philosophy and the body

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philosophy and the body The human body occupies an ambiguous, even a paradoxical role in cultural categorizations — from the cosmologies of the archaic societies to the concepts and practices of modern Western civilization. It is the most obvious and familiar visible ‘thing’ perceived, and yet tends to disappear in the very act of perception of, or relation to, the outside world. The ambiguous nature of the body may be formulated in a number of binary oppositions. The body is both the Same and the Other; both a subject and an object of practices and knowledge; it is both a tool and a raw material to be worked upon. The body appears to oscillate between presence and absence, most paradoxically in intense feelings — feelings as sensations and feelings as emotions. The body seems to be simultaneously the subject of highly articulated utterance and yet at perpetual risk of disappearing from our awareness.

As an element in cultural categorizations, the role of the human body goes far beyond its concrete physical boundaries. It acts as the basic model for cosmological schemes. This is obvious in the overt anthropomorphism of ‘primitive’ cosmologies. Less obviously, however, it may be detected in the basic scheme by which the order of the outside world is related to that of the inside in the macrocosm–microcosm model which has been so central in Western cultural tradition since Greek antiquity.

Body and …

From the start, the human body as a topic of both religious and philosophical thought has been structured in terms of distinction and difference — which derives from the very intellectual act of defining the body as an object of knowledge. Thinking about the body necessarily implies a vantage point which lies outside the body and is not identical with it. All the dualistic conceptions of the ‘body and x’ (where x = spirit, soul, mind, reason, psyche, or self) — prominent in the Western tradition — have their roots in this basic constellation, which allocates the vantage point to a perceiving and comprehending consciousness viewing the body from a position which is logically, if not always spatially, detached.

This consciousness cannot grasp its own end (death), despite being fundamentally consciousness of death's inevitability. Consequently, even the prehistoric peoples believed in an aspect distinct from the body and residing in it: a spirit or soul which, according to an anthropomorphic scheme, was projected to all beings of the world. In animistic thinking, all these beings (humans, animals, trees, and stones) had a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ (anima), and thus they conceived of these beings as ‘living’. However, the fixed point of anthropomorphism was located in the mystery of the life and death of the human body. Following E. B. Tylor it could be said that the distinction of body and ‘soul’ is determined in the relationship between the animate and the inanimate body. The soul is the outcome of the subtraction between them.

This is the basic distinction which is not yet linked to the distinction of material versus immaterial. Actually, in animistic thought the spirit was conceived of as a material (fluid) substance. Traces of this mode of thinking are found even in the Eucharist formula equating the two distinctions of body/soul and body/blood of Christ. Such ‘materialism’ is characteristic of the earlier stages of the Christian tradition — from the early Hebrews, who apparently had a concept of the ‘soul’ but did not separate it from the body, to the subsequent Old Testament formulations of the soul relating it to the concept of breath. Breath and blood are the two essential remainders of the live/dead subtraction, and it is worth noting that the term ‘breath’ in many languages refers also to ‘spirit’, which, not by accident, also indicates a fluid consistency.

The basic live/dead distinction does not necessarily imply the distinction of mortal versus immortal, even though the impossibility of comprehending the discontinuity of consciousness — while witnessing the decay of the body — involves a strong tendency to make such a connection. Both the difference between these two distinctions and their close relationship was manifested in the ancient Egyptian and Chinese ideas of a dual soul. The Egyptian ka (breath) survived death but remained near the body while the spiritual ba proceeded to the region of the dead. Similarly, the ancient Chinese distinguished between a lower, sensitive soul, which disappears with death, and a rational principle, the hun, which survives and joins the realm of ancestors.

Even the Old Testament — relating the soul to breath — lacks a distinction of the ethereal soul and the corporeal body: the strong formulation of a body/soul dichotomy actually originated with the ancient Greeks and was introduced into Christianity by St Gregory of Nyssa and StAugustine in the fourth and fifth centuries. In fact the major Greek influence on Christianity was Plato's and the Neo-Platonists' understanding of the soul as immaterial and incorporeal substance. This was the junction in which two of the aforementioned distinctions merged: the duality of material versus immaterial was linked to the duality of temporal (or discontinuity) versus eternal (or continuity). This is where the ‘body vs. x’ dualism — x being either soul, spirit (now immaterialized), or mind — is constituted in a stronger sense; it recurs thereafter in a variety of formulations within the Western philosophical and religious tradition.

However, this is not to say that the variety of attempts to solve the metaphysical ‘body vs. x’ dilemma did not include a number of reductionistic ‘solutions’ in which the other pole of the dualism is brought back to or subsumed under its opposite, which is thus defined as the primary being or substance. Such solutions were proposed within both idealist and materialist traditions, but more obviously in the latter (crudely: from Epicureans to behaviourists). On the other hand the philosophical tradition also contains attempts to overcome the dualism — while at the same time maintaining it — by means of a third entity which brings the two poles together, into a unity.

From body-mind dualism …

Thus it was, for example, when the paradigmatic figure of the body/mind dualism, René Descartes (1596–1650), formulated the absolute distinction between mental and material substance. The characteristic of the former was consciousness or ‘thinking’ (res cogitans) while the characteristic of the latter was that of occupying space (res extensa). He still needed a third entity to bring these two poles together: God. Then again, it should be noted that the Cartesian body/mind dualism defines the latter pole (mind) in a manner which distinguishes it both from the older idea of an immaterial soul and from the sense of the term ‘mind’, referring in broader terms to the whole human psyche, which was formulated and taken into use from the nineteenth century onwards. Descartes' concept of the ‘mind’ includes the acts of pure intellect and of will but excludes all the other aspects of the psyche — sensations, imagination, and emotions — which are located in the body and operate in the interactive and intermediate realm, bringing the body into a close relationship not only with the mind but also with the external world. So separate status is given only to the pure thought of the individual capable of controlling himself through acts of will — and being linked to the body only via the third entity (God). All the other dimensions of the mind — in the contemporary, broad sense — are conceived of both as bodily processes, in a manner corresponding to the materialism of humoral medicine, and as components involved in the interaction between the mind and body. In this respect Descartes' interactionist stance differs from some later Cartesian formulations, according to which there can be no direct interaction between mind and body and any instances of mind affecting body or vice versa must be explained as a result of God's intervention on the specific occasion.

Benedict Spinoza (1632–77) modified the Cartesian metaphysics of body/mind duality by replacing the idea of two distinct substances with the ‘double-aspect theory’. This supposed a single substance (God or Nature) possessed of infinite attributes, of which the mental and the material are knowable to human beings. According to Spinoza, whatever manifested itself under one attribute had its counterpart in all the others; this implied — when reduced to the two knowable aspects — that to every mental event there was a precisely corresponding physical event, and vice versa.

In Spinoza's double-aspect theory (as also in later versions of neutral monism) the third element, which should dissolve the duality into a unity, is located at the level of substance, while the dual opposition is transferred to the realm of attributes. However, such a modification does not solve the problem concerning the relationships between the defined entities any more than the Cartesian abstract synthesis solved it by means of God. Yet Spinoza's reformulation was a step towards thematizing the body/mind relationship — and especially the influence of the body on the mind — more systematically than Descartes had done.

… to brain-mind reduction

Nevertheless, body/mind duality still remains in such neutral monism. Only if the common substance is interpreted in materialist terms — reducing mind into matter and, thus, reducing one of the poles in the duality to the other — is there a ‘solution’ concerning the relationship, albeit a reductionistic one. Here the third (uniting) element is rendered useless inasmuch as matter and its motion is given the quality of ‘the eternal’, of which mind is a specific temporal manifestation. It is temporal both as structured materiality, the brain (which we would now regard as a product of evolution), and as functioning mind (thinking, feeling, etc.). Actually, such a materialism tends to replace the older psycho-physiological parallelism (represented by Spinoza) — the body/mind relationship — with a narrower one — a brain/mind relationship in which states of mind, from emotions to thoughts, are reducible to motion in the brain. Materialism of this sort is not merely pure philosophical speculation. It figures in some fields of practical research, pursuing the detection of ever more subtle one-to-one relationships between the processes of brain and mind, which are strong in contemporary neuroscience and in biologically-oriented psychiatry. On the other hand, even though modern neuroscientific research may very well find new correspondences between the actions of brain and mental phenomena, the problem of duality remains, simply because there is a systemic difference between action in the brain and the dynamics of the mind. To take a simple example, even though all the neurological mechanisms involved in the act of seeing could be defined, the fact that ‘I see’ still remains an unsolved mystery. Explicating the latter presupposes an essential shift in register. Specifically, we may speak of the psychodynamics of the process, which is not only located in the body but at the same time transgresses the bodily boundaries and is a central aspect of relatedness to other body/minds (= selves) and thus to the shared ‘third world’, which we may now (following Karl Popper, 1902–94) characterize as society, culture, and language.

However, even though the mind is re-defined in a broader sense which extends beyond the Cartesian mind as reflective reason, and even though it is granted a certain autonomy with a dynamics of its own, the mind/body problem still prevails — in so far as the mind is still conceived of as self-consciousness and the latter is equated with the constitution of the subject. Such a conception of the self-conscious subject not only figures in Cartesian rationalism (‘I think, therefore I am’) but is a much more general characteristic of the Western philosophical tradition from Plato onwards. Even more generally, it is a characteristic of the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition and the ascetic ideal it cherishes, privileging soul over body, mind over senses, duty over desire.

Psychoanalysis and phenomenology

The latter interpretation was made by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), whose philosophy could be characterized as a critique of the philosophical and religious tradition which cast the body in an inferior and objectified position relative to the disembodied soul, mind, and consciousness. Nietzsche pursued the opposite direction by privileging the body over the soul, or better, by embodying the spirit (Geist) and arguing that the ‘spiritual’ should be understood as the ‘sign-language of the body’. In other words, Nietzsche emphasized the bodily origins of the spirit — ‘or the soul or the subject’ — thus formulating an idea suggestive of the subsequent Freudian concept of ‘sublimation’. In the same vein, Nietzsche shifted the focus from the conscious to the ‘dark side’ of the human mind, from the rational to the non- and irrational layers, thus anticipating the later psychoanalytic interpretation of the unconscious. Nietzsche's philosophical reflections on the human body, and his pursuit of going beyond the dualistic schemes in which the body had been imprisoned in the Western philosophical tradition, remained primarily at a programmatic rather than a systematic level. Nevertheless his thought has surely had an essential influence on later theorizing of the bodily themes, especially on the ideas of the French ‘post-structuralist’ Michel Foucault (1926–84), but the more systematic elaborations related to the problem of body/mind dualism and aiming beyond it are located primarily in two, partially interrelated, thought traditions: Freudian psychoanalysis and phenomenology, the latter especially represented by the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–61).

The psychoanalytical approach from Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) onwards, in different variations, introduces a new formulation of the human mind which acknowledges its relative autonomy and its own specific dynamism and, furthermore, locates within it an ‘other scene’, the unconscious. Relating to the body/mind problem, the unconscious may be conceived as an intermediate realm constituting a continuity both between the body and the mind and between the mind/body unity and its social context or the cultural ‘third world’, especially as shared language.

The former link is emphasized in the formulations introduced already by Freud himself: ‘The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface.’ In other words, the ego, and thus also the distinction between the ego and the id (involving the acknowledgment of the unconscious), are seen as deriving from the bodily being-in-the-world or, as Freud puts it, ‘from bodily sensations, chiefly from those springing from the surface of the body’. Thus the formulation both establishes a ‘body–mind’ continuum and restructures the ‘mind’ by introducing its unconscious components. On the other hand, the bodily being-in-the-world implies always a relatedness to a socially constructed reality and thus the unconscious can act also as an opening and link to this shared realm. This latter link is emphasized especially in a more recent reformulation of the concept of the unconscious by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan (1901–81).

The other central attempt to go beyond body/mind duality, and the intellectualist and empiricist stances it involves, is made by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his project on the phenomenology of the body. At the outset Merleau-Ponty rejected not only Cartesian dualism but also both psychoanalytic and structuralist approaches. In his view — especially in the earlier stages of his project — psychoanalytic conception of the human mind (unconscious included) reduced the human body to a mere mental representation (body-image), neglecting its actual bodiliness. So his starting point was in the sensory and experiencing body ‘before’ the reflective consciousness, as it were, from which he proceeded to the more complex form of relatedness of the body-subject to the world of objects and other people. According to Merleau-Ponty the emergence of the more complex forms of relatedness did not imply the marginalization of the human body into a mere abode of the mind but, on the contrary, the ‘higher’ functions, including thought itself, should still be regarded as bodily functions referring not only to the human brain but to the whole body in its relational being-in-the-world. Consequently, for Merleau-Ponty the speaking subject is still first and foremost a body-subject: ‘authentic speech is the presence of thought in the world — not its garment, but its body.’ In his latest writings, just before his death, Merleau-Ponty was revising his relationship to psychoanalytic thought, and his formulations approached the psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious.

Pasi Falk


Falk, P. (1994). The consuming body. Sage Publications/TCS, London.
Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind. University of Chicago Press.
Leder, D. (1990). The absent body. University of Chicago Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968). The visible and the invisible, followed by working notes. Claude Lefort (ed.). Northwestern University Press, Evanston.

See also mind–body problem; perception.

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