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The Body

The Mind Embodied

From Plato to Descartes, the body has been imagined as merely attached to—and decidedly inferior to—an idealized intellectual or spiritual essence in which all hope of human accomplishment lies. In the background of this denigration of the body is the virtually obsessive need of Western philosophy and religion, until the nineteenth century, to distinguish "man" from "the animals." Descartes is explicit: Animals have no soul, cannot think, and are mere bundles of instincts, prepackaged by God. The man/animal distinction was already there, however, in remarks strewn throughout philosophy and religion, and (with a few exceptions—for example, Thomas Hobbes and other early materialists) it gathered momentum after Descartes.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the human being begins to be naturalized, imagined more as a complex animal than a potential God unfortunately trapped within a mindlessly craving material body. The foundational contribution to this transformation was Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) theory of evolution, which demoted the human being from a fallen angel to a species that had evolved from other forms of animal life. Evolution not only placed human beings on a continuum with the "mindless" creatures from whom philosophers and theologians had struggled to distinguish them, but suggested that their vaunted, God-like intellect was merely the result of a larger brain, itself the product of environmental contingencies that had allowed certain biological features to "survive" over (that is, outproduce) others.

Not a Darwinian per se, Frederick Nietzsche (1844–1900) insisted forcefully on the instinctual nature of the human being, and far from regarding it as base or evil, viewed it as a force for life and an essential dimension of creativity. He mocked the notion that humans can attain disembodied existence or pure spirit, and mounted a fierce attack on those philosophers and priests who (as Nietzsche viewed it) had made life-denying, ascetic values the standard of human perfection, all the while seeking their own earthly power. For Nietzsche, such "will to power" was a positive thing, so long as it was joyously embraced in oneself and allowed to flourish in others; what he despised about the priestly caste—those "despisers of the body," as he called them—was their professed humility and meekness, even as they dictated the terms of existence for their followers.

With this critique, Nietzsche introduced two themes concerning the body that were to become increasingly prominent in modern and postmodern thought. For many intellectuals, both before and after Nietzsche, the history of philosophy and religion has been imagined as a conversation between disembodied minds (or, more colloquially, talking heads); not only are the class, race, gender, and historical period of participants considered irrelevant to their ideas, but so are emotional attachments, self-interest, and personal history. The seeker of Truth is supposed to be above all that. Nietzsche was the first to insist that such transcendence of embodied existence is impossible, "The eye that is turned in no particular direction," he wrote, "is an absurdity and a nonsense.… There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival knowing" (p. 119). Such notions have played a central role in twentieth-century critiques of Western culture mounted by feminists, deconstructionists, and Foucauldians.

The instinctual body.

The second body theme Nietzsche introduced, which Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the father of psychoanalysis, was to elaborate and systematize, is the high price human beings have paid in the process of becoming "civilized." For Nietzsche, a decisive historical moment was the banishing of the Dionysian element—ecstatic surrender to the body, the unconscious, and the erotic—from Greek culture. Freud, unlike Nietzsche, viewed the repression of (sexual and aggressive) instinct as necessary to the preservation of human community and order. But he agreed with Nietzsche that the cost of instinctual repression in the interests of civilization was "discontent"—neurosis, depression, phobias, psychosomatic conversions, and just plain "ordinary unhappiness" (as he termed the usual condition of modern man). Much of Freud's writing describes the developmental stages—both in the individual and in the species—that inevitably take the human being from an instinctual existence devoted to "the pleasure principle" through stages of renunciation and accommodation to the demands of reality (which Freud believed were unable to gratify all human needs, even in the most permissive society) and morality (first experienced through parental authority, later internalized as the super-ego).

Freud represents, in many ways, a synthesis of several of the trends outlined in this article so far. In the tradition of Judaic and Greek thought (and unlike Augustine), he did not regard the desires of the body as sinful. Like Darwin, he looked to nature, not God, to understand the design of the human being, and described what he believed he had found with the dedicated detachment of the Cartesian scientist. Like Plato, he believed the "higher" accomplishments of humanity—art, music, literature, philosophy—require the sublimation (or redirection) of the body, from the original aim of sexual fulfillment to the less intense gratifications of art and intellect. But like Nietzsche, he was continually drawn to the exploration of the underside of progress—the unconscious drives and desires, never fully banished from human life, and a constant reminder of the primacy of the body.

The lived body.

Another philosophical spokesperson for the primacy of the body—but with a very different understanding of that primacy than Darwin, Nietzsche, or Freud—was Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961). Merleau-Ponty, in the tradition of philosophical phenomenology, did not believe the human body could be reduced to a scientific or social object of study. What such perspectives left out, he argued, was what phenomenologists call "the lived body." From the perspective of the lived body, human beings do not have bodies (as they might possess hats or coats), they are bodies; and as bodies, are more than physically encased minds or collections of instinct. Rather, bodies are the medium of human experience, through which they engage with their surroundings. Merleau-Ponty, unlike Plato or Descartes, was not concerned with some reality beyond or behind the way things appear, but with the way the world is given to embodied beings. For many twentieth-century continental philosophers, this was the definitive rejection of dualism; by doing away with "two worlds" and concentrating on the world as it appears to us, already saturated with the meaning that bodies give it, Merleau-Ponty reunited mind and body and made them natural allies in the quest for understanding.

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