I MMA C U L ATA MA G A Z I N E * F A L L 2 0 1 3
“I’m fascinated by the study of consciousness,” said Stephanie
Theodorou, Ph.D., professor of Philosophy. “What is it? How does
it work? Why do we have it?”
Theodorou specializes in phenomenology, the study of con-
sciousness, self-awareness and other-awareness, how the mind
processes events, and how we structure and interpret these mental
experiences. She recently wrote an article about plasticity of
mind—the idea that our minds are always absorbing and adjust-
ing to new information—and included similar assertions on this
subject made by Eastern and Western philosophers as well as
“The brain adapts and builds its cognitive apparatus through
‘billions of interlacing neuronal spiders’s webs,’” Theodorou writes.
Because of the stream of new experiences and perceptions we are
constantly having, “these neural webs are in constant production,
development, and repair.”
However, Theodorou adds, “the concepts we build depend
upon and are limited by the sorts of perceptual experiences we are
having.” Interestingly, this is an assertion made both by Dharma-
kirti, an Indian Buddhist philosopher from the seventh century,
and Hegel, a 19th-century German philosopher. Both thinkers,
though separated by their cultural heritage and by several cen-
turies, believed that our senses and our historical contexts place
certain constraints on our ability to perceive the world and yet help
to shape how we progressively understand it through the develop-
ment of our consciousness.
As a result, we have to distinguish between objective reality
and our subjective mental constructions of it. Those construc-
tions are relatively trustworthy, yet imperfect and incomplete.
Fortunately, neuroplasticity allows us to continually update our
interpretation of the world, allowing us to form wider and more
comprehensive frameworks through which we apprehend the world
and its meanings.
One tool that helps us in this effort is metaphor. Theodorou
has recently published an article for the
Internet Encyclopedia of
that centers on the phenomenological understanding of
metaphor. Most people think of metaphor as a literary device that
enables us to better understand concepts by means of a substitute,
something simple that corresponds to something more complex.
Language that is literal and descriptive is the primary type we use
to speak about reality, and metaphor is a secondary type of lan-
guage that can supplement our ordinary understanding of reality.
The article makes a different argument. Phenomenology
questions whether there is really such a sharp distinction between
the literal and the figurative uses of language. What if symbols
are actually the primary way we understand and speak about the
world? Some post-modern philosophers argue that all language is
metaphor, but Theodorou warns against going to extremes. In her
article, she summarizes the views of various Western philosophers,
including Nietzsche, Heidegger, Ricoeur and Derrida, who con-
tended that metaphor is the foundational way that we learn about
the world, and that literal, propositional language is not as accurate
as we think it is in describing reality or conveying meaning.
In her other scholarly works, Theodorou argues that if meta-
phors are to be foundational, they can only carry real meanings if
they still relate in some basic way to the language of perception.
She uses research from cognitive science to develop this argument
and bring it into speculative hermeneutics, a branch of philosophy
Metaphor helps us bring together different regions of experi-
ence in order to gain new ways of looking at the world and the self,
Theodorou said. She pointed out that Jesus spoke in parables using
metaphors that involved familiar objects, serving to “ground mean-
ing in real experience, while also conveying a richer set of mean-
ings that challenged the limits of everyday understanding, opening
the mind and spirit to the infinite.”
Humans are not the only creatures who can understand and
adapt to new knowledge, nor are they the only ones who use sym-
bols that are based in perception. Some animals—pigs, elephants,
dolphins, primates, and others—have advanced nervous systems
and some degree of consciousness, Theodorou said. They use basic
symbols to communicate in a form of language. They have ritual-
ized behavior that has social meaning. They also feel pain, which
introduces a number of ethical questions. Theodorou’s interest in
these issues has led her to co-edit
Animal Experience: Conscious-
ness and Emotions in the Natural World
, which is part of the
Books About Life
series published by Open Humanities Press. The
volume is expected to come out this winter.
Consciousness and neuroplasticity also have social implica-
tions. Just as an individual acquires, synthesizes, and integrates
new information to form new conceptions of reality, our political
consciousness and our sense of collective cultural identity continue
to evolve as well. Globalization, facilitated by new modes of com-
munication, is opening up new domains of human experience as
different cultures interact and learn from each other.
Continued on page 78
STEPHANIE THEODOROU, PH.D.