Bryn Mawr College

Center for Science In Society

To facilitate the broad conversations, involving both scientists and non-scientists, which are essential to continuing explorations of
  • the natural world and humanity's place in it,
  • the nature of education,
  • the generation, synthesis, and evaluation of information,
  • technology and its potentials,
  • the relationships between forms of understanding.

Language: A Conversation

Meeting Notes
15 April 2002

Doug Blank (Computer Science), Carol Bernstein (English), Sharon Burgmayer (Chemistry), Anne Dalke (English), Paul Grobstein (Biology), Ruth Guyer (General Studies, journalist), Mark Lord (Theater), Eric Raimy (Linguistics), George Weaver (Philosophy)

One Summary View (prepared by Eric Raimy; views by other participants encouraged and can be sent either by email or posted using our working group forum area):

This week's discussion centered around the reading from George Lakoff's book Philosophy in the flesh.   Discussion began with the question about how philosophy is done.  One of Lakoff's main claims in the readings is that current findings in cognitive science should comepletely rewrite how we do philosophy.  A point that was raised is that philosopher's are constantly using metaphor (and thus in my mind I asked why Lakoff would have a problem with philosophers).  Paul pointed out that philosophers need to use metaphor because it is all we have according to Lakoff.

Carol chimed in an asked what difference does all of this make with respect to doing philosophy.  In other words, how should philosophy change in light of Lakoff's claims?  Anne further sharpened this question by asking whether 'abstraction' was a mistake in realms like these.  Paul answered the abstraction question by pointing out that Lakoff did not defend this position (that abstraction is inevitable) in the best possible way.  Paul stated that it appears that the brain categorizes from the very beginning and that the Lakoff 'downsampling' example (vision going from 100 million retinal cells to 10 million neurons) was not the best example of this.

At this point George arrived and was put on the spot to answer questions about how Western Philosophy is being practiced in this day and age.  Unfortunately, George balked at the question and claimed that he had no idea as to an answer.  Mark produced a quote from Nietzsche, "We can't go any further due to our coarse organ" which appears to indicate that 20th century Western Philosophers were not that far off the mark from Lakoff's points.  Mark further pointed out that philosophers would probably not object to Lakoff's claim that 95% of thought is unconscious.  Philosophers are just trying to use the 5% of thought that is conscious to investigate 'cognition' and the human situation in general.

This line lead into the question of 'objective reality'.  Paul claims that Lakoff would reject the idea of 'objective reality' based on the fact that the brain is abstracting and categorizing all of our sensory data.  This point prodded many in the group to try and devise scenarios to get at 'objective reality' or at least to get outside of our minds.

Ruth suggested that we could try and create some type of crazy drama (i.e. the Blue Man Group) and use this as a tool to investigate our world.  Eric pointed out that if Lakoff is right, we are not able to do this because no matter how crazy we can imagine something, it would still be the result of the embodied mind that we have.

Doug then raised the issue of computer models.  This appears to be a successful way to get 'outside of our body' in order to investigate 'objective reality'.  Since a computer is not built from the same biological structures as a human mind, if our thoughts are shaped or limited by our embodied mind we should be able to create a different type of thinking creature by using different materials.  Computer modelling and robotics appears to be the exact area to look for  this type of information.  One possible problem with this line of thought is that any knowledge we gain here may just be simply irrelevant in the study of human beings.  If we do discover that the embodiment of the mind determines its cognitive properties then we won't be able to use what we learn about 'cognition' from computers/robots in our study of human beings.

Eric then raised the question about how new tools expand the possible inputs to our senses.  In particular, Eric brought up the example of x-rays.  We are unable to see or sense x-rays given our natural biological senses but we have built tools to measure and 'see' x-rays though.  This raises the question about whether our embodied minds will change (or have changed) now that we have access to another spectrum of energy.

To finish the case studies of embodied minds, the topic of paralysis and 'phantom limbs' was raised.  These cases appear to raise the question as to how productive the metaphors that Lakoff posits really are.  The real question is how would the spatial language of a congenitally paralyzed person would be affected.  Lakoff claims that many if not all of our language is based on motor/sensory metaphors so if a person is born without access to a particular sense, we might expect that persons language to be affected.  Paul pointed out that the phantom limb phenomena appears in congenitally paralyzed people so this suggests that some of the metaphors based on sensory/motor information have migrated into the human genome.  This fact does not appear to refute any of Lakoff's claims but it does complicate matters a bit.

The discussion ended dealing with a final topic brought up by Anne.  Anne asked what we should take away from Lakoff's claim that all metaphors result from the mapping of sitmulus and internal experience.  Specifically, Anne asked what this position does to the prior discussion of Two Cultures.  Eric claimed that since everything is metaphor for Lakoff, the Two Cultures division no longer exists.  Both cultures are metaphorical.  Paul corrected Eric by pointing out that not everything is metaphorical for Lakoff.  Sensory experience (at some level in the brain ) is literal and metaphors only arise when knowledge from one module (sensory) is transferred or mapped to another module (internal experience) in the mind.  At this point the group decided that in order to fully understand Lakoff's position is we should read with much more attention to detail.  Time had run out at this time and the group adjourned.