Hyacinths & biscuits

Synthesis results in innovation, imagination, surprise.

Carl Sandburg, in Good Morning, America (1928): among 37 other “definitions” of poetry, Sandburg wrote that poetry is “the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”

Well, maybe not. Then again, my recent reading has resulted in synthesis in my own gray matter, and it is not difficult to see where the reflection leads.

Lakoff & Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh; Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which describes how 16th-century book hunter Poggio Bracciolini rediscovered Lucretius’ poem On the Nature of Things and what resulted to change Western thought; a re-reading of said poem (available in prose or verse translations); some verses by Li Po; and Mary Oliver’s 2009 collection Evidence.

Add to this thought processing a beautiful spring day spent out of doors, gardening and visiting with friends.

What results? I don’t know, really. But it feels a bit like joy in the moment.

hyacinth burpee

Image thanks to Burpee gardens

Problems of moral order

“Authority in the moral sphere is modeled on dominance in the physical sphere. The moral authority of the parent over the child is metaphorically modeled on the physical dominance of the parent over the young child…it is a metaphorical model in which the logic of moral authority makes use of the logic of physical dominance.”   –from Philosophy in the Flesh, George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (p. 301, my italics)

Here is a problem: “folk philosophy” assumes that the moral order is the natural order, a logic much used in the dogma of many Western religions; but Lakoff and Johnson point out how such suppositions lead to “a hierarchy of moral superiority and authority.” Because we are corporeal, physical phenomena in a physical world and our initial human relationships get established through the parent-child model, human beings have a hard time escaping the physical dependence-physical dominance-physical responsibility metaphors, which we incorporate into our languages and philosophies.

There is no reason to refute or escape such metaphors, fundamentally embodied as they are, as long as we are aware of them. For people who accept physical dominance as the natural order without recognizing it as evolutionary and metaphorical, however, the logic that [this metaphor]=Natural Law=Moral Order can be harmful.

And not just to them but to their families, their neighbors, and their societies.

Lakoff & Johnson write, “The consequences of the metaphor of Moral Order are sweeping, momentous, and, we believe, morally repugnant…the Moral Order metaphor gives us a better understanding of what fascism is: Fascism legitimatizes such a moral order and seeks to enforce it through the power of the state” (p. 304).

The authors later note that “the view of moral concepts as metaphoric profoundly calls into question the idea of ‘pure’ moral reason” (p. 330). In other words, pretty much all of Western philosophy since Aristotle. Which makes me contemplate whether that question also suggests there is no “pure” abstract consciousness–whether there is any me (I do not mean Ego here) without the body I inhabit.


Then again,  Dürr’s speculation that memories exist as data–a kind of cloud network, as an analogy–and somehow persist, merits some consideration. I find Lakoff persuasive, however. I know he has since added to, altered, and labored on the concepts laid out in this 1999 book.

The foundations and evolutionary development of our families, tribes, and languages create our philosophies; this much seems as certain to me as anything–and thus arrive in our collective consciousness as metaphors, stories, poems.


Metaphor & mind

In a recent New Yorker article about the trial of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, Jelani Cobb reports that during the lead prosecutor’s presentation

Roof’s mother sank down on the bench as he delivered his opening statement, which contained details of the crime that had previously been withheld from the press. At a certain point, she slumped over. It seemed for a moment that she had fainted, but she was taken to a hospital, and it was later learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She survived, but did not return for the remainder of the trial.

In her situation, I might have had the same response. How metaphorical: the heart revolts from within–an embodied reaction. When I read about this incident, I thought of cognitive scientist/philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who have been pioneering the concept that the mind and body evolved together and cannot be separated through the literal, analytical, categorical approaches of classic Western thought.

Languages the world over use body-based metaphors and gestures that reinforce how our  minds are integrated with and connected to our human bodies–we intuit from the gut; a situation makes our skin crawl; we place hands over hearts to demonstrate love, loyalty, compassion. Medical science confirms what people have long understood, in a “folk physiology” way, for years: emotional and intellectual stress has physical expressions and repercussions.

Lakoff and Johnson have been investigating such universal human phenomena since the 1970s. Their work has implications for a wide range of endeavors from artificial intelligence to brain trauma. In 1999, when Philosophy in the Flesh was published, they said Western philosophy needs to retool its thinking from the ground up, the ground being the body itself.

Reason, they assert, is as embodied as emotion; and their argument that intellectual functioning arises metaphorically through the physiological experiences of the (human) body is persuasive and extensively documented through research, particularly neurological research. Exactly where what we term “consciousness” arises may never be determined, but phenomenology, Taoism, and empirical science converge with what we are learning about synapses, cells, hormones, and the neural network to suggest there may be an answer as to how consciousness emerges; and that answer is likely to be biological.



The brain, the heart, the entire bodily system under emotional, mental, psychological duress, the conflicting moods of love, grief, anger, fear, and a chasm of misunderstanding; the terrible awe of disbelief–an embodied self might well collapse, physically, literally, under the metaphorical strain.



Knowing the mind

I am reading an unusual pairing of books…Joseph Fins’ Rights Come to Mind and George Lakoff & Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. One is about traumatic brain (and to some extent, spinal) injury and the differences between minimally conscious states and persistent vegetative states, and what we know–or mostly, don’t know–about the brain and its ability to recover or reorganize (see also Will Storr’s article from 2015 about some recent medical discoveries in neurology).

The other book is an inquiry into how Western philosophy may be seriously challenged by scientific, empirical findings about the embodiment of the conscious self. Then, after suggesting that neural pathways help us to create abstract reason–largely through metaphor–he asks whether we can adequately understand the world through science alone!

Fins’ book is not elegantly written, from a literary standpoint; but he raises hugely important questions about consciousness, healthcare decision-making, medical institutions’ and physicians’ difficulties dealing with how to measure consciousness and brain activity–to determine who may be “locked-in” or who is minimally conscious, or which patients will never recover any conscious neural activity again. Fins details the agony of family members making impossible decisions in a medical system that often views brain-trauma victims as medical failures when the patient does not recover quickly enough; he asks us: by what measure is quickly-enough? (Usually, as determined by a health care insurer…alas, my family has been snarling with too-general insurance categories lately, so I am sympathetic to Fins’ perspective).

These are tough areas to investigate, and his argument is that physicians and researchers have not spent enough time investigating them. He also asserts that this would not be a waste of money on irreparably-injured patients, because we can learn much about the brain’s capacity to heal through observation, therapy, and scans of such people. He takes pains to be certain his readers recognize how much remains unknown about the brain and human consciousness. (Here, I refer my own readers to Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop).

In the Storr article cited above, Greg Downey, co-author of the blog Neuroanthropology, cautions: “People are so excited about neuroplasticity they talk themselves into believing anything.” And it is true, there’s a chance of false hope and huge disappointment here. But the brain does exhibit an astonishing ability to rewire itself–in the body.

Which brings me to Lakoff & Johnson’s text. Lakoff calls himself a cognitive scientist, not a philosopher. He says, “In 1978, I discovered that metaphor was not a minor kind of trope used in poetry, but rather a fundamental mechanism of mind.” He and his colleagues have gone on to provide a body of evidence to support this claim that they’ve been working on since the late 90s.


neural matrix fiber topography, Johns Hopkins University


As a poet interested in neurology and in philosophy, these claims interest me. As a person whose elderly best-beloveds are now beginning to show evidence of significant cognitive lacunae…or “decline”…I am interested in losses of neural plasticity, or perhaps a misfiring in the processes of rewiring. The evidence of such losses are, indeed, embodied. Gaps in the ability to recognize metaphor or analogy appear. On a recent visit, the nonagenarian said, “I can no longer seem to say any of the things I want to say, that I hear in my head, but can’t…can’t seem to…make. Make into the world. Do you know what I’m saying?”


A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

~ Emily Dickinson




Living metaphor

“There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hand.”

~ Thoreau

ann e. michael photo

Socked in by far too many snowstorms,* I’m running out of reading material (haven’t been able to get to the library!). I did get a gift book from a friend and a book in the mail recently, however; blessed relief! As often happens when reading quite different books at the same time, I notice ways they overlap or complement one another.

The gift from a friend is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are, a poetic companion to his 1990 book on mindfulness as healing, Full Catastrophe Living. Kabat-Zinn uses Thoreau’s “bloom of the present moment” as a section head and metaphor for mindfulness practice, and it serves exceedingly well in that capacity. This is not a text to read in one sitting or to move through rapidly–or even chronologically. It offers space for the mind, space for reflection and, indeed, for the kind of ’emptiness’ that waits patiently, observing the present moment. Not the ghastly, desperate emptiness of numbness or depression, but the Zen vessel of the now.

Vessel. Space. Bloom. Each of these metaphorical, analogous, a way of indicating connections between or likenesses to or relationships with. The richness of language and the incredible stickiness of its concepts form the basis of Lakoff and Johnson’s seminal 1980 examination of how human beings use language–specifically metaphor–in the book Metaphors We Live By. A significant section of the first 4 chapters appears here, if you want a taste of how the authors set out their investigation; but I recommend the entire book, the 2003 edition of which contains an insightful afterward by the authors that incorporates some material on neurology and other things not available to them in the 1970s.


* From the Express-Times of Easton: “The Lehigh Valley has gotten 66.7 inches of snow so far this season. Meteorologists agree this storm might not push the snowfall totals to break the seasonal record of 75.2 inches from 1993-94, but there’s still a chance to top the total this winter in the first couple weeks of March, they said.”