Lakoff and Johnson on Descartes’ Metaphorical Reasoning


George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (referred to as LJ in what follows), discuss Descartes’ system of conceptual metaphors and metaphorical reasoning in chapter 19 of their important work, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999).


Following are some notes regarding this chapter. I don’t expect PHIL 303 students to completely grasp all this—as with the study of Descartes himself, it takes a certain effort to enter the mental perspective being developed by Lakoff and Johnson. But I think it will help us understand Descartes better to recognize the significant role played by metaphorical concepts in his philosophy.


What is the most fundamental metaphor for Descartes?

Knowing is Seeing. (That is, knowing is metaphorically conceived as Seeing.)


How does D. understand an idea? Object seen.


knowing an idea? Seeing an Object clearly.


mental attention? Visual focusing.


impediments to knowing? Visual Obstruction.



How does D. define “intuition”? The mind’s ability to see clearly … “the undoubting conception of an unclouded mind.”


What gives certainty and removes all doubt? what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce. (394-95)


How does D. understand the mind metaphorically? A container for ideas. (395)


What does the Cartesian Theater enable us to do with ideas? The idea objects can be put in the spotlight and examined. (395)


What metaphors of faculty psychology does D. assume? (395) Faculties are persons performing diverse functions.


How is perceiving conceptualized? Person who receives sense-impressions.


imagination? person who forms images from sense-impressions


reason? the capacity to consider ideas and to know.


What does the Ideas are Objects metaphor, added to The Mind Is a Container, produce? (395)


Ideas are Objects in the Mind that can be Seen by Reason.


What inference regarding reason’s ability to know ideas is drawn from the common folk theory of vision plus Descartes’ system of metaphors?


If an idea is in Reason’s field of vision and sufficiently illuminated by the light of reason, and no other idea obscures the idea, then Reason will know the idea as it really is, and will be able to distinguish it from others.



Why does Descartes speak about illumination by the light of reason?

It is dictated by his metaphors. Without the light, the ideas in the Cartesian Theater are left in the dark!


Does that literally correspond to anything in our experience of reasoning? No. (396)


What “celebrated conclusion” does D. arrive at with the help of his metaphors?

The mind can know its ideas with absolute certainty. (396)


How does D. conclude that all thought is conscious?

Thought consists of ideas.

Ideas are objects and knowing is seeing. (metaphors)

Therefore, Thought can be seen by reason.

You are conscious of what you see. (Folk Theory 1)

Every object is capable of being seen. (Folk Theory 2)

Therefore, all thought is conscious.



What does cognitive science (developed over the last 30-40 years) say about the “all thought is conscious” claim? (396-97) It has been invalidated by virtually all cognitive science.


How does D. arrive at his view that “the structure of the mind is directly accessible to itself”?

Ideas can be directly known (seen)

Thought is composed of ideas.

Thought can be directly known (seen).


What conclusion follows from this? (397) Reason can reflect directly and successfully upon its own nature; so no empirical research is needed to establish certain knowledge of the mind.


What, according to LJ, is the source of the view, widely held in Anglo-American philosophy of mind today, that philosophy of mind can be done without empirical research?

The conception of the philosophy of mind inherited from Descartes. (397)


What role do the Metaphors Knowing Is Seeing, Thinking Is Moving, and Seeing Is Touching play in Descartes’ account of deduction? (398)


Knowing is Seeing might work for single ideas, or the linkage between two of them, but deduction requires us to “move” from step to step, over several steps.  Using the Knowing Is Touching metaphor, Descartes imagines a repeated attempt to run over the whole route in one continuous movement.


What problem is D. trying to solve with his “rather bizarre model of deduction”?  

If deduction is to be a form of certain knowledge, then it must provide the same clarity and distinctness that intuition supplies, though it must take place over time. (399)


Why is his solution, strictly speaking, impossible? (400) The limits of short-term visual memory.


What role does D’s supply of metaphors play here? It is insufficient for his purposes. (400)


What Cartesian metaphors do LJ regard as “of special catastrophic significance”? (400) His vision metaphors, together with his quest for certainty, led to a disembodied conception of the mind.


What three elements of Cartesian philosophy have influenced much recent philosophical thinking? (400)

* being able to think constitutes our essence

* the mind is disembodied

* the essence of human beings (LJ should have said human minds) has nothing to do with our bodies.


What consequences beyond philosophy have these had? (400-401)


They’ve affected other academic disciplines, our educational system, the popular culture. They have led to “the dissociation of reason from emotion, and thus to the downplaying of the emotional and aesthetic life in our culture.” (401)


What important folk theory is Descartes’ using?

The FT of essences.


On what important metaphor is Descartes’ argument for the mind-body distinction based? (401-402)

Knowing is Seeing.


What additional folk theory, according to LJ, is required to generate the theory of the conclusion that the mind is disembodied and that the essence, and only essence, of human beings is the ability to reason?

The theory of Substance and Attributes.


(Note: Actually, Descartes is quite capable of distinguishing the purely mental “I” from human nature, which for him, once he establishes the existence of the body, is an immaterial substance (the “I”) closely associated with a specific type of body. But he clearly regards the “I” as more basic, metaphysically, and more knowable, than the body.—JG)


How does D. establish that the imagination is unnecessary for the existence of the “I”?

Imagination is tied to sense-perception, the source of images.

Sense-perception depends on the body, but reason does not.

The “I” could exist even without imagination.


of the emotions? (403-404)

Emotion is part of our bodily existence.

It is utterly distinct from the essence of the “I,” which is only a thinking substance.


What two kinds of ideas does D. sometimes distinguish? (404)

1) adventitious ideas (or representations), that seem to arise from external objects;

2) innate ideas—mathematical ideas, structure of thought itself, God


Of these, which must be present from birth, according the reading of LJ? (404) The innate ideas.


Why is this type of ideas unproblematic for D.?

The innate ideas are not tainted by the body, but are seen clearly and distinctly by the mind.


(What metaphor is at work here?) Knowing is Seeing. (404)


What specific study did D. see as a model for the study of thought in general? mathematics


How did Descartes see mathematics? as inherently a matter of the formal symbolism, which could be applied to concrete special cases.


“There must be some general science to explain that element as a whole which gives rise to problems about order and measurement,  restricted as these are to no special subject matter.”


On what basis could he claim that there can be no mistake about mathematics?  Because math is a purely mental subject matter, it only concerns “’clear and distinct ideas,’ about which there can be no mistake.”


(LJ do not discuss the textual evidence that for Descartes this kind of trust of mathematics rests on a prior proof of the existence of God.--JG)


Which is more certain for D., mathematics as such or the application of mathematics to things in the world? (405) Mathematics as such.


85. What makes Descartes' mathematical views relevant to his theory of mind? (405-406) The metaphor Thinking Is Mathematical Calculation.


86. How does Hobbes understand Reason? “Reason…is nothing but reckoning—that is, adding and subtracting—of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thought.”


What does this "sum up"? (406) arguments.


87. What theory important inherited by first generation cognitive science did Descartes create? Theory of mental representation.


What problem is it devised to solve? (407) how reasoning is possible with ideas that are not innate but arise through the senses.


88. According to LJ, how do the elements of the Cartesian picture of mind hold together? (408-409) His metaphors make these claims into a coherent whole. “his metaphoric model of the mind, with its metaphoric ontology and metaphoric mode of inference . . . unites these claims about ideas, thought, knowledge, imagination, …into an organic whole.”


What will "any attempt to cash out this literal-sounding theory" have to do? (409) Use some conceptual metaphor, even if not Cartesian metaphors.


What does the body of evidence supporting 2nd-generation cognitive science imply regarding the tenets of the Cartesian view of mind? (409)

It must reject every one of these tenets.


[Second-generation cognitive science, including Lakoff’s own work in cognitive linguistics, is discussed in the earlier chapters of Philosophy in the Flesh.]