1 minute read

The Body

A Brief Tour Of Western Dualism From Plato To Plastic Surgery, The Mind Embodied, Culturally Variable Bodies

What is "the body"? If the question seems ridiculous to you, you are undoubtedly not alone. At any given time, in any given culture, most people have an intuitive, if not always easy to articulate, notion of what the body is, and probably regard that notion as shared by all human beings. The fact is, however, that human cultures have not only done an amazing variety of things to human bodies, but have imagined and experienced the nature, limits, and capacities of the human body—and its relation to the self—in extremely diverse ways.

For example, most people living in the early-twenty-first century West believe the body to be a border between the self and the external world, and one that houses only one individual self. Those whose experience departs from this are treated as suffering from a personality disorder. Many non-Western cultures, in contrast, do not regard the skin as an impermeable border between the individual and the natural world, and believe that the physical body may host multiple selves. Another example is the relationship of mind and body. Many cultural systems—Zen Buddhism is one—do not mark a radical distinction between mind and body. In contrast, mind/body dualism has been so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of Western culture that some may have difficulty imagining an experience of the self that does not partake of it.

From the significance of body parts to contemporary theory of the body, different conceptions abound. Neither "race," nor gender, nor sexuality is a universally uniform category. Different cultures imagine different organs as the center of bodily functioning, and privilege different senses; among the Suya of Brazil, for example, hearing is equated with understanding, as seeing is for Europeans and North Americans. And while contemporary biologists attempt to map a basic genetic blueprint, poststructuralists argue that the very notion of a biological body is a human invention.

From a philosophical and anthropological perspective—and to establish limits to an exceedingly broad topic—this article focuses on the intellectual, cultural, and political developments that various disciplines have regarded as landmarks in the history of the idea of the body.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Bilateral symmetry to Boolean algebra