HomePlatoPlotinusSolomonAldous HuxleyAlan WattsCarl JungRalph W. EmersonR. Waxman

Discussion of Two Books: Philosophy in the Flesh & Claims of Culture 

Robert Waxman


In this paper, Philosophy in the Flesh (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999) and Claims of Culture (Benhabib, 2002) are reviewed and discussed. Both books offer significant insights into the human experience. Philosophy of the Flesh (1999) focuses on a hypothesis in cognitive science conceived by Lakoff and Johnson, known as conceptual metaphor theory. This theory challenges many of the established principles in Western philosophy. The authors also discuss two dialogues by Plato - Euthyphro and the Republic - in which they agree with the metaphorical value of Plato's Idea of the Good, The Degrees of Being, and the Allegory of the Cave. The authors do not accept the notion of transcendence or a disembodied soul. In Claims of Culture (2002), Benhabib also discusses the value of Plato's dialogues and the universal wisdom passed down throughout the ages. She finds that there are common human understandings among cultures that are constantly defining and re-defining themselves. Benhabib explores the meaning of a culture's historical identity and wants to preserve the past. She expresses a cosmopolitan worldview, but appreciates the individuality of each culture. Democracy is viewed as the vehicle for achieving a balanced form of multiculturalism. The ideals of democracy are powerful stimuli for the spread of multiculturalism. These two books offer different views on the nature of abstract thinking. Philosophy of the Flesh contends that abstractions find expression through metaphor. Claims of Culture examines a future vision based in abstract thinking in close alignment with current trends in democratic multicultural expansion. Benhabib assumes a position of universalism in a democratic society and defines the difference between a democratic theorist and a multicultural theorist.

Tthe first part of this paper discusses a theme that links to a possible dissertation topic on Plato and the immortal nature of the soul. Interestingly, Philosophy in the Flash (1999) disputes this notion and the authors claim that from the cognitive scientific standpoint, a disembodied soul is not a valid proposition. The authors claim that such abstract thinking relates to conceptual metaphor and the workings of the brain. Lakoff and Johnson believe that the physical body is centerpiece of human existence, and if there is a soul - it lives and dies with the body. Consequently, the soul cannot transcend the body or be free from it, and the out-of-body experience and the principle of reincarnation become obsolete. Lakoff and Johnson claim that these abstract concepts are conceptual metaphors that emanate (within the brain) from a "source domain" to a "target domain". Subsequently, these impulses find expression through words that articulate the nature of the abstraction. These words are always metaphorical according to the authors. However, Plato is not using metaphor in his dialogue Phaedo. Instead, Plato offers a logical explanation for the immortal nature of the soul that includes disembodiment and transcendence. 

In Claims of Culture (2002), Benhabib refers to Plato and authors of Kabbalistic and Islamic mystical texts. She explains that such knowledge is an aspect of cultural identities, and the preservation of these books is essential for apprising future generations of this perennial philosophy. Benhabib is mostly concerned with multicultural issues within a democracy; however, she understands the value of cultural contributions in religion, theology, and philosophy.

The second part of this paper discusses the central claims of Philosophy in the Flesh (1999) and Claims of Culture (2002). This section examines the major themes in each book without any further discussion of the dissertation topic. Although both books speak of religious themes, the two approaches are radically different. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) are concerned with supporting cognitive theory and processes within the brain, while Benhabib is focusing on the future of multiculturalism and maintaining cultural identities with democratic nations.                     

Philosophy in the Flesh

Philosophy in the Flesh (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999) focuses on what it means to be a human being. The authors offer new ways of thinking about moral values that have been the cornerstone of Western philosophy for centuries. They make the point that introspection is an essential aspect of interpreting objective reality, and people tend to view the world through conceptual metaphors. Additionally, the authors are working in the field of cognitive science, which moves beyond literal interpretations and into a science of the mind. The concepts of time, causation, morality, and the self are re-examined, and a new philosophical theory challenges the tenets of well-known philosophers such as Kant, Descartes, Chomsky, and others.        

Philosophy in the Flesh (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999) begins with the following set of philosophical concepts,

The mind is inherently embodied.

Thought is mostly unconscious.

Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.

These are the three major findings of cognitive science. (1999, p. 3)

The authors assert that cognitive science, or the empirical study of the mind, is creating a new philosophy that is congruent with new discoveries about how the mind works. Additionally, their theories purport to eliminate the notion of a soul that exists separately from the body. Instead, they are claiming that a reshaped mind-body relationship has become necessary in the modern world. The authors are very specific about their beliefs on the consciousness-mind-body relationship. They are steadfast in their assumptions that consciousness cannot exist separately from the body:

Your body is not, and could not be, a mere vessel for a disembodied mind. The concept of a mind separate from the body is a metaphorical concept. It can be a consequence, as it was for Descartes, of the Knowing is Seeing metaphor, which in turn arises from the embodied experience since birth of gaining knowledge through vision. The concept of a disembodied mind is also a natural concomitant of the metaphorical distinction between Subject and Self. (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, pp. 561-562)  

The authors continue with this line of reasoning by suggesting that the concept of a disembodied mind originates from the individual's embodied experiences. Therefore, the embodiment of the individual's experiences can create the illusion of a separate self with an independent existence. The authors build on these assumptions and contend that the individual has a "metaphor system" which allows the mind to create the belief that it can exist separately from the body (1999, p. 563). Accordingly, cognitive science shows that a disembodied mind is not within the realm of possibility. Thus, the existence of an eternal soul, or the concept consciousness surviving death, does not fit into the realm of cognitive science.

Lakoff and Johnson suggest that the spiritual soul is shaped by the body and is part of the body (1999, p. 563). They contend that as long as the soul is dependent on the body for its continuing existence, the soul cannot be separate from the body. Consequently, the authors refute the notion that a soul that can have an out-of-body experience or a mystical experience. Furthermore, they explain that the mystical experience creates a universal metaphor, in which, a personality and a soul are independent of each other:

The universal embodied experiences that give rise to the metaphors of Subject and Self produce in our cognitive unconscious a concept of a Subject as an independent entity in no way dependent for its existence on the body. Because of those universal embodied experiences, this idea has arisen in many places spontaneously around the world. And yet, as commonplace and "natural" as this concept is, no such disembodied mind can exist. Whether you call it mind or Soul, anything that both thinks and is free floating is a myth. It cannot exist. Requiring the mind and Soul to be embodied is no small matter. It contradicts those parts of religious traditions around the world based on reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, as well as those who believed that the Soul can leave the body in sleep or in trance. (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 563)

In a continuation of this thesis, the authors suggest that the spiritual nature of the human being is a product of the mind and the brain (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 564). Accordingly, the spiritual aspect of the human experience is imaginary and reduced to a metaphor in cognitive science. Additionally, by applying the scientific method to spirituality, the concept of transcendence becomes a fiction. Without transcendence, the Jewish and Christian notions of resurrection (Daniel and Revelation) become obsolete, and the Hindu, Zen, Shinto, Taoist, and Tibetan Buddhist beliefs of samsara (many lifetimes) become impossibilities. To support their position, the authors use the terms "imaginative projection" and "empathetic projection" to replace the religious notion of transcendence (1999, pp. 565-566). They contend that imaginative projection is a cognitive ability to imitate others, and empathetic projection is the cognitive ability to "know our environment, understand how we are part of it, and how it is part of us" (1999, p. 566). Therefore, the mind within the brain has an imaginative ability to project itself onto outer circumstances and can project itself onto nature with which it has a natural empathy.

Lakoff and Johnson posit that there are scientific reasons as to why the soul is embodied, and transcendence is not possible. However, they do not state any of these scientific reasons in their book. Instead, they justify their claims by arguing that these concepts can only be metaphors, which emanate from "our cognitive unconscious" (1999, p. 563).  Interestingly, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) devote a chapter of Philosophy in the Flesh to various dialogues of Plato. They refer to Euthyphro and the Republic to support their claims on conceptual metaphor theory, however, it is interesting to note that Phaedo and Timeaus are conspicuously absent from the discussion. These two other dialogues by Plato employ the same type of logic as Eurthypro and the Republic, but they do not fit into the new paradigm of abstract thought automatically becoming a conceptual metaphor. Just as Euthyphro and the Republic work to support the authors' theories regarding "the theory of essences as metaphor", Phaedo and Timeaus are supporting the logical legitimacy of transcendence and the disembodiment of the soul. The following dialogue from Phaedo demonstrates this Platonic logic, which is arguing in favor of transcendence and the disembodiment of the soul: 

Socrates: Now you tell me in the same way about life and death. Do you not admit that death is the opposite of life?

Cebes: I do.

Socrates: And that they come from each other?

Cebes: Yes.

Socrates: Then what comes from the living?

Cebes: The dead.

Socrates: And what comes from the dead?

Cebes: I must admit that it is the living.

Socrates: So it is from the dead Cebes, that living things and people come?

Cebes: Evidently.

Socrates: Then our souls do exist in the next world?

Cebes: So it seems.

Socrates: So we agree upon this too - that the living have come from the dead no less than the dead from the living. But I think we decided that if this was so, it was sufficient proof that the souls of the dead must exist in some place from which they are reborn.

Plato does not appear to be speaking in conceptual metaphors as defined by Lakoff and Johnson. Plato is offering a logical explanation on the workings of the soul based on patterns of nature. In juxtaposition to Lakoff and Johnson's (1999) definition of conceptual metaphor, Plato is not presenting abstract thought in this dialogue, nor does it appear as though his logic is emanating from his unconscious mind. Additionally, Plato is arguing against Lakoff and Johnson's third criteria for conceptual metaphor theory, which is the notion that the mind is embodied. Therefore, much is at stake for Lakoff and Johnson if Plato's dialogue is presenting convincing evidence for contradicting the three main criteria that form the definition of conceptual metaphor theory. Furthermore, Plato is not referring to the brain, mind or any other physical part of the body as an essential part of life. From a humanistic standpoint, he is not relying on the dualistic notion that the body is the most important aspect of the human being. Thus, Plato's use of logic in Phaedo poses a challenge to the scientific reasoning of Lakoff and Johnson and their claims that transcendence and disembodiment of the soul are not possible.

In response to Lakoff and Johnson's claim that the mind is embodied, it is not difficult to find contrary opinions from other scholars. Finding support for this ubiquitous claim comes from well-respected sources supporting the notion of a disembodied mind and separation of consciousness from the body. Such scholars are claiming that there is empirical evidence to support their positions, but as with Lakoff and Johnson, there are no scientific studies ever mentioned to validate this proposed principle. As an example of this type of claim, there is an opinion offered on the validity of the disembodied mind by Dr. Neal Grossman (Carter, 2010), professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois for over forty years:

Materialism - the belief that consciousness is produced by or is the same thing as the physical brain - is one of those beliefs that have already been proved false by science. However, although science has in fact already established that consciousness can exist independent of the brain and that materialism is therefore empirically false, it will take another generation before these facts are recognized by mainstream academia. Old paradigms never go gently into the night; they go kicking and screaming. And the defenders of materialism today are indeed kicking and screaming ever more loudly, perhaps because of a total lack of evidential support for their respective ideology...Thus, it is only because the materialist is deeply ignorant of the empirical data that have decisively refuted his or her cherished beliefs that he or she is able to sustain belief in what is false. The situation for the materialist is logically the same as that of the creationist. Both materialist and creationist must ignore, debunk, and ridicule the scientific findings that have refuted their beliefs. (p. x)          

These comments by Grossman sound most authoritative; however, he offers the no specific empirical evidence for supporting a disembodied mind. Similarly, Lakoff and Johnson do not offer specifics either. Therefore, both sides of the discourse offer no empirical or scientific proof to support their arguments. In summary, Lakoff and Johnson (1999) are arguing against the validity of separation of consciousness from the body. In doing so, they are rejecting the spiritual teachings of Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other mystical teachings connected to world religions. By doing so, they are drawing a line of demarcation between cognitive science and universal spiritual beliefs. Although the authors admit that there is a universal recognition of these beliefs throughout the word, they contend that such beliefs are a universal illusion, which are converted to conceptual metaphors within the brain.

Per this discussion, another viewpoint enters the discussion on universalism and multiculturalism. The author is Seyla Benhabib (2002) and her book is Claims of Culture.

Claims of Culture

Benhabib takes a cultural position of universalism in politics, the nature of democracy, feminism, and multiculturalism. While she is not an advocate of the homogenization of cultures, she acknowledges that cultures are no longer unitary wholes confined by national borders. She believes that cultures find meaning in their fluidity of change by constantly defining and redefining themselves. Although she is primarily concerned with cultural politics, ethics and the nature of democracy, she also comments on multicultural spiritual beliefs and the dialogues of Plato:

Consider an episode in the rise of the Renaissance culture: After the division of the Roman Empire in A.D. 395 and the fall of its western part in A.D. 476, Greek philosophy, in particular the thought of Plato and Aristotle was forgotten in the West. It is well known that Arab and Jewish philosophers in the Middle Ages, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Moshe ber Maimon (Momonides), and Ibn Gabriol (Avicebron) kept the classic tradition alive. In the thirteenth century in Anatolia the poet Yunas Emre developed a form of Neoplatonism that anticipated not only elements of Renaissance humanism but also pantheistic philosophies of the nineteenth century. Emre advocated the view that the human person is at the center of the divine chain of being, of ascending complexity, beauty, and perfection; we reach the height of our spiritual capacities insofar as we partake through our minds of the divine order of these forms. Emre, one of the freat mystical poets of Islam, blended Plato's teaching of the forms with Aristotelian ontology. Galileo's claim, several centuries later that "the book of nature was written in mathematics" has much in common with Yunus Emre's belief that the universe is an intelligible, ordered hierarchy of forms. (Benhabib, 1999, pp. 24-25)

Benhabib is describing the preservation and continuation of mystical knowledge in Kabbalah, Sufism, and Plato's dialogues at a time in history when the Church was banning such teachings. She speaks about several Jewish and Islamic writers including Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Moshe ben Maimon (Momonides), and Ibn Gabriol (Avicebron), who lived between 900 CE and 1100 CE and had access to newly translated versions of Plato's dialogues (from Greek to Hebrew and Aramaic). Therefore, some of these writers may have been influenced by Plato's ideas, which are mentioned in their books on Jewish Kabbalah and Islamic Sufism.  She mentions Emre, a Sufi mystic, who expands on the Platonic metaphysical notion (in Timeaus) of a spiritual hierarchy.

Benhabib posits that interconnections among cultures support her thesis that beneath the pluralistic multicultural layers of world civilizations there are common human understandings. These understandings include shared spiritual ideas that have existed since time immemorial. In Claims of Culture (2002), she refers to a universal belief that the self is not separate from "the other." This concept has various interpretations on the literal, metaphorical, allegorical, and mystical levels. In terms of mysticism, when the self and "the other" become as one, there is a connotation of a spiritual oneness that exists between human beings and the Godhead. To support this notion, Benhabib refers to "the divine order", "the divine chain of being", and the human being, who is at the center of it all (2002, p. 25).

In Claims of Culture (2002), Benhabib concludes that all cultures have unique identities; however, commonalities among cultures are increasing as the global community comes closer together. Although she is primarily a political and feminist theorist, her theories apply to multicultural spiritual understandings, which include widely held religious beliefs such as transcendence and the disembodiment of the soul.

Discussion of Authors' Theories in Philosophy in the Flesh

Conceptual metaphor theory as conceived by Lakoff and Johnson (1999) suggests that abstract ideas are expressed through metaphor. They claim that human beings exist solely in the physical realm. Therefore, the patterns of human experience in the physical world provide the source data for abstract thinking. According to Slingerland (2004),

Conceptual metaphor, it is claimed, serves as one of our primary tools for reasoning about ourselves and the world - especially about relatively abstract or unstructured domains. While abstract concepts such as "time" or "death" may have a skeleton structure that is directly (i.e. non-metaphorically) represented conceptually, in most cases this structure is not rich or detailed enough to allow us to make useful references. Therefore, when we conceptualize and reason about abstract or relatively unstructured realms, this skeletal structure is fleshed out (usually automatically and unconsciously) with additional structure provided by the primary metaphors derived from basic bodily experience, often invoked in combination with other primary schemas to form complex metaphors or conceptual blends. (2004, p. 11)

Conceptual metaphor theory has received high praise and much criticism. In terms of praise, it appears that Lakoff and Johnson are credited with pulling abstract ideas together into a linguistic semblance of order that allows for meaningful communication. However, there are criticisms regarding their overgeneralizations, speculations, and denouncements of Western philosophy (Sowa, 1999). Additionally, the authors have received criticism for their attempt to link Plato and Aristotle to "conceptual metaphor theory":

For the classical philosophers, the authors use their terminology of metaphors and folk theories to make a rather conventional commentary seem novel. Plato, they claim, "had the metaphor Essences As Ideas, Aristotle has the converse metaphor, Ideas Are Essences." No philosopher who hopes to be "empirically responsible" should make such statements without much deeper analysis of how those metaphors relate to the words that Plato and Aristotle actually used. In their discussion of Aristotle's theory of causation, they fail to distinguish Aristotle's notion of aition and the Latin translation causa from the modern English word cause, which has undergone profound shifts of meaning in Newton's mechanics, Hume's philosophy, and more recent theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. They also apply the same term formal logic to Aristotle's syllogisms and to all the modern logicians despite the widely divergent opinions that the modern logicians have expressed about Aristotle and about each other. (Sowa, 1999)

In summary, Lakoff and Johnson are challenging the major tenets of Western philosophy and the leading voices of Eastern and Western religion, world mysticism, theologians, and world-renowned religious scholars.

Discussion of Author's Theories in Claims of Culture

In Claims of Culture (2002), Benhabib points out that world cultures are no longer contained within quantifiable boundaries. She analyzes the European Union and notes the transformation is occurring as cultural identities are merging and blending into a larger multicultural whole. Consequently, cultures have adopted a new flexibility in citizenship, travel, medical care, legal procedures, and many other pluralistic societal attributes, which are assimilating into the larger democratic framework (2002, p. 182).

Benhabib finds that democratic government and the philosophy of John Locke encourages inclusiveness and an accommodating attitude toward multiculturalism (2002, pp.42-43). However, she believes that cultural distinctiveness is vital for maintaining cultural identities within a democracy. Benhabib is a strong proponent of pluralism and believes in preserving the historical experiences and contributions of each culture.

Benhabib is also a strong proponent of cosmopolitanism (2002, p. 183). She believes in a world without borders and an open dialogue between people of diverse backgrounds. Benhabib offers a unique cultural philosophy by being able to appreciate both similarities and differences in world cultures. However, this type of open-mindedness and futuristic thinking invites criticism:

My quarrel with Seyla Benhabib's The Claims of Culture concerns, first of all, the normative implications which she draws from the phenomenon of cultural hybridity (1). Second, it concerns the limitations of her proposed claims of cultural dialogue in and through which the political claims of culture are supposed to be thematized and adjudicated (2). And third, it concerns the unaccommodating scope of her modernism (3). (1) Benhabib very confidently asserts that she has "put forth a philosophically adequate and social-scientifically defensible concept of culture". However, she seems not to have given sufficient weight to the fact that the concept of culture is itself highly contestable, as are the theoretical languages in which it has formulated. There can be considerable disagreement framed by very different assumptions over what counts as culture, and to what it can be applied. (Kompridas, 2006, p. 389)   

In summary, Benhabib has a broad understanding of the complex issues regarding cultural diversity. She offers an optimistic worldview that focuses on ethical universalism and has a pragmatic philosophy regarding the trend toward globalization. Her deep understanding of culture, narratives, and cultural identities are creating a personal vision of global interconnectedness.  Although there are critics who are skeptical of her ideals on democratic citizenship in a global civilization, Benhabib is following the trends of expanding multicultural movements that are transforming the world.


Philosophy in the Flesh (1999) and Claims of Culture (2002) were chosen for this assignment because the former book investigates the meaning of the interior world of a human being, while the later book is focusing on a future vision of humanity in the external world. Interestingly, both books include references to Plato, and there was an opportunity in this paper to incorporate a possible dissertation topic into the discourse.

In my view, Lakoff and Johnson are taking a dogmatic attitude toward the materialist notion that the physical body is the center of a human being's existence. Their arguments against the eternal nature of the soul do not appear to be "scientific" as they claim. Additionally, they are steadfast in their belief that a human being is only physical, without giving sufficient weight to the beliefs of billions of people who believe otherwise. They are not only challenging thousands of years of theology, but they are also challenging the most brilliant minds of Western philosophy. Additionally, they are brash in their commentary and have an abrasive style of writing. They offer little evidence for their theories, other than the unrelenting mantra that their groundbreaking work is radically changing the tenets of traditional Western philosophy.

I feel that Philosophy in the Flesh (1999) is a massive work of unexamined assumptions, in which the authors are attempting to bring down the notion that the mind can exist separately from the body. This is quite an ambitious supposition, and especially without an offering straightforward critique of critically acclaimed authors who have written numerous books on this subject. I would suggest to Lakoff and Johnson that they read several texts that are alignment with Plato's logic in Phaedo. Here are just a few: Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (Campbell, 1979/2001), The Perennial Philosophy (Huxley, 1945/1970), The Varieties of Religious Experience (James, 1902/2008), Jung on Death and Immortality (Jung, 1958/1999), and Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions (Smith, 1992). The problem for Lakoff and Johnson is that they are attempting to dismiss the life's work of these authors and many others with an unproven theoretical proposition. Furthermore, the information provided by the above-mentioned authors makes a strong case for refuting Lakoff and Johnson's conceptual metaphor theory. Lakoff and Johnson have put themselves in a vulnerable position. If a scholarly debate were to take place on the disembodiment of the soul versus the notion of conceptual metaphor theory; a great deal would be at stake for these two authors. This includes the possibility that human beings may not possess an embodied mind, which would reduce conceptual metaphor to an illogical abstraction. Therefore, it might be possible that language is reflecting the essence of human thoughts, which may be logical, descriptive, direct, and have an exact meaning as stated.   

Claims of Culture (2002) looks to the exterior world in the hope of finding a balanced path that leads to an integrated world of acceptance and diversity. Benhabib's reference to Plato's dialogues is symbolic of her attitude of inclusiveness and universalism. In this book, she continually emphasizes the importance of including the contributions of many cultures to make "the whole" that much greater. She wants to give credit to those cultures that are having a major impact on unifying humanity, but at the same time she wants each culture to be proud if its heritage and historical identity. Thus, Benhabib is presenting a philosophy of universalism that she envisions as a blueprint for the building of next chapter in world history.


Benhabib, S. (2002). The claims of culture: Equality and diversity in the global era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Campbell, J. (2001). Thou art that: Transforming religious metaphor. Novato, CA: New World Library.   

Carter, C. (2010). Science and the near-death experience. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Huxley, A. (1945/1970). The perennial philosophy. New York: Harper Colophon.

James, W. (2008). The varieties of the religious experience: A study in human nature. New York: Megalodon Entertainment, LLC.

Jung, C. G. (1999). Jung on death and immortality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Kompridas, N. (2006). The unsettled and unsettling claims of culture. Political Theory, 34(3), 389-396. doi: 10:1177/0090591706286986    

Lakoff, G., Johnson, J. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. NY: Basic Books.

Sligerland, E. (2004). Conceptual metaphor theory as methodology for comparative religion. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 72(1), 1-31. doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lfh002

Smith, H. (1992). Forgotten truth: The common vision of the world's religions. New York: HarperOne. 

Sowa, J.F. (1999, December). Review of Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. [Review of the book Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought]. Computational Linguistics, 25(4). Retrieved from http://www.jfsowa.com/pubs/lakoff.htm