get to the heart of the nature of Time. But as philosophish, we have to question even our most automatic assumptions before trusting in our inferences concerning abstract concepts.
There is a field of inquiry referred to as Embodied Cognition which rejects the common sensical folk understanding of rationality; namely that it is Disembodied. Further (and harder to imagine) is the idea that there may not be such a thing as a Disembodied Rational basis to the universe (at least in the ways that we conceive of it) that we access through that Disembodied Rationality. One basic idea being that evolution, in delivering to us extremely complex neural circuits which enable us to fly in any direction we wish, at any speed we wish with proper activation of our tail fins, (and not only that, but also to “simulate” those movements in our imagination) has also had the side effect of providing us with a multitude of metaphorical concepts–deriving from that embodiment–with which we cogitate. If you think closely about the nature of your own thought life, you’ll notice this embodiment active in almost every part: the “pictures” which provide movement of and relations between concepts are easily “grasped” by us because of our physicality and relationship to our environment.
Another interesting hint that our cognition is fundamentally embodied is an analysis of the categories which are instantly available to our thinking vs. categories that are not. As an example, you have a quick and ready “picture” for the concept “chair”, but not for “furniture.” That is to say, given that these concepts are hierarchical (viz., furniture–chair–rocking chair), there exists for us what has been termed a Basic-Level Category. This would be “the highest level at which a single mental image can represent the entire category…” and “the highest level at which a person uses similar motor actions for interacting with category members…” and “it is the level at which most of our knowledge is organized”. How might our thinking about the world be shaped by the fact that our most salient concepts are deeply related to our mere physicality, rather than their being the most useful for employing in the philosophical task.
I find all this extremely interesting, because it seems to put into bold relief the sheer contingency of our mental toolbox, and causes me to wonder how faithfully our concepts actually map reality. Imagine what kinds of abstract concepts might present themselves to another, alien species, with a completely different repertoire of metaphorical basic-level categories. How might a human see “reality”?
Our Not School-of-Fish Philosophy of Mind group read most recently a book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson called Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. The book opens with the following claim(s):
The mind is inherently embodied.
Thought is mostly unconscious.
Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
These are three major findings of cognitive science. More than two millennia of a priori philosophical speculation about these aspects of reason are over. Because of these discoveries, philosophy can never be the same again.
That’s a bold statement. Endeavoring to get to bottom of this, our group recently recorded a Skype chat to discuss this idea of Embodied Cognition. And to be quite truthful, we barely scratched the surface of the topic. Most of the discussion centered around whether cognitive science could ever add anything to the philosophical discipline at all. Check it out, won’t you?