Body, Theories of

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Body, Theories of

The phrase theories of the body refers to philosophical and medical-scientific discourses as well as politically informed cultural critiques such as feminist and queer studies. In all these cases the body emerges as a concept marked by internal division in terms of sex and gender, age, size, and color as well as a word that signals its difference from its implied opposite: mind, spirit, psyche, soul, or any other term used to describe personhood outside its material manifestations.


The internal differentiation of the body has been the starting point for most current theorizations of the body in critical cultural studies. The division between the body and its external material context, along with its difference from the immaterial mind, soul, or spirit, has been the subject of philosophical and religious speculation since the beginnings of Western history. The emergence of modern scientific thought in the seventeenth century heralded a new form of interest in the body as organism and as social phenomenon.

The distinct perspectives on the body occasionally become so entwined that they become indistinguishable. However, the different interests these discourses bring to their object of speculation inevitably lead to equally divergent theoretical constructions of the elusive phenomenon at the focus of their attention: the human body. Because no theory of the body is disinterested, contemporary theories of the body should be assessed against the conceptual entanglement of bodies as organisms and bodies as social phenomena.


Current critical analyses of the body usually take the eighteenth-century medicalization of the body or the seventeenth-century philosophical preoccupation with the mind-body distinction as their point of departure to call into question what has been characterized as the inalienable dualist nature of Western thought. There are problems with both approaches. Although it may be claimed that from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427–347 bce) to the French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes (1596–1650) prevailing Western notions of the body have evolved largely from a split between mind and body, spirit and flesh, psyche and soma, there has been an alternative line of analysis in which the immaterial aspects of human being have been conceptualized as having an intrinsic interrelation with the matter of bodies, inseparable from the flesh.

As early as 360 bce the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 bce), investigating the soul and its properties in De Anima, claimed that the soul is a "first actuality of a natural organic body" (Aristotle 1987, p. 60), thus introducing a notion of nondualist embodied being that was taken up and elaborated on by a series of later philosophers, including Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), Friedrich Nietzsche (1884–1900), and Giambattista Vico (1668–1744).

Even in Plato the dualist mind-body distinction is complicated by that philosopher's additional supposition of the soul as the directing force of the body (Plato 2005). Plato believed that the body and the mind exist separately and often stand in opposition to each other in that the interests of the body are mere physical needs and sensual pleasures whereas the mind has the ability and will to gain real knowledge of ideal forms. However, it is the soul that tries to bind mind to body, attempting to make them run together rather than allowing them to be pulled in contradictory and opposite directions. Although its undeniably dualist character came to prevail in most modern theories of the body, the complications of Plato's tripartite model reemerge in theological and religiously inspired theories of the body in the period immediately preceding the rise of modern philosophy, that is, in the middle ages and the early Renaissance.


Late mediaeval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) used the Aristotelian concept of the soul as life principle, locating knowing, feeling, and experiencing in the body and thus categorizing human beings in accordance with a threefold principle in which the differences between the levels of spirit and soul often were seen as more important than those between soul and body. The pervasive influence of Christian doctrine in that period may have reinforced a Platonic devaluation of the (sinful) flesh in favor of the higher faculties of the soul or spirit; the medieval fascination with the flesh did not imply a simple rejection of the body to celebrate the soul as a separate entity. That would have been a conceptual and a doctrinal impossibility in the context of a religion that revolved around the divine offering redemption by becoming flesh (Bynum 1995).

Whereas early fourteenth-century theologians tended to follow Aquinas in positing the soul as that which carries the structure of a person if the body is absent, in the normal or desired situation personhood was thought to be determined equally by body and soul. Rather than an unambiguously dualist line running uninterruptedly through theories of the body from Plato to Descartes, it is more accurate to suggest that the newly emerging mathematical and natural sciences spurred seventeenth-century philosophers to develop a rigorous theory of personhood that would install the split between mind and body and continue to predominate in debates for the next three hundred years.

In an attempt to break free from the speculative neo-Aristotelian notions of the person that had triumphed within the Catholic Church and the theological circles of his day, Descartes introduced a reduction of truth to that which can be apprehended by the mind exclusively operating with its own resources (Descartes 1984). Truth thus becomes the product of a self-referential system of cognition that is dependent on nothing but itself: thinking. The elevation of mind over body that follows from this premise institutes the dualist framework in which mind and body are conceived of as separate, self-contained spheres, incompatible and mutually exclusive substances. The Cartesian mind is set up as the essence of the person, existing entirely independently of the body.

The mathematical security Descartes gained from the absolute separation of mind and matter came at the cost of several forms of ontological reduction that it has taken centuries of philosophizing to reconcile. The positing of consciousness—Descartes's term for the earlier notion of soul—as an entity in and of itself that is amenable only to first-person knowledge made it unfeasible to think through any form of interaction between consciousness and body as manifested in movement, for instance, or in the body's response to conceptual demands or requirements. Also, the presumed self-referential nature and radical independence of consciousness renders it autotelic, i.e., having itself as its sole purpose, to the extent that any knowledge or awareness of other people's minds or even of other persons is in effect a logical impossibility. After Descartes the human body has tended to be explained entirely in mechanical terms without any reference to life forces.

The power of the Cartesian heritage can be seen in the fact that until fairly recently the body as matter, as a self-moving automaton, has been marginalized in the history of modern Western philosophy, which has been preoccupied with theories of mind. The fact that certain conceptions of mind may be used to explain the body does not detract from the reductionism of this concept, for whether the mind is reduced to the body or the body is reduced to the mind, either strategy serves to bridge the irreducible gap or explain away the impossibility of explicating their interaction within a rationalist framework. The influence of Descartes is palpable in the fact that since the onset of modernity the body as organism has been regarded primarily as an object of investigation for the life sciences, biology, and medicine (Grosz 1994).

When the body has been studied outside the natural sciences, it often has been treated as a mere extension or map of the human faculties or behaviors that are amenable to the human sciences, for instance, as a cartographic resource for symptoms in psychology, a variably meaningful entity in anthropology, and a transformational force in sociology. In political-philosophical discourses the Cartesian tradition is sustained by the focus on the body as an instrument or tool at the disposal of consciousness or, alternatively, as the possession or property of an autonomous subject. The fact that several of Descartes's fundamental assumptions have continued to prevail through the history of (post)modernity, however, does not mean that there have not been alternative voices that have attempted to overcome the limitations of rationalist reductionism.


The first serious attempts to subvert Cartesian dualism occurred in the nineteenth century among thinkers such as Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831), Karl Marx (1818–1883), Nietzsche, and Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855). Each of these thinkers tried to overcome the mind-body distinction that still dominates approaches to embodied personhood in much of analytic philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence programs. It was not until the rise of phenomenology in the twentieth century, with representatives such as Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) (Husserl 1967), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) (Heidegger 1962), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) (Sartre 1956), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 1964), however, that an effective counterdiscourse developed that could be reworked and extended by post-structuralist and feminist thinkers such as Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), Michel Foucault (1926–1984), Julia Kristeva (b. 1941), and Luce Irigaray (b. 1930), among others.


Phenomenologists reject the (post) Cartesian biological-mechanistic approach to the body as physical object (Körper), instead focusing on the lived body (Leib) as it functions in the world: With phenomenology the question of the body shifts to the question of embodiment. By investigating and illuminating the interrelation between the body, actions, and perceptions, phenomenology overcomes the reductionism of Cartesian dualism and lays the foundations for theories of the body that supplement philosophical thought with insights from psychoanalysis, social history, literary theory, and gender and sexuality studies.

Freud and Lacan

Although his work on soma and psyche was steeped in contemporary medical-scientific frameworks, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, complicated prevailing notions of the body by stipulating the difference between the body as organism and the human subject as a psychosomatic being (Freud 1995). The human organism, Freud maintains, knows only needs that must be fulfilled to safeguard its survival. The human subject of desire, in contrast, comes to know itself both in its embodiedness and in its relations to other bodies and other objects under the aspect of the psyche. The human ego derives its primary experience of itself through its corporeal interactions with the outside world, mainly through sense perception. To perceive of the body as mere outside or shell of an independent interiority thus fails to do justice to the irreducible complexity of psychosomatic being. The fact that in his clinical practice Freud came to regard the body as a map from which symptoms of the subject's interior could be gleaned does not detract from the importance of his earlier insight into the irreducibility of the person to soma or psyche.

When Jacques Lacan analyzed Freud's theories in the 1940s, one of his major aims was to integrate a psychoanalytic account of the ego with an account of the body. For Lacan the human infant is nothing more than a "body in bits and pieces" (Lacan 1953, p. 13) until the moment between ages six and eighteen months when the infant becomes capable of recognizing the image of his or her self in the mirror, having its first anticipation of itself as a unified and separate individual (Lacan 1977a). Imaginary from the start and fundamentally dependent on the perception and experience of that which is other—both other human beings and the scene of otherness in which the mirror recognition occurs—the subject's sense of embodiment is marked by alienation and is of a profoundly transitive nature. A further form of alienation takes place when the child enters the realm of language, the symbolic order, in which she or he is assigned her or his predetermined role on either side of the sexual divide. While Lacan's theorization of the human ego, which is "structured like a language" (p. 20) appears to depart even further from the body as matter or flesh than Freud's distinction between the body as organism and the embodied ego, it is the importance of the mirror stage in the Lacanian ego's development that points to the critical role of the body as matter in its imaging of itself as well as the internal connection of the ego to other bodies (Lacan 1977b).


One of the most influential theorists of the body in the late twentieth century was the social historian and philosopher Michel Foucault. Harking back to phe-nomenological insights into the intertwining operations of structures and forces to produce the reality and experience of the lived body in the world without a controlling center, Foucault situates the body as a production caught in a network of power relations, each in its own way shaping and disciplining its materiality in accordance with historically shifting standards of normalization and intelligibility (Foucault 1970, 1972). Because the power relations at the focus of his analysis are not the large-scale structures of the economy and the state but the micro-level power relations represented by, for instance, hospitals, schools, and prisons, Foucault identifies the body as the principal target of modern power, that is, power operating in a capillary fashion throughout the social body; this can best be grasped in its concrete and local effects on the human body and in the everyday practices by which established power relations generally are reproduced and sustained (Foucault 1990).

Queer Theory

Taking their lead from Foucault (1995), most contemporary queer theorists aim their critiques at the disciplinary and constraining medical and juridical discourses that at the end of the nineteenth century produced the pathologically sexed, perverse, or homosexual body (Ellis 1897, Krafft-Ebing 1939). Aiming at denaturalizing the notion of a biologically sexed and/or sexualized body, such critiques have shown that rather than being biologically given or emerging in nature, differentiated forms of embodiment, whether in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, and/or class, are generated by the socially and discursively constructed frameworks of interpretation or grids of intelligibility that establish and maintain dominant power relations and inscribe strict boundaries between normal and abnormal, healthy and pathological, conceptually and socially viable and nonviable (Laqueur 1990, Davidson 1992).

Although such queer critiques have helped liberate the pathologized homosexual body from the naturalizing disciplinary practices of medicine and the law, they also have demonstrated that discursive practices are productive rather than merely prohibitive, enabling certain categories of being to come into their own rather than repressing or regulating them. However, in their effort to locate the emergence of the category of the sexualized body historically, those theories tend to presume a kind of stability or even a singular quality in such (abnormal) sexualities as sexualities. This not only threatens to result in the kind of essentialization of deviant bodies that these critiques set out to dismantle, it also fails to do justice to the complex interrelations between medical and juridical discourses on sexuality and the equally significant, often contradictory discourses on race, gender, primitivism, and degeneration that undergird early modern biological discourses (Nordau 1990). In other words, the exclusive focus on the medical construction of a deviant sexual body threatens to obscure the operations of the multiple and shifting sociopolitically interested frameworks in which these scientific discourses function and develop (Terry 1995, Somerville 1994, Seitler 2004).


The problems posed by most mainstream (male-authored) theories of the body for feminist theorists, including contemporary critics, derive partly from the general neglect of the specificity of female bodies and the traditional reduction of women to their bodies as distinct from and secondary to the primary (male) powers of the mind. Female sexuality and women's reproductive capacities traditionally formed the parameters of misogynist definitions of femininity. This explains why the first generation of second-wave feminist theorists resisted reexaminations of (theories of) the body and instead tried to achieve equality on intellectual or conceptual grounds (de Beauvoir 1993, Firestone 1970).

With the gradual establishment of poststructuralist theory and the introduction of so-called French feminist thought (Kristeva 1980, 1986; Irigaray 1977), however, a generation of feminist theorists emerged with a much more positive attitude toward the body, seeing it not as a biological obstacle but as an object of representation and signification in which the markings of masculinity and femininity both find expression and function in the practices of everyday life, although in radically different and unequal ways. Some poststructuralist feminists maintain a relatively strict split between mind and body by recasting dualism as the sex-gender distinction in which the sexed body is seen as the biological base from which the cultural meanings of gender derive and on which they are inscribed (Gallop 1988, Spivak 1988). Others reject the distinction between biological sex and cultural gender and see the gendered body not as passive matter but as a lived phenomenon thoroughly entwined with constitutive systems of signification and representation (Butler 1990, 1993; Grosz 1994).

Although the need to escape from biological determinism initially led to a relative downplaying of the body in the development of feminist theory, an increasing awareness of the body as a site of contestation in a range of economic, political, sexual, and philosophical struggles has resulted in a number of feminist theorists directing their attention to the body from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Reacting against a history in which the body has been devalued because of its primary association with femininity, as distinct from the more valuable masculine mind, the more philosophical and theoretical branch of 1990s corporeal feminism posits the body as a primary site of gender constitution whose negation has produced a seemingly immutable sexual difference (Gatens 1996, Grosz 1994). Particularly influential has been notion of the body as a performative act, that is, the idea that gendered bodies are a material production, the result of the repetition and reiteration of preexisting rules and regulations that render certain forms of embodiment culturally intelligible and socially viable while excluding and devaluing alternative forms of corporeality (Butler 1990, 1993). Such excluded bodies, for instance, those marked as lesbian, come to function as that which is abjected from dominant culture. In both of these views the female body is seen as something that must be retrieved from a repressive and negating masculinist metaphysics that situates the female body as a kind of limit point outside representation.

Countering the inherent negativity of corporeal feminist critiques, a more positive approach to the body is offered by contemporary feminist theorists who take their cue from the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and Félix Guattari (1930–1992). Warning against the risk of essentializing the female body as a metaphysical limit case and thus precluding an examination of the specific historical regimes that regulate bodies, these theorists offer a positive feminist ethics in which thought, reason, and discourse are seen as bodily events and in which the body figures as the event of expression (Bray and Colebrook 1998, Buchanan and Colebrook 2000). Rejecting the idea that corporeality, materiality, and sexual difference are anterior to thought or are negated by representational regimes, these theorists claim that both bodies and representations are aspects of an ongoing process of negotiation and reconfiguration in which no single event fully determines the meaning or materiality of any body and in which practices of signification function in a positive, enabling manner as much as they may limit or constrain the event of corporeal becoming. The extent to which this positive ethics will help bring about change in oppressive bodily practices in different socio-cultural domains remains to be seen. What it does offer is a theory of (female) embodiment that leaves room for both corporeal agency and creative practices of (im)material becoming.


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                                           renée c. hoogland