PHIL 401: Readings in Philosophy (Fall 2009)

Philosophy, Moral Politics, and Cognitive Science


Latest revision: March 16, 2009



Instructor: Dr. Jan Garrett



Meeting Time: MWF 12:40-1:35 p.m., 316 Cherry Hall


Short Description: 18th century thought defended democracy on the assumption that reason was conscious, universal, unemotional, value-neutral, and literal--a view challenged by recent cognitive science. The course will discuss and evaluate the work of George Lakoff, cognitive scientist and philosopher, who proposes a new view of reason that, he argues, is superior both for its compatibility with empirical research into how people think and for its usefulness in promoting democratic values.


Longer description:

The 18th century Enlightenment assumed that reason was conscious, universal, disembodied, logical, unemotional, value-neutral, interest-based, and literal. Together with the premise that humans were essentially rational, this still-influential assumption was employed to defend the viability of democracy. Recent research in cognitive science has shown that Enlightenment view of reason is seriously flawed.

George Lakoff has been at the center of this research since the 1970’s. Lakoff’s work in cognitive linguistics led him, together with philosopher Mark Johnson, to undertake a critique of the philosophical tradition that helped to produce the Enlightenment view of reason. At the heart of their view was a theory of the embodied mind, which included a theory of “conceptual metaphor.” Conceptual metaphor provides an increasingly well-confirmed explanation of how humans form, and reason with, the concepts with which we think about everyday issues, from causality, mind, and self, to morality and public policy. It also sheds new light on philosophical discussions of these topics.


Lakoff’s most recent thinking is contained in his 2008 book The Political Mind, where  he articulates a new view of reason compatible with cognitive science research as it stands today. He argues that it is superior to the still influential Enlightenment view in explaining how thinking works and can help us understand why some forms of discourse are more politically persuasive than others. Lakoff argues that the new view of reason is also a better tool for promoting democratic values than the old one.


The course is designed to acquaint students with the elements of the research and the arguments mentioned above and to provide them with a chance to jointly and individually evaluate Lakoff’s claims and arguments.


Probable textbooks:


George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books, 1999(note)

George Lakoff, The Political Mind, Viking, 2008

Additional readings may include:

* brief excerpts of texts from the classical philosophical tradition

* examples of political rhetoric from the public domain in the last 2-3 years


Bibliography (To Be Supplied  Soon.)


Projected Determination of Grade. (A total of 200 points will be possible over the semester. To Be Refined Later.)


1. Papers and/or exams. I will give further guidance later.

a. 40 points: A paper of at least 1100 words on some topic raised in The Political Mind chapters 2-4 and corresponding sections of Philosophy in the Flesh. Due: about __th session.

b. 40 points: A paper of at least 1100 words on some aspect of LJ’s (Lakoff’s and Johnson’s) analyses of causation, mind, or self. Due: about __th session.

            c. 40 points: A paper of at least 1100 words related to what cognitive science has to say about Plato, Descartes, or Kantian morality; or a paper of similar length using Lakoff’s framework to evaluate the rhetoric of major candidates in recent national elections. Due: about __th session.

            d. 50 points: A final exam at the regular final exam time testing your knowledge of the main concepts to which you have been exposed in this course, plus a two-page (ca. 550-600 words) evaluation of Lakoff’s positions on political thinking or the nature of philosophy.


2. Class participation. Your presence and active participation is vital.

            a. 12 points: an 8-10 minute presentation of one of your papers. (No more than two persons can present on the same topic.)

            b. 8 points: Attendance. Since this is a 28-session course, one absence is more than 3 percent of the course! See also the following note on attendance thresholds.

            c. 10 points: other forms of class participation.



Tentative Course Outline


PM: Lakoff, The Political Mind (2008)

PIF: Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)

The numeral immediately following PM or PIF refers to chapter.


I. Basics


PIF 1-3, Cognitive Unconscious and Embodied Mind


PM Intro, Brain Change and Social Change, 1-15


PM 1, Anna Nicole on the Brain

    a. Narratives We Live by, 21-36

    b. Narrative and War, 36-38

    c. We are in the Melodrama, 38-42


PM 2, The Political Unconscious

a. Politics of Empathy, 47-51.

b. Neoliberal thought,  51-60.

c. Politics of Authority, 60-67

d. Framing, 67-69

d. Biconceptualism, 69-74


PIF 4-5, Primary and Complex Metaphor


PM 3, The Brain’s Function in Family Values

a. Nation as Family, 75-81

b. Strict Father Model, 77-81

c. Nurturant Parent Model, 81-82

d. Metaphorical Thought, 82-85

e. Governing Institutions, 85-87

    f. More about Metaphorical Thought, 87-91

PM 4, The Brain’s Role in Political ideologies:

a. Moral accounting, 93-95

b. Moral metaphors 96-99


PIF 9 and 14, The Cognitive Science of Morality


PM 4, pp. 99-110, The Bodily Basis of Metaphor

c. Bodily basis of morality 99-107

d. Brain and biconceptualism 108-110


II. The Cognitive Science of Basic Ideas

PIF 10. Time (optional)

PIF 11. Events and Causes

PIF 12. The Mind

PIF 13. The Self (optional)


III. Political Challenges for the 21st Century Mind [chapters from PM 5-12]

PM 5. A New Consciousness

PM 6. Traumatic Ideas: The War on Terror

PM 7. Framing Values: Privateering

PM 8. Fear of Framing

PM 9. Confronting Stereotypes: Sons of the Welfare Queen

PM 10. Aim above the Bad Apples

PM 11: Cognitive Policy

PM 12: Contested Concepts Everywhere


IV.  Challenging the Old Enlightenment in the Social Sciences [chapters from PM 13-18]

PM 13. Exploring the Political Brain

PM 14. The Problem of Self-Interest

PM 15. Metaphors Defining Rational Action;

see also PIF 23: The Theory of Rational Action

PM 16. Why Hawks Win

PM 17. The Brain’s Language

PM 18. Language in the New Enlightenment

        see also PIF 22: Chomsky’s Linguistics

PM Afterword, What if it works? (optional)


Optional topics, for those with a special interest (paper topics?)

    PIF 21, Analytic Philosophy (background: PIF 12)

    PIF 22, Chomsky’s Philosophy and Linguistics (background: PIF 12, 19, 21)

    PIF 25, Philosophy in the Flesh

    PIF  7-8, The Lakoff-Johnson Position on Truth

 (requires an understanding of PIF 1-6; see also other references to truth in the PIF



Description of Content of Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)


George Lakoff and Mark Johnson build on recent researches in cognitive science. They present original work:


on the role of conceptual metaphor, and more generally, the imagination in virtually all abstract thinking, in and outside the specialist sciences;


• explaining the pre-philosophical sources of major philosophical theories


• containing new explanations of our ordinary notions of time and cause, mind and self


• embodied realism, a non-dualist, science-friendly account of human nature, knowledge, and truth that nevertheless differs from dominant views in contemporary philosophy