The Body in Philosophy

While the history of philosophical and moral deliberations about human life is quite as sophisticated and colorful as medical history, the bulk of reflections have focused on mind (person, self, subjectivity, and related notions) (Zaner, 1980). With some notable exceptions, however, there has not been nearly as much reflection about body per se. In large part, a basically traditional view of these matters was assumed: that body and soul are distinct (or even separate) realities, and that what is essential in human life is to be found in the soul, not the body. The soul (mind, reason) is the pure and unchanging essence of the human; the body, on the other hand, is a baser sort of affair, belonging to the changeable, the temporal, and the corrupt. The soul, imprisoned within the corporeal, is subject to the body's peculiar "nature," its appetites and inclinations, but has its true destiny and nature elsewhere—a destiny it must pursue by becoming freed from its worldly, bodily prison.

There have been exceptions to this view of the human body. René Descartes (1596-1650), for example, argued that mind (res cogitans) and body (res extensa) are to be understood as "substances": mutually exclusive, self-subsistent, and ontologically distinct entities, neither of which requires the other to be or to be known. This familiar bifurcation of reality (dualism), often said to be at the basis of modern medicine and modern thought more generally (Cassell, 1991; Eccles), led Descartes to the view that mind and body "interact" in some manner, although specifying that the form of this interaction proved to be inordinately difficult and highly problematic (Leder).

Hardly satisfied with that, and challenged by Princess Elizabeth (daughter of the exiled king of Bohemia, living at the time in Holland), Descartes's reflections on the body show a surprising turn—one that has not been well appreciated. The mind, he thought, is not "in" the body in the way a boatman is "in" a boat—contingently or accidentally. Rather, the mind is "intimately" connected to the body, an "intimate union" that led him to the view that the human body is intrinsically complex and not at all the simple "extended substance" posited in his metaphysics (Zaner, 1988). As Descartes remarked to Princess Elizabeth, neither mathematics nor metaphysics is capable of apprehending this union. It can be known only in "daily conversation" and in clinical encounters—one might say that the union is essentially a matter of concrete experience (Descartes, 1967; Descartes, 1973; Lindeboom).

To be sure, from his early work in anatomy, Descartes had learned that the cadaver does indeed seem to be little more than such "extension." But from his earnest attempts to provide medical diagnosis, he knew full well that while it is alive, the body is far more than merely a material entity extended in space. For example, writing of the "dropsical patient" in his Meditations (Descartes, 1955), he took pains to point out that there are in fact two "natures": the one subject to the laws of nature, the other with its own specific characteristics that must be understood in quite different ways than the other (Kennington). Indeed, Neils Stenos (1638-1686), a younger physician contemporary of Descartes who specialized in the brain, contended that nature in the first sense was merely heuristic, a "manner of speaking" (une pure dénomination is Descartes's phrase), and should not be taken literally (Lindeboom). This intrinsic complexity of the body—as cadaver and as embodying the mind— did not attract the attention of many philosophers (or, for that matter, physicians) (Zaner, 1988).

Addressing the Cartesian idea of the "intimate union" of soul and body, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) argued that one must be able to account for this intimacy. He noted with marked irony that if, like Descartes, one "composes all things of mind and body," surely that mixture would be intelligible—especially to one who so composes all things. Yet not only do we not understand the body, and even less the mind; least of all do we know "how a body could be united to a mind. This is the consummation of [our] difficulties, and yet it is [our] very being" (Pascal, pp. 27-28).

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) thought that Des-cartes's bifurcation created insuperable difficulties for understanding how the mind could possibly be connected to the body, much less "intimately" connected. Like others at the time, Spinoza's argument is couched in metaphysical terms: he argued that what Descartes termed "substance" (mind and body) could only be "attributes" of the one and only substance, reality itself. Mind and body are essential to one another; the way in which they are "united," he concluded, then becomes comprehensible. The body is a mirror of the soul; mind, the idea of the body (Spinoza).

Understanding the body continued to preoccupy physicians but did not become a focal issue for philosophers until the early writings of Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Although he did not fully probe the matter, Bergson argued that the human body should be seen as the person's placement or locus in the world. What makes the body, a sui generis phenomenon, unlike any other worldly object is, he believed, that it is experienced as "mine," as "my center" of action and experience. While it is physical, it is not simply that; it is the "center" of experience, and thus the field of physical objects is spatially organized around it. In addition, the human body and its perceptual capacities are in the service of action. The body is fundamentally an actional center. It is that by means of which the embodied person is able to engage in actions in and on the field of objects. Spatial location and the familiar sensory qualities are thus always experienced within specific contexts of action: for the perceiver, "things" are "menacing," "helpful," "handy," "obstacles," and so on (Bergson). Correlated to the body as the center of action, physical things are organized as "poles of action" appearing only within specific activities directed toward them, as Jean Piaget (1896-1980) later emphasized. Because of these characteristics, the human body is a critical factor in the development of language and culture.

In the early days of the twentieth century, Max Scheler (1874-1928) devoted serious reflection to the "lived body" (Leib), in particular as regards the performance of "deeds" in moral conduct. Scheler's analysis suggests that both "ego" and the ego's "acts" are distinct from what he terms "lived bodiliness" (Leiblichkeit). At the same, lived bodiliness must be sharply distinguished from the "thing body" (Körper). Although Scheler does not mention it, this idea is a clear echo of the earlier Cartesian insight. The body that embodies the person ("my body") is uniquely singled out for, and experienced by, the person as "mine" (and in this sense is "intimately connected"). As the person's experiential "center," it is that by means of which the person is, as it were, worlded: in the midst of objects, people, language, culture, and so on. These points, which had also impressed Bergson, came to be regarded as fundamental to embodiment, and are crucial for understanding subsequent discussions.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) grappled with this phenomenon throughout his career. Its primary feature, he contended, is the experiential relationship of consciousness to its own embodying organism (Husserl, 1952). Granted that this organism (Leibkorper) is uniquely singled out (Husserl, 1956-1959), the problem of embodiment is to determine in what sense and in what ways it is actually experienced by the person as his or hers, since it is solely by means of that experience that it is at all possible for the person to experience worldly things (physical, biological, cultural).

What had so impressed and troubled Descartes—the "intimate union"—Husserl calls the experiential relationship to the "body-as-mine"; however, he did not appreciate Descartes's insight any more than had Bergson or Scheler. Descartes seems clearly to have recognized that while a person is alive, there is an "intimate union" between body and soul; yet how are we to understand this "union"—a connection that is all the more peculiar when death occurs and this "alive" body becomes a cadaver that seems no different in kind from any other material thing? Although apparently appreciating this puzzle, Descartes nevertheless obscured matters (as did many others after him) by trying to resolve the very different metaphysical question of the "mind-body" relation.

It is to the embodiment phenomenon that Gabriel Marcel's analysis of the fundamental opacity (the elemental "feeling" or, as he termed it, Urgefuhl) at the heart of personal life—my body qua mine—is addressed (Marcel, 1940). It is here, too, that Maurice Merleau-Ponty locates the essential ambiguity intrinsic to the body itself (Merleau-Ponty). So "intimate" is this "union," both Marcel and Merleau-Ponty point out, that one is tempted to say, with Jean-Paul Sartre, "I am my body." "My body qua mine" is thus the paradigm of "belonging" or "having": the sense in which things belong to a person is ultimately derived from the ways in which the "own" body is experienced as belonging to the person. The latter is the condition for the former (Marcel, 1935). This existential source of "belonging" becomes apparent especially in instances where mental disturbances occur and the sense of "mineness" becomes severely compromised or remains seriously undeveloped (Bosch). A central issue then emerges: By virtue of what is this one animate organism uniquely singled out to exist in my experience as that whereby everything else in the world is experienced? Which specific processes are there without which this organism would cease to be experienced by me as mine, or which give it its sense as mine (Straus, 1958)?

The problem is exceedingly complex and subtle, and is by no means settled (Zaner, 1971, 1980). It is one of those regions where philosophy and medicine can productively learn from one another. Within philosophy, however, there seems at least some agreement that the animate organism becomes and remains an embodying organism solely to the extent that (1) it is not just a physical body but a genuinely animate organism, the sole "object" within which the person's own fields of sensation (that whereon sensations occur) belong; (2) it is the only object "in" which the person immediately "rules and governs," within and from each of its "organs" and the total organism itself; (3) it is that whereby the person's "I can" (walk, perceive, move, grasp, and the like) is most immediately realized and enacted; (4) it is that "by means of which" the person perceives and otherwise experiences the field of worldly objects (things, people, language, etc.) and thus is the person's access to the world and the focus of the world's (objects, people) actions on the person; and (5) it is not only that whereby the person experiences other things, but it is itself experienced by the person (in health and sickness, and these in specific individual ways)—that is, the person's embodying organism is reflexively related to itself (Husserl, 1956, 1959).

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