Schrempp: Copernican kinship

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Copernican kinship:

an origin myth for the category*

Gregory Schrempp, Indiana University

In many traditional mythologies, kinship constitutes the privileged idiom of both unity and diversity in the cosmos. In “post-mythological” thought, categories logically conceived attempt to take over the cosmic role of kinship. I compare two accounts of the nature and genesis of categories—those by Durkheim and Mauss on one hand, and by Lakoff and Johnson on the other. Neither account severs ties with mythology or kinship; moreover, the structure of the category, like kinship, offers a mode of projecting the human as the cosmic. To the long-standing anthropological concern with the ways in which humans impose their diverse categories on the world, we should add a concern with the ways category-theorists impose their diverse worlds on the category.

Keywords: kinship, category, myth, philosophy, science, Maori, Copernican Revolution

That quick dismissal of the idea of a universe without life was not so easy after Copernicus. He dethroned man from a central place in the scheme of things. His model of the motions of the planets and the Earth taught us to look at the world as machine. Out of that beginning has grown a science which at first sight seems to have no special platform for man, mind, or meaning. Man? Pure biochemistry! Mind? Memory modelable by electronic circuitry! Meaning? Why ask after that puzzling and intangible commodity? “Sire,” some today might rephrase Laplace’s famous reply to Napoleon, “I have no need of that concept.”

John Wheeler, Foreword to Barrow and Tipler, The anthropic cosmological principle, 1988

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] the Thrice Greatest labels it a visible god, and Sophocles’ Electra, the all-seeing. Thus indeed, as though seated on a royal throne, the sun governs the family of planets revolving around it. Moreover, the earth is not deprived of the moon’s attendance. On the contrary, as Aristotle says in a work on animals, the moon has the closest kinship with the earth. Meanwhile the earth has intercourse with the sun, and is impregnated for its yearly parturition.

In this arrangement, therefore, we discover a marvelous symmetry of the universe, and an established harmonious linkage between the motion of the spheres and their size, such as can be found in no other way.

Copernicus, On the revolutions, 1543

Within the history of mythic visions allegedly shattered by science, the Copernican revolution holds a special, epitomizing place. And so to catch Copernicus purveying solar myths is a mythologist’s delight—a double delight in fact because there are, first of all, the wonderful solar myths that Copernicus rounds up for his reader; then, on top of these, the interesting friction that these create for our myth of Copernicus. Why, wasn’t Copernicus the one who first led us to the vantage from which, for the first time, we could see the universe as it really is, and not as our petty, self-absorbed humanity would have it? But, the sun a king? Planets as his children? The earth impregnated by the sun for her yearly parturition? This is the sort of thing that we expect from pre-Copernicans. As Thomas Kuhn has described the pre-Copernican world:

Though primitive conceptions of the universe display considerable substantive variation, all are shaped primarily by terrestrial events, the events that impinge most immediately upon the designers of the systems. In such cosmologies the heavens are merely sketched in to provide an enclosure for the earth, and they are peopled with and moved by mythical figures (1985: 5).

It is possible of course to shrug all this off with the observation that it is certainly “nothing more than” metaphor, perhaps created by Copernicus as a mere sop for the mythically minded who would sit in judgment of his theory—though we must also ask whether this resolution does not sound a bit too contemporary and tidy.1 Even if we wished to hold out for a clear dichotomy, there is still much to examine in the very fact that certain metaphors are so broadly compelling. It would seem that the very reason that the kinship image of the universe occurring in Copernicus, the hero of science, has not triggered expressions of amazement is that no one perceives a problem with the image; even for the scientifically minded, it is obvious, natural, and little in need of analysis. Indeed, this highly mythologized vignette—depicting the sun as a lamp in a temple and a ruler surrounded by a family of planets—may well be Copernicus’s most quoted passage.

Copernicus’s solar myths suggest many things, including, minimally, that it is always possible to soften a scientific blow by—metaphorically if you will—reinvesting the world with an anthropocentric vision. His familial images—kinship, kingship, parturition, and so on—have a long history and call to mind numerous cross-cultural analogues, for in many mythologies the sun is a parent or ruler, other celestial bodies are kindred, and rituals of mating and reproduction engender the large- as well as the small-scale rhythms of the cosmos. If indeed myth is the nemesis of science, the situation is especially ironic because the myths that Copernicus cites are precisely the kind that nineteenth-century “solar mythologists” attributed to the human mind in its very infancy. The solar mythologists, a dominant voice in the study of mythology in the second half of the nineteenth century, insisted that all myths were ultimately inspired by celestial phenomena.3 In speaking of the first thoughts and words of archaic humanity, for example, the German-born patriarch of this school, Friedrich Max Müller, wrote:

Every word, whether noun or verb, had still its full original power during the mythopoeic ages. Words were heavy and unwieldy. They said more than they ought to say, and hence, much of the strangeness of the mythological language, which we can only understand by watching the natural growth of speech. Where we speak of the sun following the dawn, the ancient poets could only speak and think of the sun loving and embracing the Dawn. What is with us a sunset, was to them the Sun growing old, decaying, or dying. Our sunrise was to them the Night giving birth to a brilliant child; and in the Spring they really saw the Sun of the Sky embracing the earth with a warm embrace, and showering treasures into the lap of nature (1874: 64).

There is yet another dimension of irony in Copernicus’s words. Specifically, in the Judaeo-Christian cosmogony of Genesis, we encounter not a sexually generated kinship cosmos, but rather a cosmos created by a craftsman who stands over against his work—a relation that is sometimes cited as a mythical prototype of the ideal of objectivity (even while anthropomorphically inflected as the “god’s eye view”). Yet it is just this metaphor of objectivity that Copernicus’s cosmic-family deposes. This all happens of course in parallel with the many other ways in which cosmic kinship, although denied in its officially-sanctioned cosmogonic myth, finds its way into Judaeo-Christian cosmology—from images of God as Father and Redeemer as Son, to the ideal of the nun as the consecrated bride of Christ, along with many other cults of folk religion that incorporate a sexually-generative dimension in cosmology. One also recalls St. Francis’s famous Hymn to the Sun which alternates between male and female siblings: Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Stars, Brother Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister Earth, who is also referred to as Mother.

The Creator in Copernicus’s image is enmeshed within, rather than standing outside of, the cosmos as a would-be object of knowledge. We are left, then, with the irony that, in terms of images or emblems of objectivity, Copernicus’s cosmic-family image is actually a step backward from the image it replaces, the divine Craftsman of Genesis. Or to put it differently: when epistemologists invoke the metaphor of the god’s eye view, they do not seem to have in mind the god Zeus, with his perpetual struggles to find solace from his wrangling kinfolk, who are tutelary beings of the various regions of the cosmos. Zeus’ great affliction as depicted by Homer—an affliction which the Judaeo-Christian Creator had to some degree escaped, at least until Copernicus!—is, in a nutshell, that he cannot extricate himself from his cosmos, which is to say, from his family. In regard to our cosmic ambitions, Zeus and the Judaeo-Christian God of Genesis form an interesting pair, reflecting, respectively, our conflicting desires to be enmeshed within and to stand contemplatively without our cosmos.

Mythological cosmologies of kinship and of the body

In this essay I will explore the differences between a mythological worldview and a scientific worldview from the standpoint of two topics—kinship and the category—that are often implicated in attempts to account for the transition from one worldview to the other, and which consequently serve as the site of numerous origin myths that sustain both. The image of a cosmos organized and held together by kinship is found in many mythologies and/or religious traditions. Although my biggest concern is kinship cosmology in the “post-mythological” world, it is important, as a preliminary step, to emphasize the complexity of those cosmologies of kinship that are typically called mythological. To this end I will summarize some of the patterns that I have noted in research on the cosmological traditions of Polynesia and especially of the New Zealand Maori. Those familiar with the ancient Greek mythic cosmogony recounted by Hesiod in his Theogony will note many parallels between this and the Maori story.4 Maori cosmology forms an epitomizing case for familial cosmology, since the Maori universe is conceptualized in most versions as a kin group. Perhaps the single most oft-quoted passage in the literature on the Maori is a passage from ethnographer Elsdon Best:

When the Maori walked abroad, he was among his own kindred. The trees around him were, like himself, the offspring of Tane [ancestral God of forests, and in some accounts, humans]; the birds, insects, fish, stones, the very elements, were all kin of his. ... Many a time, when engaged in felling a tree in the forest, have I been accosted by passing natives with such a remark as: “Kei te raweke koe i to tipuna i a Tane.” (You are meddling with your ancestor Tane) (Best 1924: 128–29).

The specific characteristics and meanings of Maori kinship, as well as the nature of the Maori commitment to the kinship cosmos (is this a literal belief? a poetic trope?) pose complex issues. In lieu of a complete analysis, I would like to offer some speculations about the way that this central postulate—that the cosmos is a kin group, the “kinship postulate” for short—is expressed and constructed in Maori narrative.

First and most important, the kinship postulate seems to operate as a kind of generative principle for a large group of etiological stories, of which there may be a theoretically limitless number. Maori cosmogony begins as a version of the widespread story of the origin of the universe from the mating of sky and earth, the first male and female, as primal parents. In some Maori accounts the parents are pressed closely together until the children separate them and then go on to become fish, trees, plants, and humans and/or the tutelary deities of these entities; they spread through the world as the variety of forms comprised in nature. Maori narratives often proceed as though basing judgments of kinship descent more on functional dependency (especially of smaller creatures on larger ones) than on morphological similarity. For the natural habitat of a given entity is said to be its parent: shellfish are the children of the sea, birds the children of trees, insects the children of plants. Thus a consistent bio-cosmological principle—habitat as parent—stands behind the idea that earth and sky, the physical cosmos, are the parents of humans. While there are numerous forms of such interdependency, the web of kinship also comprises domination, jealousy, incompatibility, and indeed, war. One can surmise that it is just because of the rich variety of kinds of relations (and the possibilities for multiple overlays of different, even contradictory, relations) found in kinship that the Maori have settled on it as their basic cosmological image, an image that finds a place for any entity.

One of the more discordant patterns displayed within these kinship stories has to do with the incompatibility of different life strategies displayed in the cosmos. The primordial example occurs in the story of the separation of Sky and Earth itself. In one of the versions of this story, that recounted by the Arawa chief Te Rangikaheke,5 one of the children is opposed to the idea of separating the parents. When his siblings overrule him and separate their parents, pushing Sky above, this dissenting child becomes Wind and, with his brood of children—who are various forms of storms and pernicious meteorological conditions—he continually takes revenge on his siblings, including the humans, even to this day. In responding to the very first attack of Wind and his brood, there is dissension among the other siblings. Some think the sea would provide superior shelter, while others argue that greater security is to be gained on land. The argument ends in stalemate: one group heads into the ocean and becomes the fish, the other group heads inland and becomes the plants. In splitting up to form the two tribes, the fish and plants both insultingly predict that the other will end up as food for humans. This scenario also allows a space for interstitial species—species difficult to classify. In the separation into land and sea creatures, one little band gets confused and heads in the wrong direction: these are the lizards—and thus we have an explanation of a particular land creature that bears many of the physical characteristics of the sea part of the family.

Countless other narratives reproduce the pattern of kinship disjunction, from stories about the mountains, which lived together until splitting up to occupy different tracts, to stories recounting the many finer differences that can be noted among insects. There is this story about how the mosquito and sandfly tribes split over a debate about strategy:

The sandfly said to the mosquito: “Let us go and attack man.” The mosquito remarked: “Let us await the shades of night ere we attack, wait until evening, that we may hum in his ears and make them tingle. . . . In this way we can safely attack, but if we attack in daylight, many will perish. If you assail man by day, then you of us two will surely be slain.” Arose the sandfly: “Let us ever give battle in the light of day. In daylight will I go forth. Though I perish in myriads, what matter it, so long as I draw blood. But you, O mosquito! Attacking by night, shall be destroyed by smoke.” Even so the mosquito consented, saying: “As you will” (Best 1925: 993).

One notes in this account the same pattern as found in the primordial separation of land and sea creatures: differentiation amidst arguments and insults, speciation through incompatibility of lifestyles and distinct acts of will. These processes form sub-patterns within the larger kinship postulate, and they also demonstrate the intrinsic richness of this postulate—most especially in its capacity to portray unity and disunity at the same moment and within the same frame of reference. The accounts of the speciation of the natural world rely upon many of the idioms and much of the specific terminology associated with human kinship and with processes of tribal formation (notably the term iwi, tribe, for both human political units and natural species). Natural speciation provides a model for human tribalization and vice versa.

But besides operating as a generative principle—of narratives, and of models of social process—the kinship postulate also operates as a principle of incorporation. The example most to the point here has to do with the well-known European fableof the lazy grasshopper and the industrious ant, a version of which appears in one of Elsdon Best’s collections of Maori narratives:

The ant spoke to the cicada saying: “Let us be diligent and collect much food during the warm season, that we may even retain life when the cold season arrives.” But the cicada replied: “Nay! Let us rather bask in the sun’s rays on the warm bark of trees.” Even so did the ant toil throughout the summer at gathering and storing food in secure places. Meanwhile the cicada said: “What a fine thing it is to bask in the warm sun and enjoy oneself. How foolish is the ant who toils incessantly.” But when the cold season came, and the warmth went out of the sun, the cicada perished miserably of cold and hunger, while the ant was warm and well fed in his snug home underground (Best 1925: 991).

The European version of this story is a fable—that is, a terse story told to illustrate a specific moral. The Maori version is not a fable, but an origin myth, or part of one. The Maori version does not announce a specific moral; instead, like the story of the mosquito and sandfly and many other stories of the Maori, it accounts for and dramatizes the different behavioral characteristics of different species. The European story has thus been incorporated in such a way as to be consistent with other Maori stories detailing the unfolding web of Maori cosmic kinship.

I earlier alluded to Te Rangikaheke’s account of the separation of the first parents, Sky and Earth, in which the dissenting child goes to the sky, becomes the wind, and with his meteorological brood makes war on the children who remain on the earth. The attacks occasion a series of debates among the earth-inhabiting siblings about the means of defense: some run to the sea (and become the fish) some burrow in the land (and become the plants). But there is an exception: the being who will become the progenitor of humans, Tu, refuses to be intimidated; he stands strong, rather than hiding. The battle between Tu (the human; the term literally means “stand”) and the elements ends in a stalemate—an apparent allusion to the present ongoing relationship between humans and “the elements.” When this is achieved, Tu turns toward the siblings who, in seeking protection, had abandoned him—and in retribution Tu makes them his food. These events provide paradigmatic justification for humans eating the other things of the cosmos.

At points it is almost as if the truly significant units of Maori genealogies are the nodes of innovation and diversification in strategy which the above scenarios illustrate. At any rate it is important to note that these nodes, dialogical in form, provide a particularly open format for the incorporation of new negotiations—such as those involved in the dialogue of the ant and cicada. The deep and intense implication of the idiom of kinship in Maori narrative—in expounding both cosmic interconnection and diversification—is captured by distinguished scholar J. Prytz-Johansen in a quaint image; he comments, “If one could picture to oneself a person like KANT among the old Maoris—which indeed is difficult—one should not be surprised if to the fundamental categories of knowledge, time and space, he had added: kinship” (Prytz-Johansen 1954: 9). I can think of no better analogy for describing how the kinship postulate operates as a generative and organizing principle for Maori narratives: it challenges the storyteller to create a story in broad conformity with other such stories; and, as a principle that is (to fill out the Kantian metaphor) a priori as well as synthetic, it confirms in advance that such a story is possible.

But there are other ways in which one could explore the relationship of the kinship postulate to narratives in the Maori case. One of these, briefly, consists in the fact that the kinship postulate has implications for the Maori organization of genres. There are Maori narratives that are reminiscent of familiar Western folkloric genres (myths, local legends, epics, proverbs, and so on). Yet cosmic kinship seems to add another level of integration which links these narratives as one large narrative—because the characters from all of these narratives have a place in one encompassing cosmic genealogy, not totally unlike the ideal of “universal history” that has periodically appealed to Western historians. Rather than clear-cut myths versus historical legends, Maori narratives of the past flow into one another, beginning with something like myths and turning into something like legends—genealogy precluding absolute ruptures between genres.

The kinship postulate also has implications for the very concept of narrative. The genealogy that links the various narratives itself forms a narrative of sorts, so that a Maori cosmologist can tell the story of the origin of the universe and of human history merely by reciting a genealogy. For example, the first origins of the cosmos—the story of the children of Sky and Earth groping around in the dark between the yet-unseparated parents—are portrayed through a series of terms that has the appearance of a series of names in a genealogy; yet, in their literal meanings, the terms describe a series of sequential states of the early cosmos: Nothing, Night, Searching, Growth, and so on. They tell the same story as the narrative of the separation of Sky and Earth through a series of highly condensed allusions.6

The foregoing provides one example of the elaboration of a kinship idiom in traditional cosmology, specifically that of the Maori; many other, highly-varied examples can be found in the world. Before moving on to consider “categories,” however, one more point should be added about cosmologies of kinship. Specifically, kinship, while designating a level of organization above that of any particular body, is yet ultimately inseparable from the idea of the body; bodies are the elements linked through webs of kinship, and indeed the body in its procreative power is the ultimate source of such webs. In the Maori case the interdependence of body and kinship as images of the cosmos is revealed, among other ways, in the fact that the first generative pair, Sky and Earth—sometimes with the implication that together they form a single body7—can be invoked to summarize the entire cosmos. Gaia plays a similar role in Greek mythology. Another example, indeed one of the best-known instances in Western cosmology, is the mythico-mathematical cosmos described by Plato in his Timaeus (32–34 [1981: 44–45]), in which the universe is characterized as a unitary living body. And these are not isolated instances. Although kinship provides what is probably the single most recurrent image or idiom through which mythologies portray the structure of the cosmos, the image of the cosmos as a body is not uncommon. Note, finally, that Copernicus (in the opening epigram above) alludes approvingly to both images, referring to the sun as the mind of the universe (which is presumably the body) and the head of a royal family (with the planets as children).

Philosophies of familiar form: Kinship and the life of the category in the post-mythological world

The era of the presocratic philosophers, beginning around the sixth century BCE, is characterized in part by a critical confrontation of the mythological understanding of the world by methods and perspectives that came to be known as philosophy. And chief among the tools of philosophy is the category (a notion especially important to Aristotle and having a forerunner in Plato’s notion of Forms). As a gross generalization, cosmic persons (gods and heroes and their genealogical interconnections) are to mythic understanding as categories are to philosophical understanding.

I will explore this contrast, emphasizing not the ways in which philosophy differs from myth, but rather the parallels and overlaps between the two. I do not disagree with the general proposition that new ways of understanding the cosmos appeared on the scene or at least rapidly picked up momentum in the era of the presocratics and classical Greek philosophers. But, in the company of many other scholars, I am also intrigued at the ways in which the transition is less than neat and complete (with some sympathy for the view that it will never be so). The love of illustration drawn from Hesiod and Homer (even amidst skepticism toward them) found in Plato and Aristotle, as well as myth-like formulations (such as the image noted above from Plato’s Timaeus) are merely one early indication of the continuity of myth within the new philosophical spirit. I will pursue the lack of completeness, in the transition from myth to philosophy, with respect to one particular theme. Specifically, in contemporary epistemology, and in certain theories of the category in particular, we encounter images of kinship and the body that cannot but recall the former life of these images in the world of mythology. These images raise fundamental questions about the central if not centric engagement of kinship and the body within arguments about the very structure and nature of “the category.”

Although the term “category” now tends to be used mainly to denote a class, or group of things classified together, the term was used by Aristotle (Categories [1938]) to designate ten ultimate predicates which summarized the possible attributes of things. Aristotle’s categories are Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Place, Time, Position, Condition, Action, and Affection. Aristotle seems to have arrived at his categories through an ascent in abstraction to the most general and encompassing possible predicates. The eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant drew on Aristotle’s categories and introduced some modifications in order to construct his table of “a priori categories of the understanding.” For Kant the categories constituted mental molds through which reason unifies and imposes form on the data of sensory experience; by “a priori” he meant that the categories were prior to any such experience. Though Kant regarded knowledge as possible only through these categories, he rejected Aristotle’s seeming conviction that the categories were transparent to being. According to Kant, the world we know is always and only the world as it is knowable to us through the a priori categories.

Aristotle and Kant tended to regard such categories as givens of consciousness, saying little about how humans came to possess them. One late nineteenth-century Darwinian response to the Aristotelian/Kantian categories, however, was to argue that they might be accounted for by bio-evolutionary process: adaptively advantageous mental molds might be selected for by Darwinian processes—Herbert Spencer made such an argument.8 This Darwinian response in one sense, of course, contradicts Kant by seeking categories that are a posteriori, that is, products of experience over time. But evolutionarily advantageous categories would become part of the built-in mental structure that any particular human now inherits; in this sense the categories would “become” a priori. Kant had used the term “pure reason” to denote that which reason, by virtue of the a priori categories, is able to know prior to any sense experience. This new Darwinian project amounts to a search for an “impure”—that is, experiential—origin of “pure” reason.

The work of French comparative sociologists Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss in the early twentieth century also holds a place within the tradition of the search for the impure origin of the categories. And I will argue that two influential contemporary scholars, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, represent the continuation of this tradition. My analysis will focus on a comparison of these two pairs of scholars—Durkheim and Mauss, and Lakoff and Johnson (for convenience sometimes shortened to Durkheim/Mauss, Lakoff/Johnson). Both pairs pay homage to Aristotle, and, though not adopting his formulations in detail, ground their projects in part on the assumption that there exist basic, universal mental molds something like those that Aristotle long ago set out.9 Durkheim and Mauss find the source of the categories in the experience of society; Lakoff and Johnson find it in bodily experience. The Aristotelian/Kantian categories are thus contested territory: the issue is, what kind of experience provides the model for the categories? The contesting claims will be the focus for the analysis that follows.

Before beginning, a terminological problem should be mentioned. Specifically, both Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson allude to the idea of categories in the Aristotelian/Kantian sense described above—that is, in the sense of very general mental molds or predicates; and both choose as foci at least some of the categories set out by Aristotle and Kant. But both Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson are interested in telling us also about the origin of “the category” in another sense, that is, in the more specific and contemporary sense of a class (or set or kind). Here the question is more specific: what is the source of our ability to create classes of things, that is, to group together disparate entities into kinds or sets. It is all too easy to pass from one sense of category to the other, in part because the idea of class (or category, in our contemporary sense) is but a short step from some of the Aristotelian categories (notably Substance and Quality) and their Kantian derivatives, and in part because both senses of category are relevant to both Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson. But my purpose is to compare Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson in terms of the general drift of their arguments. For this purpose, the distinction between these two senses of category often is not critical; where it is I have tried to make the sense clear through the context.

The origin of categories

Because many of the issues here are complex, I will summarize my arguments in advance, and then go on to fill them out by looking in more detail at the writings of Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson. My arguments can be summarized in three main points:

First, the image that informs Durkheim and Mauss’s account of the origin of the categories is the image of kinship (either directly or as implicit in the idea of a “tribe” or “family”; Durkheim and Mauss regarded such kin-based units as the elementary forms of society). The image that informs Lakoff and Johnson’s account of the origin of the categories is the human body. As indicated above, these two images—kinship and the body—are also two of the most recurrent images drawn upon in portrayals of the cosmos within mythology. My first main point will be that the properties that make these two images good choices for myth-makers portraying the cosmos are the same properties that make them good choices for contemporary cognitive theorists seeking either the experiential origin of, or an origin myth for, categories or “the category.”10 Both kinship and the body are ever-present in human experience. Both kinship and the body offer potent models of unity in diversity—models of a whole made up of many interrelated parts. Images of kinship or the body in mythologies serve to organize and classify the cosmos; theorists attribute this same function to these images in accounting for the origin of the categories.

My second main point will be that theories of the category offer as much potential for cosmological projection—that is, for imposing prosaic, local images onto the cosmos—as do traditional mythological portrayals of the cosmos. It is not difficult to recognize the process of such projection in a mythology that portrays the cosmos, as many in fact do, as one big tribe or as a gigantic living body. But, if Durkheim/Mauss are right, then, we have all been unconsciously imposing on the cosmos the form of the tribe or family every time we recognize a “set”—for all sets must, at some level, bear the imprint of their original model. By contrast, if Lakoff and Johnson are right, then what our sets reflect is not the tribe but the body as container. If either the Durkheim/Mauss or Lakoff/Johnson theory of the origin of the categories is wrong (and it would seem that at least one of these theories has to be wrong, since they are contradictory), or if both theories are wrong, then the situation is even more interesting. Consider this: for those who have been convinced by either of these theories of the category, one of these images—the family or the body—takes on a cosmic stature just by virtue of this conviction. To argue that we are all necessarily projecting, through the intermediary of the category, a particular form on all cognized entities, ipso facto instantiates that image cosmologically by making it into an object of belief, though perhaps less obviously than do traditional origin myths when they project such images directly as the structure of the cosmos.

It is as if, in attempting to free ourselves from our parochializing inclinations, we forsake a mythological kinship-cosmos or body-cosmos for a cosmos based on a certain kind of abstract entity, the category—and the category meanwhile becomes the new object of our anthropocentric desires. In the tradition of Aristotle and Kant, categories are the enabling, mediating structures of all knowledge. A human image projected onto, or as, the category thus achieves, though by a less direct route, the same totalizing status as a human image that is painted by mythologies directly onto the canopy of the heavens.

My third main point will be that juxtaposing two different theories of the “impure” origin of reason serves to bring to light the difficulty of adjudicating between contesting claimants. Both theories locate the source of the categories in those human experiences that they regard as most basic and formative. Opinions about what experiences are most basic and formative are academic discipline-centric. Durkheim and Mauss, who were attempting to forge a discipline of “comparative sociology,” saw experiences of social collectivity as the linchpin; Lakoff and Johnson, who are developing a more psychologically-oriented cognitive perspective see the experience of the body as the linchpin. Both pairs of scholars try to substantiate their claims by showing that the categories conform in outline to the experiences they posit as formative. The problem is that the categories, as predicates or molds of maximal generality, conform in outline to virtually all experience—making it difficult to adjudicate between different claims to primacy. The deep differences in portrayals of the universal condition of all knowledge given to us respectively by Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson originate in different kinds of centric inclinations applied to the Aristotelian categories; by the former, the categories are sociomorphized, by the latter, they are (in the narrow sense of the term) anthropomorphized.11

Viewing mythological or folk portrayals of the cosmos as projections of local frames of understanding and practice is a rather standard anthropological move. Even the most vocally anti-positivistic of contemporary social theorists will often quietly accede to the Durkheimian/Freudian dictum that, whatever its professed object, the “real” object of mythico-religious cosmological discourse is humans and their inner-worldly concerns. Part of the force with which the cosmological “projectionist” thesis took hold within ethnography at the turn of the century had to do with the fact that amidst intense opposition on many other points, psychoanalytic schools (deriving especially from Freud) and sociological schools (deriving especially from Durkheim) were in fundamental agreement about where the true object of cosmological discourse is not to be found, namely, the heavens. For Freud the foundational experience was the generic individual psyche as situated within the dynamics of familial relationships, especially the relation of parent and child;12 for Durkheim it was the experience of the social collectivity through its preeminent structures, symbols and rituals. Freud and Durkheim together form a sort of Copernican revolution within ethnology, in the sense that they charge this enterprise with laying bare the all-too-human desires and designs that impinge on cosmological discourse.

Now to the specifics: I will compare what Durkheim and Mauss, and Lakoff and Johnson have to say regarding the origin of the categories. Since both pairs of scholars have written a great deal, my discussion is selective, aiming to bring out the general tenor of both positions as well as some pertinent sub-themes within each.

Durkheim and Mauss’s perspective can be found in two condensed statements from Durkheim’s Elementary forms of the religious life:

At the roots of all our judgments there are a certain number of essential ideas which dominate all our intellectual life; they are what philosophers since Aristotle have called the categories of the understanding: ideas of time, space, class, number, cause, substance, personality, etc. They correspond to the most universal properties of things. They are like the solid frame which encloses all thought; this does not seem to be able to liberate itself from them without destroying itself (1965: 21–22).

How does Durkheim explain the origin of these categories?

The category of class was at first indistinct from the concept of the human group; it is the rhythm of social life which is at the basis of the category of time; the territory occupied by the society furnished the material for the category of space; it is the collective force which was the prototype of the concept of efficient force, an essential element in the category of causality. However, the categories are not made to be applied only to the social realm; they reach out to all reality (1965: 488).

Let us turn for a comparison to Lakoff and Johnson; for present purposes it will be most useful to focus on two works, Johnson’s The body in the mind (1987) and Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the flesh (1999). These works present an account of the origin of categories that is largely devoid of reference to the sort of social or collective forms that play the dominant role in Durkheim and Mauss (although, as we shall see, the family makes an appearance when Lakoff and Johnson turn from epistemology proper to moral philosophy).

Lakoff and Johnson employ the concept of “image schemata,” defined by Johnson as “a recurrent pattern, shape, and regularity” which arises “chiefly at the level of our bodily movements through space, our manipulation of objects, and our perceptual interactions” (1987: 29). As “structures for organizing our experience and comprehension” (1987: 29), the function of the image schemata is roughly comparable with the functions that Aristotle and Kant, and Durkheim and Mauss following them, attributed to the categories. And, more importantly, some of the specific image schemata that Lakoff and Johnson focus upon are just those potential predicates that Aristotle, Kant, and Durkheim and Mauss call categories. To facilitate comparison I will focus on three such categories: class, cause, and time—in each case filling out Durkheim and Mauss’s arguments, then comparing them with the arguments of Lakoff and Johnson.


Durkheim and Mauss’s most elaborate line of argument has to do with what one might call the morphological congruence between the idea of “society” and the idea of a “class.” One of the ways in which, they argue, any “class” of things is like a society is that one perceives in any class some sort of internal cohesion—some sort of affinity among the members of that class. The loftiest moments in Durkheim and Mauss’s writings occur when they address the issue of social sentiment, the collective “effervescence” that affectively binds together members of society. Such sentiments reach peaks of intensity in social rituals, fusing individuals into a single entity “this moral being, the group” (Durkheim 1965: 254). The experience of this all-embracing, all-powerful sentiment—this absolute basis of society—is seen by Durkheim and Mauss as the experiential model for the internal cohesion we ascribe to any logical “class” of things.

Another way in which, for Durkheim and Mauss, any class of things is morphologically congruent with a society is that any class, like any society, implies a border. In an intriguing argument, Durkheim and Mauss point out that although logic has nothing per se to do with space, we nonetheless tend to diagram logical relations spatially (i.e., with what are now called Venn diagrams). Logical diagrams often involve circles within circles, just as tribal structures often involve sub-clans within clans. This proclivity suggests to Durkheim and Mauss that the tribal territory, border, and concentric structure are the experiential sources of the space, border, and concentric structure of formal logic.

It is certainly not without cause that concepts and their interrelations have so often been represented by concentric and eccentric circles, interior and exterior to each other, etc. Might it not be that this tendency to imagine purely logical groupings in a form contrasting so much with their true nature originated in the fact that at first they were conceived in the form of social groups occupying, consequently, definite positions in space? And have we not in fact seen this spatial localization of genus and species in a fairly large number of very different societies? (1972: 83)

They summarize: “Logical relations are thus, in a sense, domestic relations” (1972: 84).

Let us turn now to see what Lakoff and Johnson have to say about the origin of the category of class. If Durkheim and Mauss find the model for the idea of any clearly-bounded class of things in the formative experience of being a member of a tribe or family, Lakoff and Johnson find it in the experience of one’s body—specifically of one’s body as a container or as an entity that deals with other containers. This bodily experience gives rise to what they call the “CONTAINER schema.” The formulations concerning this schema that offer the most dramatic contrast with Durkheim and Mauss are to be found in Johnson’s The body in the mind; Johnson writes:

Our encounter with containment and boundedness is one of the most pervasive features of our bodily experience. We are intimately aware of our bodies as three-dimensional containers into which we put certain things (food, water, air) and out of which other things emerge (food and water wastes, air, blood, etc.). From the beginning, we experience constant physical containment in our surroundings (those things that envelop us). We move in and out of rooms, clothes, vehicles, and numerous kinds of bounded spaces. We manipulate objects, placing them in containers (cups, boxes, cans, bags, etc.). In each of these cases there are repeatable spatial and temporal organizations. In other words, there are typical schemata for physical containment (1987: 21).

Paralleling the quest of Durkheim and Mauss, Johnson pushes further, claiming that the very principles of formal logic derive from just this bodily experience. His arguments, like those of Durkheim and Mauss, appeal mainly to morphological congruence. For example, Johnson argues that the P/ P formula of formal logic is congruent with the container schema that we derive from the bodily experience of boundedness; thus bodily experience is the likely source of formal logic, which extends and formalizes it:

It follows from the nature of the CONTAINER schema (which marks off a bounded mental space) that something is either in or out of the container in typical cases. And, if we understand categories metaphorically as containers (where a thing falls within the container, or it does not), then we have the claim that everything is either P (in the category-container) or not-P (outside the container). In logic, this is known as the “Law of the Excluded Middle” (1987: 39).

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson add that the container-schema forms the basis of the philosophical notion of “essence”; their argument, like that of Durkheim and Mauss, implicates the space, border, and concentric structure of formal logic.13

For the sake of imposing sharp distinctions, we develop what might be called essence prototypes, which conceptualize categories as if they were sharply defined and minimally distinguished from one another.

When we conceptualize categories in this way, we often envision them using a spatial metaphor, as if they were containers, with an interior, an exterior, and a boundary. When we conceptualize categories as containers, we also impose complex hierarchical systems on them, with some category-containers inside other category-containers (1999: 20).

In Philosophy in the flesh, we encounter a further interesting twist in the appeal to morphological congruence. In this ambitious work, Lakoff and Johnson aspire to reconceptualize not just logic, but the history of philosophy from the standpoint of “the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment” (1999: 4). They attempt to do this by revealing the image schemata at the basis of various philosophical doctrines. Aristotelian logic and theory of essences, they argue, are governed by the CONTAINER schema; their presentation begins, “Aristotle gave us the classical formulation of what we will call ‘container logic,’ which arises from the commonplace metaphor that Categories Are Containers for their members” (1999: 380). This is a novel and intriguing attempt at substantiating claims about the experiential source of logic. That is, in addition to demonstrating the morphological congruence between the experience of the body and the operations of logic, Lakoff and Johnson attempt to demonstrate morphological congruence by means of a reading, from their own perspective, of the philosopher credited with the invention of formal logic.

To summarize: Durkheim and Mauss give us the in-the-tribe/outside-the-tribe origin of logic; Lakoff and Johnson give us the in-the-body/outside-the-body origin.


In summarizing Durkheim and Mauss’s views on the origin of the category of “cause,” I can do no better than to repeat a part of the long passage quoted above: “it is the collective force which was the prototype of the concept of efficient force, an essential element in the category of causality” (Durkheim 1965: 488). “Collective force” is the power of the group over the individual. For Durkheim and Mauss this power manifests itself most efficaciously not through physical coercion but through symbols and ideas that create and arouse a sui generis energy and sense of moral authority within a social collectivity—a dimension of consciousness that transcends individual interests. It is the feeling of the power of social sentiment and moral authority that is the experiential source of the idea of cause—or the notion that the things of the cosmos are not isolates but rather exert influence on one another.

Let us now consider Lakoff and Johnson on the category of cause, which, paralleling Durkheim and Mauss, they refer to as force, or, more specifically, the “image schema of FORCE.” Contrary to Durkheim and Mauss’s affective, emotional, moral force emanating from the collective, Lakoff and Johnson find the experiential source of force in physical force. Johnson writes:

Though we forget it so easily, the meaning of “physical force” depends on publicly shared meaning structures that emerge from our bodily experience of force. We begin to grasp the meaning of physical force from the day we are born (or even before). We have bodies that are acted upon by “external” and “internal” forces such as gravity, light, heat, wind, bodily processes, and the obtrusion of other physical objects. Such interactions constitute our first encounters with forces, and they reveal patterned recurring relations between ourselves and our environment (1987: 13).

The phrase “publicly shared meaning structures,” near the beginning of this passage, offers an opportunity to clarify a point of potential confusion between the theories considered here. One does find numerous references to a social dimension for the image schemata throughout the writings of Lakoff and Johnson. But it is important to realize that the social dimension enters the picture for them in a very different way than it does for Durkheim and Mauss. For Durkheim and Mauss the formative experiences that give rise to the categories are all intrinsically social: they are various dimensions of the irreducible experience of social collectivity. For Lakoff and Johnson the formative experiences belong to the body: there is nothing to suggest that a body in isolation from society would not come up with the image schemata discussed above. Although, practically speaking, it would seem necessary that there be a second body to care for the infant body undergoing the formative experiences, the experience of a social relationship with that second body is not portrayed as otherwise intrinsically necessary for generation of the image schemata. The category of class, for example, derives preeminently from the experience of the first body in itself as a container; along with this are mentioned environmental interactions that apparently need not be with animate beings. A necessarily social dimension enters Lakoff and Johnson’s perspective not on the level of formative experience, but in the claim that at least a part of embodied experience is universal: it is the universality of bodily experience that gives rise to publicly shared meaning structures.

Lakoff and Johnson’s main discussion of “cause” in Philosophy in the flesh is found in their Chapter Eleven (“Events and Causes”) (1999: 170–234); they address the issue of whether the multiple senses of cause yield an underlying unity; and they answer in the affirmative. In the opening part of their presentation they say:

At the heart of causation is its most fundamental case: the manipulation of objects by force, the volitional use of bodily force to change something physically by direct contact in one’s immediate environment. It is conscious volitional human agency acting via direct physical force that is at the center of our concept of causation. . . . Prototypical causation is the direct application of force resulting in motion or other physical change (1999: 177).

In closing their discussion of cause, they provide a final terse example:

The central prototypical case in our basic-level experience gives us no problem in answering the question. He punched me in the arm. He caused me pain. Yes, causation exists (1999: 233).

To summarize these theories of the origin of the category of “cause”: for Lakoff and Johnson, the origin lies in the experience of physical force exerted by or against the body; for Durkheim and Mauss, the origin lies in the sense of a sui generis transcendent energy or power felt in collective milieux, eminently in social ritual.


Argument by morphological congruity takes an interesting turn in both Durkheim and Mauss and Lakoff and Johnson, in both cases involving an appeal to the reader to engage in introspection. Compare the following two passages on the category of time, the first by Durkheim, the second from Lakoff and Johnson:

Try to represent what the notion of time would be without the processes by which we divide it, measure it or express it with objective signs, a time which is not a succession of years, months, weeks, days and hours! This is something nearly unthinkable. We cannot conceive of time, except on condition of distinguishing its different moments (Durkheim 1965: 22).

Lakoff and Johnson:

Try to think about time without thinking about whether it will run out or if you can budget it or are wasting it.

We have found that we cannot think (much less talk) about time without those metaphors. That leads us to believe that we conceptualize time using those metaphors. . . . What, after all, would time be without flow, without time going by, without the future approaching? (Lakoff and Johnson 1999: 166)

The two accounts are so parallel that one wonders which is the case: that Lakoff and Johnson have unwittingly reinvented Durkheim’s rhetoric, or that the latter regard the former as so broadly known that readers can be trusted to recognize the allusion. Consider what happens in these parallel accounts. In each, the appeal to the inconceivability of purely abstract time leads the analysts to propose a more concretized portrayal—a portrayal of measured or differentiated time—but in each case with a selected version of concretized time, one that supports the larger claims of the particular authors. Durkheim slips in the calendar, that is, socially constituted units such as weeks and days, which lead directly into his overriding concern with social/sacred ritual; whereas Lakoff and Johnson slip in metaphors and conceptualizations (“budgeting” of time, “flow”) whose primary contexts are typically a generic individual negotiating quotidian life. The most abstract and fluid of all concepts, “time” is entirely congruent with either concretization.

How it all began

Continuing with the temporal theme, but at another level of analysis, it is important to note that, in arguing for their respective versions of experiential origins of the category, Durkheim and Mauss and Lakoff and Johnson both focus on the morphological congruity between the structure of the category, on one hand, and, on the other, their favored realm of experience: the social collective for Durkheim and Mauss, the generic body for Lakoff and Johnson. But these structural arguments lead into theories of origin that invoke or allude to a variety of temporal or quasi-temporal frameworks, including the individual’s psychic ontogeny, the history of Western academic thought, the social evolution of human institutions, and the biological evolution of the human species. Often several temporal frameworks are alluded to at once, with a suggestion of the recapitulation of similar patterns within different time scales. These quests for temporal founding moments sometimes have the feel of a quest for an origin myth. As if to make up for not offering a full-blown, heroic origin myth of the kind we find in Hesiod or the Maori, the formulations of Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson are myth-like in two different ways: first, as discussed above, in that they project, by mediation of the category, a particular local image onto the cosmos; and secondly, in that they attempt to give us some version, even if vague, of a temporal moment of origin—the moment when that particular image came to be so favored.

For example, along with overtures to Darwinian biological evolutionism, one encounters in Lakoff and Johnson allusions to ontogenic development; some of the clearest occur in the passages from Johnson’s The body in the mind that were cited above:

We begin to grasp the meaning of physical force from the day we are born (or even before) (1987: 13).


From the beginning, we experience constant physical containment in our surroundings (those things that envelop us) (1987: 21).

But just what is our experience of force and envelopment before we are born, that is, the experience of the womb? Is it the body’s first experience of itself as a container (perhaps a container interacting with another container)? Or does the womb provide the first experience of genealogy, encompassment by tribal territory, and the individual’s dependence on the social? Such appeals have mythical dimensions; they attempt to construct a plausible first experience and are necessarily speculative. Even “empirical” research into child development cannot escape the necessity of inferring the experience of those who are as yet unable to articulate it. Throughout the history of social thought, the minds of infants have furnished an irresistible object of learned projection, an ontogenic alternative to the mythical/historical first caveman stepping out of the cave. The fact that infants are like us yet different—ourselves at a distant, less developed stage—together with their limited capacity of responding (at least on such matters as the relative priority of physical versus moral experience) places them in the company of other favored objects of projection, including ancient ancestors, culturally exotic “others,” nonhuman animals, and celestial bodies. Durkheim and Mauss adopted the framework provided by the socio-cultural evolutionism of their day as their arena for speculating on category origins; and this framework, too, was inclined toward the position that the moral and intellectual development of the individual recapitulates human socio-cultural evolution.

In assessing the possible arguments for one view or the other, it is important to mention an asymmetry that might seem to favor the Lakoff/Johnson position. Sometimes Lakoff and Johnson are, and sometimes they are not, careful to distinguish the several possible senses of their mantra, “embodied.” Even among committed Cartesian dualists I suspect one could find some who would assent to the proposition that all cognition is embodied in some sense. To the extent that one accepts that the site and mechanism of the categories must be physical/neural structures, the categories must be embodied; and in Philosophy in the flesh and other works Lakoff and Johnson offer glimpses into contemporary neural theory and how it might relate to their theories of metaphor—although the relation is presently so distant that the former realm of theory sheds little light on the latter.14 constraints atsome point would have undercut a function that surely figured in the evolution of the sensorium: that of successfully informing the body about the world outside of itself. On this point—the world outside—Durkheim and Mauss if anything have the edge, positing a more clearly relational experience, rooted in the collective, as generative model.

If Lakoff and Johnson favor ontogenic appeal and Durkheim and Mauss cultural-evolutionary appeal, they converge in the dream of utilizing their respective theories about the origin of categories to put all of academia on a new footing—a more modern version of the ambition encapsulated in Kant’s famously arrogant title, Prolegomena to any future metaphysic. Not only will they show the necessity of their perspective, they will enshrine it at the base of the intellectual world, structurally and temporally. The crown or regina scientiae will go to the discipline that succeeds in accounting for the origin of the categories.

Both pairs—Durkheim and Mauss, and Lakoff and Johnson—specifically focus on philosophy, acknowledging the historical prestige of this discipline while challenging what they see as an inclination toward a view of reason as pure. Both pairs of contenders seem to think that Aristotle got the categories formally about right; and that what is lacking is a proper accounting for their origin and development. Both Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson also envision a major rewriting of the history of philosophy from their perspectives, a rewriting that begins with a new account of the origin and nature of the fundamental categories.

For Durkheim and Mauss, the Aristotelian categories offered an organizational plan for comparative sociology. The history of the Aristotelian categories would be cast as the continuation of a sort of pre-history of the categories, in which each Aristotelian category would be seen to be prefigured in the social forms and practices of tribal societies. From tribal classifications and practices it would be possible to reconstitute the social ground and prehistory of the category of class; from food customs, the category of substance; from exchange customs the category of relation and so on.16 Calling attention to perduring questions about the origin of Aristotelian categories, Durkheim and Mauss conclude their investigation this way:

As soon as they are posed in sociological terms, all these questions, so long debated by metaphysicians and psychologists, will at last be liberated from the tautologies in which they have languished. At least, this is a new way which deserves to be tried (1972: 88).

The social evolutionism that undergirds Durkheim and Mauss’s plan—in which contemporary tribal societies are thought to offer something like the prehistory of the Aristotelian categories—is not found in Lakoff and Johnson; indeed such social evolutionist doctrines have by now been generally discarded. Yet Lakoff and Johnson’s plan is in many respects parallel to Durkheim and Mauss’s: Lakoff and Johnson seek the basic character of the Aristotelian categories in non-technical, everyday understandings of the world, as revealed in contemporary popular metaphors. Lakoff and Johnson then analyze the history of such categories in Western philosophy as a continuation and special case of such everyday understandings. They account for different philosophical schools through the different embodied image schemata and metaphors that these schools choose to emphasize—in a word, this is the project of Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the flesh.

In sum, both Lakoff/Johnson and Durkheim/Mauss aspire to rescue and reframe Western philosophy by reconceptualizing its root doctrines from the standpoint of their respective versions of the experiential origins of reason, emphasizing especially the great founding figure of Aristotle.

These two projects—Durkheim/Mauss’s and Lakoff/Johnson’s—overlap in opposing the view of philosophy as a pure, self-contained discourse, unencumbered by the constraints of the mundane world. That is, Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson both insist that the basic conceptual apparatus of higher-level thought—philosophy, logic, science and math—grow out of, and never entirely sever connections with, everyday knowledge and practice—inflected, by Durkheim and Mauss, as our pre-scientific, tribal past, and by Lakoff and Johnson, as contemporary everyday understandings of our life in the world. It is important to note that at this level Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson are allied against the idea of “pure” reason.

But there is not just one form of everyday understanding; and we see a definite selectivity operating in the two projects, even though both choose data that happen to be of special interest for mythologists and folklorists. For their examples of pre-scientific, everyday understandings Durkheim and Mauss draw on myths and rituals from tribal societies, which they considered to be models of coherent social integration; while Lakoff and Johnson emphasize everyday metaphors (many of which have a proverb-like flavor) primarily drawn from their own society. Both in terms of the kind of societies involved (“tribal” in contrast to “modern”), and in terms of the speech genres that are considered (myth and ritual in contrast to everyday metaphor) there is a link between what the scholars would like to show (collectivity in contrast to the body) and the kinds of everyday understandings they have selected as their data. Myths and rituals, the data that Durkheim and Mauss draw upon, have a social orientation and functionality—they portray and uphold the overall worldview and social structure of the societies in question. By contrast, Lakoff and Johnson, in surveying the range of metaphors, particularly emphasize everyday phrases and proverbs or proverbial sayings of the kind relevant to any individual’s negotiation of the everyday world in pursuit of specific purposes: time is money, budget one’s time, life is a journey, and so on. It is worth noting that studies by folklorists of proverb and proverbial speech typically call attention to the pragmatic character of these folk genres; though proverbs are social in the sense of being broadly disseminated among members of a society or language group, their advice is typically directed to, and consulted by, an individual facing a concrete dilemma.

There is of course a major quirk in all of this, specifically that many images can be used to reference either the social collective or the generic individual depending upon how one reads them. For example, Lakoff and Johnson, in their broad survey of metaphors, come upon instances of the metaphor whose source image for Durkheim and Mauss served as exemplar of the collective—specifically, the family and kinship. But when this happens, Lakoff and Johnson invariably read these in terms of the generic body. The most striking example occurs in chapter 14 (“Morality”) of Philosophy in the flesh. Here, Lakoff and Johnson turn to the metaphor of the “family” as the overarching metaphor that binds particular moral metaphors into a “coherent moral view” (1999: 312), asserting that this metaphor, enlarged to “The Family of Man,” provides the basis of universal morality.

Since the metaphor projects family moral structure onto a universal moral structure, the moral obligations toward family members are transformed into universal moral obligations toward all human beings (1999: 317).

In this passage, the origin of universal morality is said to lie in moral obligations that belong to family structure. The passage is highly reminiscent of Durkheim and Mauss, positing the experience of the immediate social collective as the ground of universal moral order—a moral order which is projected outward from the first and primary experience of moral structure (the “family” for Lakoff and Johnson, the “tribe” for Durkheim and Mauss). At this point, Durkheim and Mauss see the matter as finished, but Lakoff and Johnson do not, for their larger perspective demands that the body be the generative foundation, not just for categories but for morality, whether local or universal. For them, universal morality reduces in its principle to family morality, which in turn must be subjected to another reduction, which they attempt in the following passage:

Our very idea of what morality is comes from those systems of metaphors that are grounded in and constrained by our experience of physical well-being and functioning. This means that our moral concepts are not arbitrary and unconstrained. It also means that we cannot just make up moral concepts de novo. On the contrary, they are inextricably tied to our embodied experience of well-being: health, strength, wealth, purity, control, nurturance, empathy, and so forth (1999: 331).17

Note that this list proceeds from qualities (health, strength) most easily attributed to an individual body, to those (nurturance, empathy) that involve a relation between bodies. This ordering is the equivalent, in the realm of morality, to the ordering of physical experiences offered in the passage quoted above in which Johnson offers “our bodies as three-dimensional containers” as his first example of the embodied experience of containment, and then moves outward to offer other examples of embodiment which involve our relationships with things outside of ourselves such as vehicles and other containers. In both realms—morality and physical experience—we start with a bio-psychological sense of body as sentient organism and “self” and we move outward into a world of bodies in interaction. Apparently, either end of such continua counts as “embodied.”

But the fact that what is entailed in “embodiment” is so stretchable poses a vexing point about metaphor in general, and about the relation of Lakoff and Johnson to Durkheim and Mauss. Specifically, one with the will to do so can bring virtually any two terms into a metaphorical relation: metaphorizing means making a choice—in many cases, a political choice—from a pool of possibilities. We certainly could, in the manner of the examples above, extend the notion of embodied experience to include the experience of containment within the tribal territory. And if embodied experience includes such qualities as nurturance and empathy, why not say that the experience of collective effervescence in ritual, which for Durkheim epitomizes the irreducibly “collective,” is an “embodied” experience? By this route we could arrive at the conclusion that the difference between Lakoff/Johnson and Durkheim/Mauss is non-existent. But such a conclusion is contrived: the very ordering of Lakoff and Johnson’s litanies suggests a hierarchy of what counts as embodied. The body’s awareness of itself as container, or of its own strength and health, are offered first; however far the notion of embodied experience may be stretched, the stretching is outward from an anchored beginning point. The founding and final message that comes through, at least when one considers the full corpus of Lakoff and Johnson’s work is: the body.18 The anchoring point and final message in Durkheim and Mauss is: society.

Yet it is interesting to note how it is possible to start with a certain frame, the body for Lakoff and Johnson, and draw in other frames, such as the collective dimension of kinship. Since the body and its genealogy are mutually implicating, analytical passage from one to the other is always possible—no less in theorizing about the category than in traditional mythology: recall the Maori mythic cosmos described above, in which the cosmos is portrayed at different moments as both a genealogy and a unitary body. To Lakoff and Johnson’s referral of kinship to the body, moreover, one finds a fascinating reciprocal in one of Durkheim’s students, Robert Herz, who finds a way to refer the overtly bodily to the irreducibly collective. Specifically, Hertz adopted the same imperative—to reveal the collective nature of human life and thought—embraced by Durkheim’s other students. But unlike those other students, who chose topics with plainly evident collective dimensions—such as social rituals and forms of ritualized exchange—Hertz landed a topic whose immediate referent is the body as physical organ: the asymmetry that favors one side of the body over the other (in humans usually the right over the left). To the given physical asymmetry of right and left, Hertz argued, nearly every society has added a collective symbolic dimension—in the form of connotations of sacred for the right and profane for the left (obvious examples are visible in derivatives of the Latin terms dexter and sinister). That the body is given in nature as asymmetric is beyond human volition; but that this given condition of the body is universally seized upon as a moral symbol is a matter of collective sentiment. Hertz suggests that “[i]f organic asymmetry had not existed, it would have had to be invented” (1973: 10).19 Thus, we see in Hertz’s reading of the social collective in the body something like the reciprocal to Lakoff and Johnson’s reading of the body in the genealogy. If (as noted above) one could deny the differences between Lakoff/Johnson and Durkheim/Mauss only at the cost of considerable contrivance, it must also be acknowledge that considerable contrivance went into the creation of those differences.

Creative incorporation in both directions—toward the body in Lakoff and Johnson, toward the moral collective in Durkheim and his students—is a fascinating business, illustrating the complexity one encounters in these heady claims about the ultimate ground of knowledge. In the end there may be no image that is irreducibly collective or bodily, yet images can be tweaked to conform to analytical—and of course, political—aspirations.20 What comes through respectively in Durkheim and Mauss, and Lakoff and Johnson, are very different origin myths of the category, which spill over into different theories and rhetorics of moral obligation.

There are a number of interesting ways in which the worlds of Durkheim and Mauss and Lakoff and Johnson permeate their origin myths of the category. “He punched me in the arm. He caused me pain. Yes, causation exists.” Although Lakoff and Johnson’s little scenario falls well short of Freud’s famous primal patricide-cum-totemic meal (Totem and taboo )—an act of violence which, for Freud, marked the origin of human consciousness as we now experience it21 In the atmosphere of philosophical and economic individualism and social alienation that followed World War I, Durkheim and his students sought to prove the necessity of sociality to human life, and therefore of sociology as a discipline, by demonstrating that the possibility of any general concept rests upon the prototype experience of collective force that primordially combines the many into the one. In the early twentieth century, compelled by the vision of the failure of civilization, Durkheim looked into the Aristotelian/Kantian categories—those virtual forms, or empty molds—and in them he thought he saw the shape of a tribal camp, the palpable image of a coherent, functioning society. By contrast, in the late twentieth-century United States Lakoff and Johnson look into those same forms, and in their illustrations we see some of the common, prosaic terms of our world: the body, containers, getting into cars, getting jostled. Compared with Durkheim and Mauss’s, most contemporary readers would find Lakoff and Johnson’s account more compelling; and I suspect that among the reasons is the greater compatibility of the latter with elements of regnant worldview, including our contemporary obsessions with individualism, “personal space,” and “body image.”

The possibility for conflicting interpretations regarding prototypical experiences for fundamental categories inheres in the very notion of fundamental categories. However Aristotle arrived at his ten, the process certainly involved a deliberate search for those mental molds of most general applicability. And here we return to the basic problem: that to the extent that these fundamental categories are a successful winnowing of the most general properties of things, and molds of universal applicability, there is nothing they are not congruent with. As congruency is one, if not the main, basis on which these pairs of scholars argue for prototypicality, we are left with no shortage of candidates for the experiential prototype of the categories. To the well-established anthropological research question of how different peoples impose their different categories on the world, we should add the question of how different category-theorists impose their different worlds on the category.

Having focused on a comparison between the perspectives of Lakoff and Johnson and Durkheim and Mauss, I would like now to comment on what I see as a kind of aberration, or perhaps transformation, that begins before but crescendos after Philosophy in the flesh, in a series of popular political writings in which Lakoff ends up less at odds, than as convergent, with Durkheim and Mauss. Specifically, the role of family structure in the genesis of morality takes a new form in Lakoff’s political writings. In these he finds the difference between American conservative and liberal politics to lie in the contrast between two different models of family structure, which he terms, respectively, “Strict Father morality” (conservative) and “Nurturant Parent morality” (liberal). Lakoffs notion that different political philosophies arise from different ideal images of family structure not only starts with the collective dimension of human existence, but, more specifically, it recalls Durkheim and Mauss’s claim that different intellectual universes arise out of different social structures (or “social morphologies,” as Durkheim and Mauss called them). It is as though kinship, having shrunk from the tribe to the immediate domestic sphere in the modern world, rebounds back to the tribe in the underlying, energizing metaphors of national political debate. The argument about contrasting family models is put forward by Lakoff in a series of political writings ranging from works that interdisciplinarily inclined academics or serious general readers might consult, to tracts that would have special appeal for grass-roots organizers; these writings include Moral politics (1996), Don’t think of an elephant! (2004), Whose freedom? (2006), Thinking points (2006b), and The political mind (2008). It would be interesting to further explore the stylistic and strategic variations among these political works, but more to the point here are the qualities that unite them with one another and distinguish them as a group from earlier works by Lakoff and Johnson.

There is a shift in perspective as Lakoff moves into political pundit mode. With one important exception, which I will discuss below, “the body” or “embodiment” as source of cognitive form and moral imperative—in other words, the linchpin of Lakoff and Johnson’s earlier cognitive theorizing—recedes to a nebulous background, giving over its here-is-what-to-remember urgency to the two models of the family and their influence on politics. Why the shift? One possible reason has to do with the fact that Lakoff’s intentions are now more applied than theoretical: the underpinnings may not be necessary for arguments aimed at the broadest possible political audience. Or it may be that the underpinnings are no longer the real underpinnings. I cannot help but wonder whether the body recedes because it is not the most fruitful source image for the political message that Lakoff seems to want to send: politics is about the relationship between and among people (between and among bodies, if you will), for which the image of a family provides a more potent generative bedrock—especially for the values of empathy and nurturance, which Lakoff puts at the top of the liberal (Nurturant Parent) political philosophy that he wishes to promote, and lower in the conservative (Strict Father) political philosophy, which he wishes to challenge.23 This is speculative, of course, but not more so than the theories about category origins we have been considering. In part just because of the speculative character of their ventures, it is a stretch to see in either Durkheim and Mauss or in Lakoff and Johnson a scientific theory of the origin of categories. What we encounter is more on the order of origin myths, full of brilliant invention and experiential appeal, while infused with scientific rhetoric and the politics of the academy and the nation. The earliest recorded origin myths (the Babylonian Enuma Elish, for example, which served to legitimate the rule of the political paramount) as well as the earliest philosophical analyses of myths (Plato’s Republic is the perennial example) are intensely political; there is no reason to suppose that contemporary forms of mythologizing should be any different.

The exception to the recession of the body in Lakoff’s political writings lies in his analysis of a value that, in the earlier analyses considered above, does not figure among those ascribed to the body or to either the Strict Father or the Nurturant Parent family, namely, the value of freedom. Lakoff’s analysis of freedom is developed most fully in Whose freedom? The battle over America’s most important idea (2006), in which he claims that “the idea of freedom is felt viscerally, in our bodies, because it is fundamentally understood in terms of our bodily experiences” (2006: 29). Following the procedure laid out in Philosophy in the flesh, Lakoff begins with a discussion of the bodily experience of freedom, emphasizing especially freedom of motion, and then proceeds to derive from it philosophical inflections of the idea of freedom, emphasizing especially freedom of will and its framing within the tradition of faculty psychology:

In the Enlightenment, there was an elaborate metaphorical folk theory, called faculty psychology, in which the mind was a kind of society, with members who were individuals with different jobs. Among the members of the society of mind were Perception, Reason, Passion, Judgment, and Will. Perception gathered the sense data from the outside world; Reason figured out the consequences; Passion was the locus of desire; Will controlled action; and when Passion and Reason were in a standoff as to what Will should do, Judgment made the decision (2006: 33).

What is important about the “society of mind” metaphor in Lakoff’s political theorizing is that it and the related metaphor of the “body politic” (2006: 36) open a direct route from politics to the body. This new route, based on the image of political society as a system of mutually-sustaining parts analogized to the parts of a body or a mind, bypasses the social collectivity with most immediate impact on the formative experiences of maturing individuals in American society, namely the family. This new route thus might seem to preclude, or at least evade, a possible Durkheim-inspired alternative explanation of the experiential origin of the concept of freedom. Immediately following the sentence, quoted above, announcing the rootedness of freedom in bodily experience, Lakoff says this:

The language expressing the metaphorical ideas jumps out at you when you think of the opposite of freedom: “in chains,” “imprisoned,” “enslaved,” “trapped,” “oppressed,” “held down,” “held back,” “threatened,” “fearful,” “powerless.” We all had the experience as children of wanting to do something and being held down or held back, so that we were not free to do what we wanted (2006: 29).

Note that most of these opposites of freedom are terms whose first referent is human social relations, and that all of them have social relations as at least one possible referent. The terms are accompanied by a “just-so” story, locating the birth of the idea of freedom in the child’s experience of its opposite, that is, constraint. The fact that Lakoff gives us a list of qualities denoting malignant, freedom-denying forms of social relations, opposing these to the body’s visceral experience of freedom, stacks the argument in favor of the body and against society.

But one could easily reverse all of this, as many thinkers have, and portray the body as a source of desires that, unmitigated, work against the ideal of the well-being of all. Society, by contrast, is the source, means, and guarantor of freedom: it offers the possibility of enacting protections against unscrupulous individuals, mechanisms to adjudicate grievance, and, in language and accumulating cultural traditions, sources of intellectual and aesthetic stimulation and choice through which individuals make themselves into distinctive and effective persons. Lakoff’s origin story about the child’s first experience of constraint could be recast as the child’s primordial experience of a protective nurturance that guarantees freedom from fear and the chance to mature. Much of this theme—that is, the freedom-enhancing side of protective social constraint—can actually be found in Lakoff’s fuller analysis of freedom,24 and it all fits rather well with the Nurturant Parent liberal political model that he advocates. Once again, there is an analytical choice of what to single out as experientially primary. But to go through Lakoff’s arguments concerning freedom and counterpose a full Durkheimian alternative—that is, an account of the origins of freedom in irreducibly collective experience—would merely net another rehearsal, in a new register, of what has already been said above in the context of space, time, and causality.

Some cosmological projections may in the end have little to do with cosmology in any direct sense. At the present state of the art, our most potent and encompassing projections may be those that take the form of a claim that certain experiences are the prototypical source of categorical structure in general and thus the framework of all knowledge. Our presently most potent form of projection, in other words, is perhaps not the experience we project onto all others, but rather the experience that we project as the experience that we project onto all others (for novelty’s sake, I shall avoid labeling this as meta-projection). Rejection of the Kantian tendency to assume that the synthetic principles of cognition are inscrutable in favor of the view that they have a discoverable origin, results in these principles themselves, and even the generic structure of the category—such a prize these now are!—turning into a projective screen for the world as we know it as well as our hopes, dreams, and desires for it—a screen as alluring as the starry sky above.

Surviving and Prevailing: The Wittgensteinian Revolution

In the foregoing analysis I have focused on issues connected with one of two main usages that theorists employ when they refer to Aristotelian categories; one usage designates a list of highly-abstract, maximally-applicable predicates or frames (“time,” “space,” “cause,” etc.) judged by Aristotle as intrinsic to the making of propositions; the other designates one of the specific frames that inheres in Aristotle’s list: the notion of a “class” or “set” (or “category” in a narrower sense). In category theory these two usages often flow into one another.

By way of a complement to the foregoing, I will offer in this final section a brief excursus into a third main usage of the term “Aristotelian” in relation to categories. A category is Aristotelian in this third sense when it is a category (or set or class) that admits no gradation of membership and thus operates binarily: any entity either is or is not a member of a particular category. This is the type of “category” used by Aristotle in his logic (and hence its designation); it corresponds to what Lakoff and Johnson in Philosophy in the flesh call an “essence” prototype.25

In recent times a good deal of attention has been paid to sets that allow graded membership and “fuzzy” boundaries and which are thus different in principle from such binary or “Aristotelian” categories. Particularly influential in promoting the recognition and importance to human cognition of non-Aristotelian categories has been the work of Eleanor Rosch (1978), though founder’s credit is often accorded to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’”—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. . . .

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.—And I shall say: “games” form a family (1968: 31–32).

In an earlier work, Lakoff (1987), taking his cue from Wittgenstein and championing the work of Rosch, has portrayed the contrast between the category based on “family resemblances” and the clearly bound Aristotelian category as the basis for a major revolution in cognitive science.26 But I am intrigued by the substrate that survives this purported revolution—for once again both antipodes implicate the image of a family. Aristotle’s works on logic and classification are laden with the terminology of kinship (starting with genos or kin/family, rendered in Latin and English as “genus”), yet when Wittgenstein offers an alternative to Aristotle the alternative too is portrayed through an image of kinship, that is, “family resemblance.”

Another dimension of the appeal to kinship in the image of “family resemblance” confirms a continuing relationship between kinship and categories in recent times. Specifically, theoretical developments within the comparative study of kinship systems—a specialization that declines and then recrudesces within social and cultural anthropology—have undergone some theoretical turns that parallel the broadening of theories of categorization inspired by Wittgenstein and Rosch. The boom in comparative kinship studies in the mid-twentieth century was given impetus by the idea promoted by Durkheim that kinship systems are for societies what skeletal structures are for living organisms; as organisms are scientifically classified and compared through skeletal types, societies can be classified and compared cross-culturally through kinship-system types. A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1965) adopted this idea and developed an influential set of methods and theories about kinship, for the most part assuming that kinship systems would be unilineal (that is, based on tracing descent dominantly through either the male line or the female line). Partly as the result of the arguments of Polynesianists, notably Raymond Firth (1963; cf. Schwimmer 1978 for Maori), kinship studies more recently have accepted the possibility that the principles on which kin-groups are based may not be as neatly unilineal as once assumed: individuals are often found to claim filiation of great genealogical depth from both parents (sometimes compounding at ascending generations)—making clan membership fuzzy, negotiable, and shifting. This realization appeared just as cognitivists were recognizing that folk categories in general often allow inclusion through a plurality of routes rather than by binary criteria. Thus in these two realms—cognitive theories of folk categories, and anthropological theories of kinship—the findings converged: humans create classes characterized by flexibility, gradation of membership, and “fuzzy boundaries.” It seems that as goes theory of kinship, so goes theory of the category—or vice versa.

There are some interesting moments in these kinship debates. One of these concerns anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s discussion of the “house” in the context of kinship; “house” makes reference to a seeming kin group constituted through several inconsistent modes of filiation. As noted above, under the formative influence of Durkheim’s work on kinship, elaborated by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, the anthropological study of kinship had come to be dominated by the ideal of the clearly bounded Aristotelian category, or in other words, the assumption that all kinship groupings necessarily follow binary Aristotelian logic (any individual is a member of either this clan or that). Considering (as discussed above) that Durkheim wanted to show that Aristotelian logic derived from the forms and practices of social life—for him epitomized in the tribal genealogy—one can see why: if Aristotelian logic is to be traced to tribal kinship practice, then tribal kinship had better be Aristotelian in principle!27

As noted above, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss caused a flurry—within the rarefied milieux of kinship theory—by invoking as a kinship term a concept that relates to kinship only metonymically—the term “house”—in order to designate a type of social grouping, encountered in various parts of the world, which is based on several different modes and degrees of filiation rather than a unilineal principle of descent. It is surely an indication of the degree to which anthropological studies of kinship had been skewed in an Aristotelian/binary direction that Lévi-Strauss resorted to a term with no intrinsic connection to kinship (i.e., “house”) in order to capture the possibility of fuzziness that to the naive outsider—the philosopher Wittgenstein—seems to have been the very soul of kinship—why else would the latter have adopted “family resemblance” as the emblem of classificatory fuzziness?28

Another quirk can be found in anthropologist David Schneider’s colorful and radical critiques of the anthropological study of kinship (1968; 1984). Schneider was so struck by the variability of so-called kinship systems (and by theoretically anomalous points, some of them quite charming, such as the insistence of some informants that the dog was a member of the family) that he was led to question the very existence of this particular category of ethnographic phenomena—wondering whether kinship was an ethnographers’ illusion. But it is important to note, once again, that this skepticism developed in the context of an anthropology predisposed to search for an Aristotelian category—an Aristotelian essence of kinship. One wonders whether it would have made a difference if Schneider had, instead, approached the variability of kinship systems in terms of the possibility of discovering areas of graded overlap in the manner of Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances.” That would have been an interesting situation: kinship salvaging itself as a topic of theoretical discourse by serving as its own naive metaphor. This position has much to recommend it; and it is partly in view of this possibility that, in the face of Schneiderian skepticism, I still dare to think that kinship is a genuine topic of ethnographic exploration (even while, admittedly, remaining fuzzy about what I would expect to encounter within it). Schneider was no mythologist, yet other thinkers noticed the implications for mythology of his radical critique of kinship theory. Judith Butler (2000), for example, enlists Schneider’s critique in an influential and thought-provoking re-evaluation of the sagas of Oedipus and Antigone around their confused kinship.

Though in contemporary Western society our most widely shared public cosmologies tend not to be heavily reliant on kinship images (with exceptions of course: contemporary scientific cosmology is replete with kinship metaphors: “baby universes,” “still-born universes,” and so on), we nevertheless have maintained, even in our most rationalistically inclined intellectual pursuits, numerous forms of speculation to the effect that the cosmos, or its building-block, the category, and kinship somehow go together; like Zeus, we are not able to let go of our kinship web. These speculations range from the claim that the cosmos or the category is a projection or formalization that abstracts the structure of kinship, to the recurrent, sometimes almost subliminal, expectation that kinship will serve as a reliable metaphor for the creation of order in general. From this point of view alone it should come as no surprise that Lakoff, in the most popularizing of his works, carries his theoretical speculations about the genesis of moral reasoning in kinship into the more specific claim that the political polarity in contemporary American politics is best grasped through contrasting models of familial order (the aforementioned “Strict Father” and “Nurturant Parent” models). As noted above, Durkheim and Mauss suggest that, formal structure aside, our very predisposition to approach the cosmos as though its entities are related in a web of mutual influence, rather than as discrete isolates, flows from the experience of being born into a human situation with this character.29 Finally, it is almost as though Kant anticipated Durkheim’s sociologizing move, on this point, by naming one of his fourteen a priori categories—specifically his category of reciprocal-causality—as “community” (Gemeinschaft), thus pre-positioning a moral concept for projective extension to the physical world.

It is difficult to imagine any method that could definitively move any such ideas beyond the realm of conjecture or projection. But, given the constancy, beginning even with Copernicus (who led us out of our anthropocentrism) with which our intellectual abstractions have been attended by images of kinship, it would be equally difficult to find (should we want to) a method that would cause the latter images to definitively depart—a method that would, in other words, fully put to rest our Zeusian affliction. The borderline of the great Copernican divide, the point at which we learned to think of the universe scientifically rather than mythically—as a mechanism rather than as the rest of our family—is, logically and temporally, a fuzzy one. Fuzziness as an intellectual mood has, as one of its grammatical manifestations, double-negative constructions, for it is somehow less committal to say that “X is not without” than to say that “X is”. I therefore find it not inappropriate to conclude with a choice Lacanian triple-negative: “Not that what isn’t Copernican is absolutely unambiguous” (1991: 7)—which I take to be a French critical theory way of saying that what we mean by Copernican may not be entirely clear.


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———. 1976. Maori religion and mythology, Part 1. Wellington: Government Printer.

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———. 1968. The British folklorists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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———. 1982. The rules of sociological method. New York: The Free Press.

———. 1984. The division of labor in society. New York: The Free Press.

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———. 1967. Moses and monotheism. New York: Vintage Books.

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———. 2006. Whose freedom? The battle over America’s most important idea. New York: Picador.

———. 2006b. Thinking points. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

———. 2008. The political mind: Why you can’t understand 21st century politics with an 18th century brain. New York: Viking.

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La parenté Copernicienne : un mythe d’origine pour la catégorie

Resumé : Dans de nombreuses mythologies traditionnelles, la parenté constitue l’expression privilégiée de l’unité ainsi que de la diversité de l’univers. Dans la pensée « post-mythologique », des catégories conçues logiquement tentent de s’arroger le rôle cosmique de la parenté. Je compare deux exposés de la nature et de la genèse des catégories, celui de Durkheim et de Mauss d’une part, et celui de Lakoff et Johnson de l’autre. Aucun de ces exposés ne rompt le lien avec la mythologie, ou avec la parenté. De plus, la structure de la catégorie, tout comme la parenté, offre un mode de projection de l’être humain en tant qu’unité cosmique. À la déjà longue préoccupation anthropologique concernant la manière dont les humains imposent leurs catégories diversifiées sur le monde, devrait s’ajouter le souci des manières dont les théoriciens de la catégorie imposent leurs mondes diversifiés sur celle-ci.

Gregory Schrempp is Associate Professor of Folklore and Director of Mythology Studies at Indiana University (Bloomington). He is author of Magical arrows: the Maori, the Greeks, and the folklore of the universe (1992).

This essay will appear, in fuller form, as a chapter of The ancient mythology of modern science, by Gregory Schrempp, forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press (Spring 2012).


*. This essay is dedicated to the memory of David Schneider who, in his courses in the anthropological study of kinship at University of Chicago, constantly challenged the idea of kinship as a system isolated from other dimensions of culture and worldview. David, in some ethereal sense I hope this will remove my grade of “Incomplete” in your course.

1. Jean Dietz Moss discusses this passage from Copernicus in the context of a rhetorical analysis: “His exercise of analogy here, glorifying and personifying the sun, is intended to induce his readers to shift their emotional allegiance from what he considered an erroneous explanation of the cosmos to a more accurate one. An elegant rhetorical appeal to the emotions such as this in a work devoted to science, although strange to us, certainly would not have surprised his audience” (1993: 1). I disagree with this assessment of the source of strangeness in the passage from Copernicus. The strangeness does not flow from its status as a work devoted to science—for works by present-day science writers, and especially popular works on cosmology, are replete with appeals to emotion and we do not find it strange. Whatever strangeness we feel flows rather from the fact that this is a passage from Copernicus, to whom we have assigned a definite mythic-hero role: that of leading us out of anthropocentrism. The solar myth that Copernicus cites is not anthropocentric in the sense of placing the earth in the physical center of the cosmos, but it is anthropocentric in a way that is equally important, namely, in the assumption that the design of the physical universe confirms human moral values and rules that are encoded in kinship and in religious belief.

2. Cf. Detienne’s (1986) discussion of the prejudicial attitudes that have often propelled the idea of “myth.”

3. On the solar mythology movement, see Richard Dorson (1965, 1968) and Schrempp (1983).

4. Although Polynesia is geographically very distant from the Mediterranean, numerous variants of the story of separation of sky and earth as primal parents of the cosmos occur between these two areas, suggesting that a distant historical connection between the Greek and Maori stories is possible. Numazawa’s (1984) survey of this myth gives some indication of its geographical distribution.

5. See especially Jenifer Curnow (1985). There is also a summary and commentary on this account in Schrempp (1992: 58–59).

6. Such genealogies raise important issues concerning what we mean by narrative. Genealogy might be thought of, in certain contexts at least, as a limiting case of narrative. Any continuum of human action can, in the recounting, be thickened with lavish detail or thinned to the minimum elements that are capable of conveying a sense of a continuum of world and action, i.e., the names of the main players listed in historical sequence. We might think of genealogy as a highly presupposing narrative—a narrative that, relying on the audience’s foreknowledge of details, pares the recital to a minimal image, which can always be fleshed out. Maori genealogies are often prefaced by and punctuated with images of organic development such as the growth and spreading of vines—not unlike the Western inclination to think of genealogies as forming “trees.” Numerous examples of Maori cosmogonic genealogies can be found in Elsdon Best (1976).

7. In some Maori accounts it is ambiguous whether the first being of the cosmos is single or dual (see Schrempp 1992: 60–74).

8. For Spencer’s response to the Kantians see especially his appendix “Our space-consciousness—A reply” in his The principles of psychology (1897: 651–669). More recently, John Barrow (1995: 28) also proposes to Darwinize Kantian epistemology.

9. In both Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson one finds recognition of both a universalist level and a culturally relative level of analysis. In both projects the universal level amounts to a set of categories reminiscent of Aristotle’s categories, but both projects also recognize culturally divergent shapings of fundamental orientations. For example, some societies are organized on the principle of “dual organization” or “moieties” (in which all members of a society belong to one of two macro-clans). Such societies tend to carry this principle of organization into classification in general—so that everything in the cosmos, not just humans, belongs to one of two cosmic clans. Durkheim and Mauss treat the principle of moiety organization as an epistemologically-generative social form that is relative to social morphology rather than as a human universal. For their part, Lakoff and Johnson approach “Time is money,” or more broadly the view of time as commodity, as a realization of time which not all societies share (1999: 163–64). Kant, Durkheim/Mauss, and Lakoff/Johnson are unified in the fact that they are all convinced of the existence of universals in human knowledge even while insisting that such knowledge in some sense is relative to the nature of the knower.

10. Indeed at some points in Primitive classification it is impossible to tell whether Durkheim and Mauss are talking about the cosmos or the category: they seem to think of the image of society as inscribed simultaneously onto the cosmos—as when a society portrays the spatial organization of the cosmos on the model of the organization of its sub-clans—and onto the form of the category. The data of myth and ritual favored by Durkheim and Mauss no doubt contributed to oscillation between the category and the cosmos as the object of “this anthropocentrism, which might better be called sociocentrism” (1972: 86).

11. The contrast here necessitates the use of “anthropomorphize” in the narrow sense, to mean the imposing of human body form. This differs from my general preference for a broad usage, in which anthropomorphizing could also include the projection, onto nonhuman objects, of intangibles such as human language or of forms that humans have created as extensions of themselves, such as villages. The problem in the present instance is that since humans create their societies, according to the broad usage sociomorphizing would be part of anthropomorphizing rather than offering a contrast to it (cf. Durkheim and Mauss’s comment on “anthropocentrism” and “sociocentrism” in the previous note). As I suggest at a later point, the inelegant term “corpomorphic” might (as compared with “anthropomorphic”) be more to the point - although this usage too is ambiguous, since corpus is often cast as metaphor of the social (as in a “corps” or “corporation”).

12. We have, specifically, in Freud and in the various divisions of his followers, a great variety of formulations on the general theme that the structure, moral topography, and major “personalities” of the cosmos are projections of experiences based on one or another relation of familial kinship. The posited dynamics can be very intricate; for example in Moses and Monotheism Freud implicates the projection of stress points in familial relations not only in accounting for the shape of particular cosmological beliefs, but in accounting for a shift from one belief system to another:

The ambivalence dominating the father-son relationship shows clearly, however, in the final result of the religious innovation. Meant to propitiate the Father Deity, it ends by his being dethroned and set aside. The Mosaic religion had been a Father religion; Christianity became a Son religion. The old God, the Father, took second place; Christ, the son, stood in his stead, just as in those dark times every son had longed to do (1967: 111).

Freud’s general approach to cosmological projection has given rise to many variants, and it sometimes appears to be complemented by a sort of rebounding projection—of astronomical images into the sphere of psychoanalytical terminology and metaphor. Jacques Lacan is the exemplary case of this tendency—which can be seen for example in his discourses on the phallus and the meteor, why planets can’t talk, and the meaning of Freud’s proclamation of psychoanalysis as a Copernican revolution (e.g., 1991: 3, 13, 16, 224, 234–40). The tendency itself might be seen, from a slightly more distant perspective, as a new variation on an age-old fascination with the possibility of formal parallelism or mutual causal influences between heavenly constellations and human ones (see e.g. Aveni 1994). The American anthropological “culture and personality” movement of the mid twentieth century added to the psychoanalytic movement a heightened sense of cultural relativism by emphasizing the variability of psychodynamic “constellations” comprised in the child-rearing practices of different societies; such variability, it was argued, would be reflected in projective mechanisms, including cosmology (see Kardiner 1945; Spiro 1978).

13. The fact that Lakoff and Johnson here propose a specific “essence” prototype for the clearly bounded category, may have to do with previous work on “fuzzy” categories based on the principle that Wittgenstein dubbed as “family resemblance” (see especially Lakoff 1987). Grouping by “family resemblance” is a possibility that is never considered by Durkheim and Mauss in the pre-Wittgensteinian milieu.

14. As is the case with many works of cognitive science, the neural level is present as a sort of Promised Land toward which researchers are heading. The homage to neurons characteristic of Lakoff and Johnson is often found as well in the context of Artificial Intelligence research. For although in the latter endeavor computer emulation of intelligent processes offers a way of doing cognitive science without directly studying neurons, such efforts are sometimes accompanied by the assumption that successful emulations will turn out to have counterparts in neural structures.

15. I mean the projection of the human body as model onto the rest of the world.

16. On the place of Aristotle’s categories in the organizational plan of Durkheim’s school, see N.J. Allen (2000: 32–35 and chapters 5 and 6) and Schrempp (1992: 160–68). Unlike the American anthropology of the same period (in which each student tended to focus on a particular tribe or clan), in Durkheim’s program there was a tendency for students to choose one Aristotelian category and pursue it cross-culturally.

17. In Lakoff and Johnson’s collection of Metaphors we live by (1980) we find very few metaphors linked to kinship, and those we do find are similarly explored from the perspective of their relation to a generic individual. For example, birth metaphors (such as “our nation was born out of a desire for freedom”), which might easily be invoked to emphasize the conceptual depth at which we rely on kinship idioms, and hence a sense of the collective as a model for understanding the world, are assimilated instead to “a gestalt consisting of properties that naturally occur together in our daily experience of performing direct manipulations” (1980: 75). The same is broadly true of Mark Turner’s exploration of the kinship metaphor in Death is the mother of beauty (1987).

18. The differences between Durkheim/Mauss and Lakoff/Johnson as to the generative source of morality offer some interesting parallels to debates in the early twentieth century between Durkheim and anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski on the perspective of “functionalism,” or the idea that social practices should be analyzed in terms of the contribution they make to maintaining a system. Durkheim thought that society should be the telos of the concept of “function,” while Malinowski (see especially 1944) thought that the well-being of individuals in society should be the telos.

19. Assessments of Hertz’s work are found in Needham (1973) and McManus (2002). The asymmetric dualism of the body is seized upon by Hertz to give voice to a deeper asymmetric dualism that runs throughout Durkheim and all of his students’ work, and towards which contemporary cognitive scientists are generally skeptical. Specifically, Durkheim sought to recast the age-old tradition of mind/body dualism sociologically—as the duality of collective vs. individual consciousness. He regarded the duality of individual and society as the most basic duality, the one that underlies the range of specific dualistic formulations found through the world—body vs. mind, matter vs. spirit, sensation vs. intellect, percept vs. concept, the symbolism of left and right. In Durkheim’s view, it is in the constitutive nature of society to draw such distinctions, always asymmetrically—one pole predominating over the other just as the social predominates over the individual. Epistemology and moral philosophy derive, according to Durkheim, from the same source: intellect towers over the senses, the concept over the percept, just as the social norm towers over individual desire.

20. That images are susceptible to such tweaking would be unsurprising to those who emphasize the “fuzzy” character of categorical boundaries; see the final section on the “Wittgensteinian Revolution.”

21. Freud’s scenario of the original patricidal totemic meal is put forward in Totem and taboo (1950: 140–41). See also Girard’s (1987) treatment of myths of founding violence, and my (1998: 215) comments on Girard. Lakoff and Johnson develop their claims about embodiment and moral reasoning at the level of a generic ego in its immediate kin relations, and only then do they project these onto larger social-political realms. This part of their approach recalls Freud.

22. Certainly there is a scalar difference between category and cosmos; moreover, the former is the medium through which humans act and interact in the immediate world, while the latter is a sort of abstraction from and summing up of that world and those interactions. But the differences of scale and abstraction are matters of degree, not kind: cosmos and category ultimately belong in the same discourse.

23. There is an interesting parallel between the way Lakoff describes the morality of the Strict Father family and the way that Lakoff and Johnson describe the morality of the body, which is another factor leading me to ask whether, in challenging the Strict Father political model, Lakoff may not also be distancing himself from the body as the source of political morality. Specifically, Lakoff puts strength at the top of Strict Father family values and empathy below these (1996: 379–83; cf. 2008: 77–82), a hierarchy that would seem to correlate with the order in which the moral values of the body are listed by Lakoff and Johnson: “health, strength, wealth, purity, control, nurturance, empathy, and so forth” (1999: 331; the full text is quoted above). “Nurturance” and “empathy” are last in this list, except for “and so forth.” In other words, it appears that body-morality more comfortably fits the Strict Father (conservative) political model that Lakoff rejects than the Nurturant Parent (liberal) model that he endorses. This assessment rests on the assumption that the list’s ordering implies a hierarchy or, as I have characterized it above, a movement out from a center; and I do think a reader could reasonably take away that impression. By contrast, a Nurturant Parent family, according to Lakoff, puts empathy and nurturance first (1996: 381). I am reading a lot from a little here, but this is unavoidable since Lakoff and Johnson give us little more than the passage quoted above on how to get from kinship morality to the body.

24. See especially his chapter 3 (“The logic of simple freedom”).

25. Lakoff (2008: 79–81) suggests a linkage of the binary Aristotelian category to the absolutism of Strict Father (conservative) morality, as discussed above. Seemingly by implication, fuzzy categories belong to Nurturant Parent (liberal) morality.

26. There is a terminological problem in whether one should refer to a Wittgensteinian grouping of family resemblance as a “category.” I do follow this usage, a practice which of course leads in the direction of setting up the concept of “category” itself as a fuzzy category. Various interrelationships have been suggested between the Aristotelian and Wittgensteinian category; John Taylor (1991: 68–74) for example presents interesting arguments to the effect that both necessarily have a place in our cognitive life. His nomenclature—”folk” vs. “expert”—may be unfortunate, however, contradicting many academic and nonacademic usages of both terms—including the realm of “high-tech,” where, for example, recent computer software has turned to “fuzzy” logic (thus, in Taylor’s terms, “folk” logic) in the design of so-called “expert systems.”

27. That Wittgenstein chose the term “family resemblance” to stand for just that part of classification that does not conform to the Aristotelian category offers an interesting possible challenge to Durkheim and Mauss, since the latter attempt to derive Aristotelian logic precisely from the kinship of tribal structure. Following Wittgenstein’s metaphor, one might argue that Durkheim and Mauss’s proposed source offers a bad model of that for which it is argued to serve as prototype, namely, the Aristotelian category. However, even if at some levels of focus the difference between Aristotelian categories and Wittgensteinian categories or fuzzy sets is critical, it is not so critical from Durkheim’s perspective. In the milieu of social evolutionism, the working assumption was that classification evolved from an original state in which the human mind was able to make no distinctions whatever. Durkheim was attempting to account for the transition from total indistinction to some form of grouping; in this context, the difference between an Aristotelian and Wittgensteinian category is a mere detail.

28. Lévi-Strauss (see 1988: 186–87) in the end does not go beyond, nor admit even a possibility of going beyond, the kinship of the clear Aristotelian category, for the “house societies” are seen by him as ultimately not based on kinship, but merely as invoking a rhetoric of kinship.

29. There are long-recognized problems of circularity in Durkheim and Mauss’s arguments (e.g., see Needham 1972: xii–xv). How is the grouping of humans, which will serve as the prototype of the idea of a category, possible without an idea of category in the first place? However, the Durkheimian/Maussian arguments have more plausibility if we envision an ongoing dialectic, rather than a relation of temporal precedence and antecedence. Humans simultaneously deal with different levels and scopes of classifications—from familial relations to universe—and these levels may exercise various kinds of shaping influence on one another.