Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things

What do categories reveal about the mind?  In _Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things_, George Lakoff draws on anthropology, psychology, linguistics, and philosophy (notably Wittgenstein and Putnam) to argue against epistemological and metaphysical essentialism.

The title of the book comes from a term in Dyirbal, an  aboriginal language of Australia, that is used variously to designate women, fire, bandicoots, hairy mary grubs, rivers, swamps, spears, shields, and sundry other things (both dangerous and not).  The author attempts to give a rational account of this odd collection, first, by abandoning the notion that the members of an empirical category must all have some property in common, and second, by developing in its place a philosophy of "experientialism."

Experientialism resembles a sort of "transcendental materialism."  In this interpretation, the categories (in the Kantian sense), rather than being "pure concepts," are grounded in physiology, motor function, and "readiness-to-hand" (to borrow Heidegger).  Just as the boundaries of the concept "red" are not rationally derived from an analysis of wavelength, but are functions of sensitivies in retinal cones, so too for abstract reason.  Thus the understanding is ultimately "embodied."  The schematism that emerges is purportedly a reduction from everyday experience: "container," "part-whole," "link," "center-periphery," "source-path-goal," and the like.

Experientialism also offers appealing approaches to mind-body dualism, truth, knowledge, and objectivity.  For instance, rather than an elimination of all subjectivity, it proposes that objectivity is "looking at a situation from" as many points of view as possible, and "being able to distinguish what is directly meaningful...from concept that are indirectly meaningful."

Experientialism is outlined in Chapter 17 of _Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things_.  The context for this chapter is captured most succinctly in the Preface and Chapter 2. For an application (and the sheer fun of it), I also recommended skimming Case Study 1, giving an experientialist account of "anger."

Links:
Preface through Chapter 2: http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/gleazer/296_readings/Lakoff.pdf
Case Study 1: http://georgelakoff.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/anger-from-women-fire-and-dangerous-things-lakoff-1987.pdf
A summary of the schematism: http://www.cleanlanguage.co.uk/articles/articles/245/0/Embodied-Schema-The-basis-of-Embodied-Cognition/Page0.html
Buy the book on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Women-Fire-Dangerous-Things-ebook/dp/B0067WT3KI/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1350845988&sr=1-2-catcorr

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  • Chad B.

    In answer to the question "What is Lakoff's goal?" I think the best general answer may be "to humanize science."

    December 29, 2012

  • Josefina

    As I started reading this book, I was quickly reminded of this short story by Borges:
    http://www.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/wilkins.html
    (English translation below the original)

    Actually, this text from Borges supposedly inspired Foucault to write his book "The order of Things":
    http://individual.utoronto.ca/bmclean/hermeneutics/foucault_suppl/OT_Borges.htm

    1 · December 25, 2012

    • Chad B.

      I like this article a lot as an introduction to the "problem" Lakoff is trying to solve. You may already know that the "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge" is mentioned in Chapter 6. Good find.

      1 · December 26, 2012

  • eric

    It's a good book. Lakoff and Johnson's _Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought_ define and refine what they call embodied realism. I came away seeing just how metaphorical all of our abstract knowledge is!

    1 · November 9, 2012

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