The New Philosophy: Cognitive Science and Experiential Realism

by Dr. Jan Garrett

This is a draft introduction for students and those who may wish to do further inquiry in this area. Anyone wishing to cite Lakoff and Johnson should do so directly from the sources listed in the bibliography.

Last (minor) revision: November 1, 2006

I. Opening Remarks
     A. Lakoff and Cognitive Linguistics
     B. Experiential or Embodied Realism
II. An Introduction to the Cognitive Science of Philosophy
     A. Historical Background
     B. Metaphors and Folk Theories
     C. Philosophy, Metaphor, and Folk Theories
     D. Folk Theories in Early Greek Philosophy
III. Conceptual Metaphor in the Apology of Socrates
IV. Experientialist Challenge to Traditional Rationalism on Human Nature
V. Experientialist Challenge to the Traditional Correspondence Theory of Truth
VI. Experientialist Analysis of Moral and Political Discourse
VII. Lakoff and Johnson Bibliography

I. Opening remarks

A. Lakoff and Cognitive Linguistics

There is an important philosophical/scientific perspective developed clearly only in the last quarter century. It is still not widely understood. But it is so valuable in helping us understand philosophy that students of philosophy should know about it.

Its chief spokesperson is George Lakoff, of the University of California at Berkeley. Although Lakoff is housed at the Department of Linguistics, his cutting-edge research has led him to develop his own philosophical perspective and engage in debate with dominant perspectives in philosophy. He is author of several books in his own right and co-author of a couple with Mark Johnson, head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Oregon.

Lakoff's special area is called cognitive linguistics, a relatively new branch of the study of language whose goal is to understand how human beings think, especially through the study of language. Cognitive linguistics is an empirical science: it asks questions that can be answered by collecting data about language use, not only in English-speaking cultures but non-English speaking cultures, not only Western cultures but non-Western cultures as well. It also conducts experiments. Especially it tests hypotheses. It is also an empirical science in the sense that it takes very seriously what related physical sciences are discovering about the way human beings think. Taken as a group, those sciences that study the nature of human thought are called cognitive sciences.

Although philosophy is not normally considered an empirical science, it has a traditional interest in human reason and language insofar as it expresses human reason. On that basis we might consider philosophy and cognitive linguistics to be sister disciplines.

Cognitive linguistics is a program for doing research. As in any scientific field, some results will be accepted by most researchers and other results will be regarded as more tentative, although they may be accepted by most later. So cognitive linguistics is not identical to a precise set of results.

B. Experiential/Embodied Realism

We have to distinguish the general research program of cognitive linguistics from the specific set of results at which Lakoff and Johnson have arrived. These results challenge traditional philosophy at several points. Lakoff and Johnson have recognized this and drawn some necessary conclusions. This has led them to develop their own philosophical positions in opposition to the dominant positions in philosophy.

They call their philosophical position (variously) experiential realism, experientialism, and embodied realism.

To call it experiential realism is to stress the points on which it agrees with the dominant traditional views (Lakoff 1987, xv)

(R1) a commitment to the existence of the real world

(R2) a recognition that reality places constraints upon concepts

(R3) a conception of truth that goes beyond mere internal coherence

(R4) a commitment to the existence of stable knowledge of the external world

but conflicts on several points with views affirmed by the dominant traditional views.

Experientialism (in contrast with the dominant traditional view) holds

(E1) that human reason is made possible by the body

(E2) it grows out of the nature of the organism and all that contributes to its individual and collective experience: genetic inheritance, nature of its environment, how it functions in that environment, the nature of its social functioning, etc.

Hence it differs from traditional philosophy, which tends to hold that
TP1) human reason is just a limited form of transcendent (e.g., divine) reason

TP2) the functions of human reason are merely

a) to provide access to abstract concepts

b) to provide a biological means of mimicking patterns of transcendental reason and

c) to place limitations on possible concepts

II. An Introduction to the Cognitive Science of Philosophy

A. Historical background

As explained earlier, cognitive science (CS) is a name for a number of interrelated sciences that aim to understand better the nature of human thought and reason. We should distinguish between two stages of cognitive science, first-generation and second-generation:

First generation CS developed in the middle part of the twentieth century. It was closely associated with work in artificial intelligence. Researchers in first generation CS uncritically adopted from academic philosophy prevailing notions about thinking. It did not occur at first to first generation CS that these prevailing notions might be mistaken. This meant that they would not regard those assumptions as hypotheses to be tested against the evidence; rather first generation CS would try to answer questions about other issues in ways that did not challenge those assumptions.

Second generation CS developed later, when researchers in various fields of first generation CS began to realize that several of these assumptions were in conflict with what they were discovering. One of the most intriguing discoveries--an extremely significant one for philosophy--had to do with the role of metaphor in thinking. This discovery not only challenges our traditional conception of metaphor (as a mere ornament of language used by poets and speechmakers). It forces us to rethink the very nature of thought and language.

B. Metaphors and Folk Theories

One of the most fascinating insights about philosophy comes from cognitive linguistics.

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

1. What is a metaphor?

Metaphors are ways in which terms that originally apply to one domain, say, ordinary everyday perceptual experience, are projected onto another domain in order to structure experience in a new way. In various studies, Lakoff and others uncover the following important metaphors:

Moral Goodness Is Strength
Goodness Is Up
Action Is Self-Propelled Movement
Argument Is Struggle (or War)
Causation Is Giving
Doing good Is Building Credit
Love Is a Journey
Right Conduct is Observing Boundaries

Another metaphor is that a mind or soul is an entity (i.e., a thing of a particular kind).

Each of these metaphors is a part of a system of metaphors that we use to understand ourselves and our world. For example, Lakoff and Johnson elaborate the Action Is Self-Propelled Movement metaphor as follows:

Actions are self-propelled movements
Purposes are destinations
Aids to action are aids to movement
Freedom of action is the lack of impediment to movement

There are five different types of impediment

* blockages - Harry got over his divorce
* features of the terrain - It's been uphill all the way
* counterforces - Quit pushing me around
* lack of energy - I ran out of gas
* burdens -
      I'm carrying a heavy load this semester,
      I'm weighed down by a lot of assignments,
      I'm trying to shoulder a lot of responsibility . . .

From Philosophy in the Flesh, 1999, pp. 201-202

2. What is a folk theory?

To understand this, we need to remind ourselves what is normally understood by a theory, such as the germ theory of disease transmission or the Darwinian theory of biological evolution. Roughly, a theory is a general idea or set of general ideas developed by a specialist community (e.g., scientists, philosophers, theologians) to describe things at a general level, to explain events, and generally to answer more concrete questions. Nonspecialists are familiar with such theories because they are popularized when specialists communicate to us the results of their research.

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.

Folk theories exist in a culture before 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. A folk theory is used to explain or make sense out of our experience.
Folk theories continue to be used by nonprofessional people even after the specialist theories have been developed. They are even used by professional people in their everyday, nonprofessional activity.

Folk theories are often the "raw material" from which philosophical, ethical, theological, and scientific theories are created. Scientific theories may include modified versions of folk theories.

Here are three important folk theories.

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

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

The Folk Theory of the Natural Order: Beings are arranged in a hierarchy of power and perfection, from God, for example, at the top down through adult humans (with man typically superior to woman), to children, animals, plants, and, finally, inorganic matter.

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

C. 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 are 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 philosophers such 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 is especially important.

D. Folk Theories important in Early Greek Philosophy

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

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

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

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 Folk Theory of Essences operates in various ways. The essence can be seen as matter, as form, or pattern of change.

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, "hulê," means wood. The source domain for the metaphor of form is clearly things that can be literally seen or grasped. The Greek term we translate as form, "eidos," originally meant visual aspect.

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.

Taken together, 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.

I should mention here the Folk Theory of Substance and Attributes. This appears explicitly in the work of Aristotle, but it hinted at already in the work of Plato.

A substance is that which exists in itself and does not depend for its existence on any other thing. Each substance has one and only one primary attribute that defines what its essence is.
Finally, there is another FT to which the Greek philosophers were attracted:

The Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category:

There is a category of all things that exist.
This is not an unavoidable view.

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

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

The option chosen by the Folk Theory of the All-Inclusive Category is that the hierarchy of categories and essences ends with an all-inclusive category.

According to Lakoff and Johnson, the view that there is an all-inclusive category is the "most hopeful, least skeptical" option. It comes with a cost, however. It commits us to the view that something is common to everything, which later philosophers will refer to as being itself.

III. Folk Theory and Metaphor in the Apology of Socrates

Socrates is operating with at least one important folk theory, the Folk Theory of Essences, in this speech.

At least the more obvious of the major conceptual metaphors at work here are:

  • the soul as object (entity) metaphor, of which there are at least two variants:

    (a) soul as artifact (deliberately made object), from which it follows that the soul may be improved or corrupted, perfected or deficient;

    (b) soul as animal, from which it follows that the soul can be trained, made sick, restored to health

  • self-awareness (in later philosophical writing, knowledge) as health from which it follows that self-deception and certain forms of ignorance are (metaphorically) forms of illness and that philosophy is a sort of medical practice

  • gods as master-craftsmen, with mortals as their subordinates

    Master craftsmen are wise about producing things of a certain type. Their characteristic aim is to complete or perfect these things in a certain way. An ignorant master-craftsman or one who does not normally aim to produce excellent products is an oxymoron. Moreover, master craftsmen direct their subordinates so as to promote the completeness or perfection of their characteristic artifacts.

    Subordinate craftsmen are considered servants of the master-craftsman. That is the sense in which we are servants of the gods. A military commander or general is a specific kind of master-craftsman; lower-level officers and ordinary soldiers are subordinate craftsmen, in the art of war.

    IV. The Experientialist Challenge
    to Traditional Rationalist Essentialism on Human Nature

    Recall what Manuel Velasquez (Philosophy: A Text with Readings [Wadsworth Publishers],chapter 2) says about the position of traditional rationalism concerning human nature:

    TR1) The essential feature of human beings is reason, while reason is distinguished from the emotions and the imagination.

    TR2) Human beings consist of a potentially immortal mind or soul, characterized by a capacity for or an activity of reasoning, and a body, which is a mortal material thing.

    TR3) Humans, especially in the mental or personal part, are continuously existing things.

    TR4) Humans are individuals, fundamentally independent of other humans and nonhuman things.

    Experientialism challenges the usual interpretation of TR1, according to which reason is independent of the emotions and imagination. Because, according to Experientialism, for most part we reason only while using metaphors and metaphors are a product of the imagination, it is false that humans are rational as distinct from imaginative beings. We are both.

    Experientalism especially challenges the dualism of this view (TR2). If even our supposedly abstract thinking is pervaded with metaphor, and if metaphors necessarily link our supposedly abstract ideas to our concrete embodied experience, then even our clearest rational thought is unavoidably linked to our embodied experience and therefore to our bodies.

    Moreover, experientialism challenges the fourth assumption of the traditional rationalist view. The more important reasoning is in who we are, the less we can claim to be fundamentally independent of our environment:

    (1) human beings evolved to be the kind of beings they are (and have the kind of mental capacities they have) only through millions of years of interaction with other animals, with plants, and a wide variety of physical environments;

    (2) human individuals acquire their primary experience, on which secondary or conceptual experience is based, from interaction with the physical environment, with nonhuman objects (rocks, tools, toys, animals, and plants) and especially with other human beings among their immediate social surroundings.

    V. The Experientialist Position on Truth

    Prominent among traditional philosophy are correspondence notions of truth and conceptions of knowledge as mirroring an external reality. These two go together.

    The correspondence theory of truth has a number of versions, for instance:

    1. The linguistic version:
    A sentence is true just in case in agrees with (external) reality.
    "Agreement" is understood as parallelism, similarity, or mirroring.

    "The cat is asleep" is a sentence, conveying the meaning that the cat is asleep, and this is true just in case being asleep is a present attribute of the cat, or, as some philosophers say, sleep is in the cat. There is a match-up between the joining of the terms cat and being asleep, in the sentence, with the joining of the entities, sleep and cat, in reality.

    2. The psychological version:
    A thought is true just in case it agrees with (external) reality.
    The thought that the cat is asleep is true just in case the cat and the attribute of being asleep are joined in reality as the concepts of the cat and being asleep are joined in the thought.

    The psychological version fits well with a widely held theory of knowledge, that knowledge is rationally justified true belief. At the very least, somebody who knows must have a true idea in his or her mind. And that truth would amount to the agreement or parallels between the joining of concepts in her mind and the joining of objects and their attributes in reality.

    Experientialism challenges both notions of correspondence.

    The linguistic version runs into difficulty because it correlates sounds or marks on paper with external reality, but by themselves the sounds or marks "cat" and "asleep" have no obvious connection to the particular animal and its sleep as a physical quality of the animal. It seems that the linguistic version gets whatever plausibility it has because its advocates smuggle in the customary interpretation of the words.

    The mentalist version runs into difficulty to the extent that it assumes that our minds contain stand-alone thoughts or concepts that are merely put together or kept apart in our thinking. According to experientialism, there is always a significant unconscious background to our thinking. This is especially the case when we are engaged in so called abstract or non-concrete thinking (as we are not only when we say that there is a single Creator of the entire universe but even when we affirm that someone in the room is a low-down scoundrel or an upstanding citizen). A vast background of unconscious connections is assumed. The question of truth cannot arise until the ways in which we understand are in place, and the latter depend upon prior embodied experience and unconscious thought processes involving imagination.

    Experientialism is capable of defining truth. Lakoff and Johnson do so as follows:

    Embodied truth: A person takes a sentence as "true" of a situation if what he or she understands the sentence as expressing accords with what he or she understands the situation to be. (PIF, 510)
    Note that truth is not independent of "beings with minds who conceptualize situations" and "a language conventionally used by those beings to express conceptualizations of situations," which in turn requires the operation of "the hidden mechanisms of the mind," such as conceptual metaphor. (ibid.)

    Lakoff and Johnson write,

    Embodied truth is not purely subjective truth. Embodiment keeps it from being purely subjective. Because we all have pretty much the same embodied basic-level and spatial-relations concepts, there will be an enormous range of shared 'truths'

    Social truths make better sense on this account than on the correspondence theory. They are based on enormously wide understandings and experiences of culture, institutions, and interpersonal relations, including social practices . . .

    Social truth can only be embodied truth since it makes no sense without understanding. Moreover, there are conflicting social truths based on conflicting understandings. Different understandings of the nature of such contested concepts as justice, rights, democracy, and freedom lead us to have considerably different competing understandings of what society is about and therefore what constitutes social truth . . . (PIF, 107)

    Truth is therefore relative to understanding.

    This does not mean that anything goes. Some ways of understanding are superior to others for most purposes. For instance, the modern medical understanding of disease transmission is superior for most purposes today to the voodoo theory.

    "Embodied scientific realism," say Lakoff and Johnson, "gives rise to a corresponding notion of embodied truth for science. . . . Statements like 'there are cells' are stable scientific truths, embodied truths depending on the capacity for scientific instrumentation to extend our basic-level abilities to perceive and manipulate."

    VI. An experientialist position on the nature
    of moral and political values

    See Notes on Lakoff on Metaphor, Morality and Public Policy.

    VII. Short Lakoff and Johnson Book Bibliography

    Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson, 1980. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.
    Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson, 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh. Basic Books (Perseus Publishing).
    Lakoff, George, 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
    Lakoff, George, 1996. Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press. 2nd edition, 2002.
    Lakoff, George, 2004. Try Not to Think of an Elephant. Chelsea Green.
    Johnson, Mark, 1993. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics. Univ. of Chicago Press.
    Johnson, Mark, 1987. Body in the Mind. (University of Chicago Press.

    For some articles by and interviews with Lakoff relating his approach to recent events, see my About or by George Lakoff page.