How Is Analytic Philosophy Disembodied?

By Dr. Jan Garrett

This page revised October 30, 2009

Characters: Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Gottlob Frege (1848-1925; Begriffschrift, 1879), analytic philosophy (often dated from 1900, on the assumption that Russell and Moore rather than Frege initiated it).

What is disembodied about analytic philosophy? Do Lakoff and Johnson (Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books, 1999) claim that analytic philosophy is committed to a disembodied conception of the mind?

The term "disembodied" gets associated with analytic philosophy in LJ's discussion of realism (chapter 7, pp. 94-102), where their embodied realism is compared and contrasted with other types of realism. They say that both Descartes in the 17th century and analytic philosophy in the 20th are committed to disembodied realism. It's fairly clear in what sense this applies to Descartes, for whom thoughts about the material world, residing in the immaterial, i.e., disembodied, mind are true just in case they correspond to the way things are in the external world.

But why is the realism of the analytic philosophers also called disembodied?

In LJ's chapter on the cognitive science of philosophical ideas of the mind (ch. 12), they point out that analytic philosophy draws heavily from complex metaphors that, collectively, make up the Mind is a Body System of metaphors. These are

(1) Thought Is Motion
(2) Thinking Is Perceiving
(3) Thought Is Object Manipulation
(4) Acquiring Ideas Is Eating
But upon closer inspection (see p. 249) we see that only the first and third of these are important for analytic philosophy? What they convey from The Mind as Body system of metaphors is this:

1) Thoughts have a public, objective existence independent of any thinker.
2) Thoughts correspond to things in the world.

Thus, as strange as it may seem to the uninitiated, the mind as body metaphor treats the mind (metaphorically) as a body while treating ideas (senses in Frege's vocabulary) as external to that metaphorical body, i.e., that mind. Analytic philosophers recognize that ideas are not literally physical locations or physical objects that get manipulated by hands, but they deny that thoughts or ideas are the same as subjective states, which would be internal to the mind (conceived metaphorically as a body that moves from one location to another or a body [with hands] that manipulates objects).

Given the Thoughts Are Locations and Thoughts Are Manipulable Objects metaphors, the odd view that thought (but not mind) is disembodied actually arises fairly directly. Thoughts like locations and manipulable objects have their own integrity independent of what we think of them. This grounds the commitment of philosophers like Frege to the assumption that thought is external to subjectivity and public.

Another metaphor important to analytic philosophy is Thought as Language. From this perspective too, which treats thoughts as sentences, thoughts are shareable, hence external to subjectivity, and public.

Descartes, who preceded analytic philosophy by 250 years, taught that Ideas are in the Mind (and Mind is A Container outside any body at all). But for analytic philosophers like Frege, Senses or Intensions are outside the Mind. Mind is nothing but subjective consciousness in any case, and we cannot have objective knowledge of subjective consciousness because it is not public. Hence objective discourse must be about senses, which are not in minds and are not themselves literally bodies. So, for Frege, thought is disembodied (but not internal to the mind).

The Fregean position is analogous to Platonism, for which the words that we privately say to ourselves point to entities existing in their own Platonic intelligible world, i.e., the eternal Forms.

Also from this perspective of Thought as Language, "the structure of thought" can be accurately represented "as a linear sequence of written symbols." (249)

Picking up on Descartes' employment of the Thought As Mathematical Calculation metaphor, analytic philosophers enamored with mathematics like Frege hold that "as numbers can be accurately represented by sequences of written symbols, so thoughts can be adequately represented by sequences of written symbols."

Descartes knew Aristotelian formal logic and mathematics from elementary arithmetic and Euclidean geometry to the level of his own invention, analytic geometry. He did not have modern symbolic logic, which is arguably itself a form of mathematics. The early analytical philosophers like Russell and Frege knew modern symbolic logic intimately, having helped to create it by metaphorically employing cutting edge mathematical concepts.

The Thought as Mathematical Calculation metaphor prepares the ground for the Mind as Machine metaphor, which analytic philosophy also accepts: "Each complex thought has a structure imposed by mechanically putting together simple thoughts in a regular, describable, step by step fashion." (249)

Through several changes, analytic philosophy preserves its disembodied aspect in the ways that it treats meanings as Fregean senses or entities of set theory.

To sum up: the difference between Descartes' disembodied realism and the disembodied realism of analytic philosophy is this. In Descartes, ideas are disembodied because they are metaphorically conceived as inside the mind, an immaterial container, which Descartes identifies with the true self and understands as independent of the material world. Frege, on the other hand, is a disembodied realist because he understands senses, or meanings, as nonmaterial objects distinct from both the mind, where subjectivity rules, and from the world of material objects. Analytic philosophers believe that combinations of these senses can represent or correspond to "states of affairs," i.e., the way the material world is.