The Body Knows:
A new book bashes the brain

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

Regular readers of this column know that I often write about the "poetic basis of mind." By this, I mean to indicate that the basic structure of the psyche is images and that we express ourselves through metaphor.

Thus, our entire experience of the world is "as if," rather than of anything like direct knowing of essential truth. Freud and the other founders of modern psychology understood this implicitly. In psychoanalysis and work with memory and dreams, they found that early experiences, especially traumatic ones, often become symbolized. Thus, incest can get "remembered" as cult abuse. (In contemporary practice, superficial therapists too often read these metaphorical memories as literal.)

This was so fundamental to Freud's way of imagining the psyche that he used myth - the myth of Oedipus, especially - as the way of describing pathology. Myth, of course, is a culture's shared metaphorical way of expressing something true about life. Freud also understood that personal metaphors are found at depth, not through spiritual seeking. Thus, as writer Christine Downing points out, The Interpretation of Dreams opens with a quote from the Aeneid in which Juno vows to travel to the underworld for the answers the heavens have not given her.

The poetic, or metaphorical, basis of mind operates all of the time - not just as an expression of pathology. Thus, according to this view, everything has a meaning other than its apparent one, so that the greatest psychological injury a person can do himself is to literalize experience, whether in the world or intrapsychically.

Although this idea has often been treated as the crackpot thinking of poets and depth psychologists, it has begun to gain currency among a broader range of thinkers in recent years. And this year's publication of Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is certainly a milestone. It is an elaboration of their Metaphors We Live By, a book that was considered highly eccentric at the time of its publication in 1980.

In the latter book, the two - Lakoff is a linguist and Johnson is a philosopher - demonstrated how metaphors, not objective truths of any sort, structure our culture's concepts. (A classic example is the idea that "argument is war," a metaphor that structures discourse as a win-or-lose experience with all the associated feelings of battle.) Lakoff wrote a controversial book a year or two ago called Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don't. In it, he showed how political ideologies are expressions of the nation-as-a-family metaphor. Thus, conservatives see government as the strict father who rewards discipline. Liberals, on the other hand, conceptualize government as the nuturing parent.

The new book, Philosophy in the Flesh, is subtitled "the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought." It is the most comprehensive study of metaphor by either writer yet and offers the fascinating thesis that metaphors, thought itself, arise in the body, not in the organic brain alone. Thus, the way we conceptualize our experience is an expression of the body itself.

The importance of this, of course, is to reunify mind and body, not as merely cooperative aspects, but as functions that serve the same purpose. Further, rather than using depth psychology or spiritual arguments, Lakoff and Johnson rely on cognitive science to make their case. (Other scientists are lately proving the existence of the unconscious as a biological function.) They attempt to find a genetic basis for the metaphorical quality of human thought. Their case studies are those philosophers who have "disembodied" intelligence from the body.

There are problems in their analysis. Naturally, by reducing metaphor to an expression of the personal body, they completely relatavize truth. No objective truths at all survive in their model, which thus continues the ancient debate between essentialists and relativists, taking the postmodern side of the latter.

Still this book is one of the most important to come along in some time for its synthesis of linguistics, philosophy and psychology by way of cognitive science. It raises important questions about why we think the way we do and, indeed, returns responsibility for it to our full being.


A new journal, Mythosphere, is being edited at the University of Alabama by William Doty, a well known expert on "trickster" figures in world mythology. Like Parabola, it is an effort to bridge academic and popular writing about "image, myth and symbol." The first two issues have been impressive, including an article by Christine Downing (cited above) in no. 2. For information, call the distributor: 1-800-545-8398….

Ma Jaya, the colorful guru interviewed here a year ago, is returning to Atlanta to give a workshop, "Chaos and the Mother," April 23 and 24. She is being hosted by one of her followers, Clare Ahern of Jaya Devi Yoga Studio.

Ma Jaya's story is unique. She is a former Brooklyn housewife who began having visions when she took a yoga class as part of a weight-loss plan. Neem Karoli Baba, the guru of Ram Dass, appeared to her in 1973 and she embarked on a path of kundalini yoga and compassionate action, including work with AIDS patients. She operates Neem Karoli Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Fla., now.

Interested persons should call Kashi, 1-800-226-1008, for more

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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