Philosophy in the Flesh

“There are two major contemporary philosophical traditions,” my professor told the class on our first day of a survey of contemporary philosophy course, the third such survey course required for the degree. “You have analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. If you were studying in Europe, you’d be studying continental philosophy at this point. But in the US and England, we follow the analytic track instead.”

Not an exact quote, but the gist of it. That class was a slog, not through any fault of the professor’s but because the material was deeply frustrating and not the kind of thing any starry-eyed teenager is excited about when declaring their major. Boo on analytic philosophy, in other words. What a surprise, then, that Lakoff and Johnson have a whole chapter in Philosophy in the Flesh dedicated to dunking on on it!

I was originally interested in the book for entirely different reasons, however. Somehow or other I’d been pointed in the direction of Lakoff and Johnson’s earlier book, Metaphors We Live By, and I loved it and wanted a deeper dive into the topic. Philosophy in the Flesh is just that: a comprehensive look at the mechanics of brain studies carried out to investigate their points, a summary of the larger organizing metaphors in English, “primary metaphors” to use their terminology, and an examination of some of Western Philosophy’s Greatest Hits through the lens of these metaphors. All of this is in support of their thesis that the human mind (and other minds as well) arise from being embodied, and that sensory input from existing and moving in the world fundamentally shapes our thinking, even for the most abstract discussions. They claim that the idea that we can use a purely disembodied reason completely abstracted away from physical experience and the body, à la Cartesian dualism, is at odds with the evidence we now have about how the brain works. A section-by-section summary is available through the archives of the NYT. The claim seems pretty well argued to me, though I am a mere layperson unqualified to fight in the Linguistics Wars. I only have two disappointments/criticisms, and they pertain more to the presentation rather than to the actual content.

The first is that I felt like the level of universality they were ascribing to their primary metaphors was unclear. While Lakoff and Johnson emphasized that the metaphors they were proposing were not all necessarily universal across languages or cultures, they didn’t provide enough details about exceptions or variations from these primary metaphors to really drive the point home. More comparison between two distinct, relatively unrelated languages/cultures would have been helpful, for example English and Navajo.

The other was the near-complete lack of attention given to AI. Lakoff and Johnson aren’t the first to tackle the mind-body problem—it’s a tale as old as time and all that—but the cognitive science they bring to bear, thanks to new studies we can carry out regarding human cognition, is above and beyond the usual hot takes on Cogito ergo sum and sets the ground for some potentially formidable criticism of strong AI. (Related reading: Nicholas Humphrey’s A History of the Mind.) But Philosophy in the Flesh came out in 1999 and in a very different technological context. The concerns we had about AI were pretty well summed up in The Matrix; we had no DALL-E, no ChatGPT, no LaMDA, and we were still over a decade away from automatically generated sports journalism. The discussion of embodied minds seems more relevant than ever now, so reading this book in 2023 is a bit frustrating in that regard. The points that Lakoff and Johnson raise have a lot of juicy implications for people working with AI, and for anyone in jobs that might be affected by the introduction of AI, but those implications aren’t discussed because the text is simply too old.

But just because AI looked different in 1999 doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and the topic still feels underexamined and overlooked. Funnily enough, Lakoff and Johnson take the time to dissect John Searle’s famous Chinese Room argument against the possibility of AI, but only to point out the network of primary metaphors underlying Searle’s thinking—they leave the actual topic of AI well enough alone. We can hope that an updated edition will come out and give the discussion the space it deserves, I guess, but that seems unlikely. Philosophy in the Flesh hasn’t been updated since its original publication, perhaps because these days Lakoff appears to be more focused on politics and policy than academia. (For comparison, 1996’s Moral Politics has been updated twice; a third edition that came out as recently as 2016.)

But those are small nitpicks for an otherwise fantastic book. I’ll probably eventually splurge and buy a copy of for myself. Not only would it be handy to have their list of primary metaphors at hand to occasionally ponder and review, but there’s no way you can take in everything a 600-page book is saying in just one reading.

Picknick vid vägkanten

It’s always interesting to me to read books that had to undergo significant censorship for their initial publication. Sometimes the ideological clash between author and state is pretty clear, but other times it’s a head-scratcher. Picknick vid vägkanten is one of the latter. It’s difficult for me to find what Soviet censors would have objected to, as opposed to books like We or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. All the implied black market and organized crime, maybe? Regardless, a censored version was published in the Soviet Union, and Tartovsky worked with the Strugatsky brothers to turn the idea into the 1979 movie Stalker. (The entire movie, with English subtitles, is available for free on YouTube from Mosfilm.)

A strange alien visitation in the near future (officially the book takes place at some unspecified year in the twentieth century) has resulted in six Zones around the world, all filled with baffling scientific marvels and unpredictable hazards. Picknick follows Red, one of the people who now make a living by navigating the life-threatening terrain to bring back items, a group of people who have come to be called “stalkers.” It’s implied that Red’s regular exposure to the Zone is the reason for the strange mutation in his daughter, who is born mostly normal but covered with long fur and black eyes. She starts out life with the same mental capacity and personality as any child, but eventually becomes withdrawn and non-verbal. Hoping to cure his daughter, Red makes one last incursion into the Zone to reach the Golden Sphere, which is rumored to grant wishes.

Picknick is another classic that feels a bit pointless to review, established as it is within the science fiction canon. I appreciate its weirdness and its refusal to provide any kind of explanation for the Zones or the items, or to descend into a pew-pew space lasers alien invasion story. Instead it’s just people dealing with the fallout (pun intended) of a brief and inexplicable encounter with an alien Other. Science fiction really does get an unfair reputation because everyone’s seen Star Wars and no one’s read books like Roadside Picnic. Next thing you know, we have Ian McEwan convincing himself he’s invented an entirely new genre.


The Swedish translation is worth noting, since it took a lot more research than one would expect to dig up the details of its history. Ola Wallin—who was also responsible for translating and publishing Trötthetssamhället—put out a new translation of Picknick in 2020.  That’s the one I read and it’s a fine translation. I think. My Russian is far too gone to attempt a meaningful comparison.

But! Before Ersatz and Olla Wallin, there was a Swedish translation from Delta by Kjell Rehnström, which Wikipedia purports (by way of Neil Cornwell’s Reference Guide to Russian Literature) won the “Jules Verne prize for best novel of the year published in Swedish.” Confirming that last part is proving trickier than one might expect, and will involve a trip to the library over the weekend to check an actual physical reference book. Stockholm Library also appears to have a copy (in addition to Wallin’s), which I might read for comparison’s sake if the mood strikes me.

Olla Wallin is alive and well, so finding out more about his biography isn’t particularly difficult. Kjell Rehnström is, well, alive at least, but if Ratsit is to be believed he’s also 85 years old. Unsurprising that he doesn’t have much of an online presence, then, though it seems he also translates from Polish, including Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz.


On a whim I decided to join a bokcirkel at the local library, and the organizer cheerfully informed me that the next book would be Tara Westover’s Educated.

Much like the neighborhood book club, I’d signed up in hopes of reading Swedish books, rather than Swedish translations of American bestsellers, but here we are! Not to mention that Educated was one of those phenomenon books where, thanks to everyone talking about it, I felt like I had read it by osmosis. Having now actually read it, I can indeed confirm that the experience of hearing everyone talk about it is enough to really get the gist of the book. Westover has an incredibly isolated and traumatic childhood, decides against all odds to go to college, comes to terms with her childhood trauma and by the end has become a history scholar. No surprises there.

My hypothesis is that part of the reason Educated made such a huge splash was that by 2018, Mainstream Liberal America had realized that Hillbilly Elegy was Bad, Actually and saw in Educated an attempt to make amends for hyping up Elegy. Obviously I can’t exactly prove this, and J. D. Vance didn’t complete his face heel turn until 2022, so who’s to say. (Go give the If Books Could Kill podcast episode a listen for more on Hillbilly Elegy.)

This is not to throw shade on Educated. Westover overcame tremendous obstacles to be where she is today and for that she deserves accolades. And unlike Vance, she’s not trying to make a larger political point or diagnose the ills of large swathes of the American population. If you grow up Mormon, you’ll end up talking about other Mormons in your memoirs, but Educated never feels like an explainer on Mormonism, or like a critique or an apology. The book itself is…fine? I think it was probably an essential part of Westover’s recovery process to write the whole story out and to present it to a public after spending several years being gaslit by her family about her own memories.

What makes me uneasy about Educated is where it lands in the book market and the reasons the reading public has for latching on to it. It’s not quite circus sideshow gawking, but it’s not quite not circus sideshow gawking, either. However, the fact that I read this in order to discuss it with a group of Swedes (and that I’m already anticipating being asked to give an impromptu “US History and Culture” lecture) might be coloring my reaction here. There’s also a part of it that feeds into the collective American obsession with rags-to-riches “bootstraps” stories, where a particular kind of reader might point to Educated as proof that America really is a meritocracy and that if you’re not succeeding you’re just not working hard enough.

Again, I don’t think Westover is deliberately writing to pander to either of those instincts. How the public responds to a book and where one particular life story falls in the general ideological fabric of a culture is kind of beyond the scope of an author’s consideration. There’s something to said about a publisher saying “yes” to this particular life trajectory but “no” to others.

Also, unrelated to anything, but a huge content warning for pretty frank descriptions of gruesome accidents of all kinds: serious burns, head injuries, gashes, you name it. I’m squeamish so those were sections I just skimmed through. A significant portion of the book also focuses on the abusive behavior of one of Tara’s older brothers, again with pretty frank descriptions of bullying and violence.