Folk Theories and Metaphors
in Early Greek Philosophy

by Dr. Jan Garrett

September 1, 2004

Metaphors and Folk Theories

One of the most fascinating insights important to the study of philosophy comes from a sister discipline of philosophy known as cognitive linguistics.

The insight is that all our abstract thought is pervaded with metaphor and that these metaphors are often linked in what are called, for lack of a better term, folk theories.

Metaphors are ways in which terms that originally apply to one domain, say, ordinary everyday perceptual experience, are used to create concepts in another domain, say, psychology or social relationships. For example, we use terms like high and low, strong and weak, healthy and diseased, whole and defective, to create moral concepts like good and bad.

A folk theory is to a specialist's theory as ordinary language is to literary language, or folk music is (or once was before there were professional folksingers) to classical music or jazz. We find the folk theories existing in a culture prior to anyone deliberately creates a theory. A folk theory is a general assumption or set of general assumptions made by nonprofessional or non-expert people in a particular culture.

Folk theories are often the "raw material" from which philosophical, ethical, theological, and scientific theories are created.

Here are two important folk theories.

Folk Theory of the Elements: All material things are composed of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, each of which consists of two qualities (Cold+Dry, Cold+Wet, Hot+Wet, Hot+Dry).

Folk Theory of Karma: What goes around comes around. Your good (or bad) deeds will eventually return to you.

Such folk theories play an important role in the history of philosophy.

How Philosophy is Related to Metaphor and Folk Theories

Suppose we draw a pyramid with three layers. At the bottom is Primary Experience, which has to do with our embodied experience of the world, including our direct encounter with other human beings (say, family members). We have primary experience from the time we are born, and we can learn how to describe it in predominantly physical qualitative terms.

At the second layer is metaphor and folk theories, together with other largely unconscious structures and mechanisms. We begin acquiring these shortly after we start using language. These level II items enable us to extend our mental realm to have some understanding of other persons as well as ourselves in terms of the purposes, actions, goals, happiness and unhappiness, and moral qualities.

At the third level, the expert disciplines emerge, among them medicine, mathematics, systematic forms of religion, history, plus philosophy and its offshoots (physics, theology, social science, literary theory).

Level II starts from I and builds upon it. Level III works from II (and indirectly from I) and "refines" it.

Controversial conclusion: Level III is never completely detached from II and therefore never from I. (This is controversial because it contradicts views maintained by such important philosophers as Plato and Kant.)

One must be careful in using such images as this pyramid of levels (itself metaphorical). By putting philosophy and intellectual disciplines at the top, it suggests that they are better or superior to folk theory and non-philosophical thought. Perhaps philosophical thought is better only for some purposes, such as circumstances where consistency or coherence are especially important.

Folk Theories important in Presocratic Philosophy

Based on G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh,
Univ. of Chicago Press, pp. 346ff.

1. The Folk Theory of the Intelligibility of the World: The world makes systematic sense and we can acquire knowledge of it.

2. The Folk Theory of General Kinds: Every particular thing belongs to a kind of thing.

3. The Folk Theory of Essences: Every entity has an essence or nature, a collection of attributes that makes it the kind of thing that it is and is the causal source of its natural behavior.

The way the Folk Theory of Essences operates varies depending on whether metaphors for matter, form, or pattern of change are employed.

We start from objects of perception, e.g., tree, made of wood, having a shape, growing from a seed according to a pattern of change. In fact, the original term for matter in Greek, hule, means wood. The source domain for the metaphor of form is clearly things that can be literally seen or grasped.

Matter, form, and process of change are explanatory factors. For instance, a tree burns because it is made of wood. Because of its form, e.g., trunk and branches, it stands erect but can fall over.

The Folk Theories of General Kinds and Essences logically imply what Lakoff and Johnson call the foundational assumption of metaphysics:

Kinds exist and are defined by essences.

There is another FT to which the Greek philosophers were attracted:

4. The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category: There is a category of all things that exist.

This is not an unavoidable view.

One could also hold that the world may not be systematically organized, or that we could not know it above a certain level of generalization.

One could also hold that the hierarchy of categories might go on indefinitely, with no all-inclusive category.

The third option, taken by the FT of the all-inclusive category, is that the hierarchy of categories and essences ends with an all-inclusive category.

The view that there is an all-inclusive category is the "most hopeful, least skeptical" option. It comes with a cost, however, and that is there is some that is common to everything, what will eventually be known as being itself.

The Pre-Philosophical Basis of Aristotle's Four Causes

Reference: Lakoff and Johnson, pp. 179, 217, 377-378

Recall the Folk Theory of Essences: Every entity has an essence or nature, a collection of attributes that makes it the kind of thing that it is and is the causal source of its natural behavior. (There are three ways in which this FT is filled out, based on metaphorical concepts of matter, form, and process of change.)

The Location Event-Structure (LES) Metaphor

1) States are locations (interiors of bounded regions in space).
2) Changes are movements (into or out of bounded regions).
3) Causes are forces.
4) Causation is forced movement (from one location to another).
5) Actions are self-propelled movements.
6) Purposes are destinations.
7) Means are paths (to destinations).
8) Difficulties are impediments to motion.
9) Freedom of action is lack of impediments to motion.
10) External events are large moving objects (that exert force).
11) Long-term purposeful activities are journeys.

Causation as Purposeful Action (CPA) Metaphor

Causes are reasons.
Results are achievements of purpose.

Aristotle's Definitions of the Four Causes

1. The material cause is "that out of which a thing comes to be, and which persists."
     Note points 1-2 in the LES metaphor.

2. The formal cause is "the form or the archetype, i.e., the statement of the essence"
     Aristotle accepts the Folk Theory of Essences, essence (partly) being form.

3. The efficient cause is "the primary source of change or coming to rest."
     Note points 3-4 in the LES metaphor.

4. The final cause is "the sense of end or 'that for the sake of which' a thing is done."
     See the CPA metaphor.