virus: Lakoff lecture part 1

Eva-Lise Carlstrom (
Wed, 12 Mar 1997 00:20:06 -0800 (PST)

The traditional Western view of a person includes the following ideas
about personhood and thought:

--people are different from animals by virtue of reason
--reason transcends the body and is separate from it
--concepts, similarly, are separate from and not limited by the body
--concepts fit the world
--perception is viridical (what you see is real)
--perception is monolithic and coherent
--people have unconstrained (radical) free will
--people tend to act so as to maximize their own self-interest (seeking
pleasure/well-being and avoiding pain/harm)
--morality derives from universal application of reason

These ideas are almost all wrong.


In the late 60s two psychologists, Berlin and Kay, conducted
cross-cultural experiments on concepts of color. Different languages have
different color categories; for example, while English has eleven basic
color terms, some languages have as few as two or three. And these
different languages may have very different boundaries for their color
terms (one lumping what we call red and yellow together, another red and
purple, for instance). But what Berlin and Kay found was that despite
the differences in the categories' number and boundaries, when people were
asked to pick the 'best example' of a color category in their language,
whatever the language was, they picked focal colors: central red, yellow,
white, green, blue, etc., and _not_ colors that fell in the center between
the boundaries of the category. For example, speakers of a language that
had one color word for blue and green would pick not aqua, but either
central blue or central green from the stack of color chips laid out in
front of them (and whether they picked the blue one or the green one might
vary from day to day in the same subject, but the aqua chips would remain

Why? Because there are three kinds of color cones in the human eye: red,
blue, and green, and various types of neural circuits that respond to
them, and everyone has this same circuitry.

With one interesting exception: Men have two types of neural receptors for
green, women 16!

We see the world as if colors were in objects in the world, but they're
really in our eyes and brains. Even the structure of a color category is
in our circuitry (deep green, pale green, pure green, bluish green).
Color is an interactional effect between the environment and us.

Humans have a 3-dimensional color system: hue, tint (light/dark), and
chroma (bright/greyed). But some monkeys have a 4D system, and some
birds 5D! They create categories in the world that we can't.

The color evidence shows that our concepts relate to our bodies.

(see part 2 for more)