Our physical dimension

This essay explores how the body is represented in existential and phenomenological theory. It concentrates on theories that present the body as a unity over and against Cartesian dualism. After a brief look at some of the problems inherent to the mind/body question, I will present and discuss the embodied theories of Nietzsche, Gabriel Marcel and Merleau-Ponty, focussing on the latter, whose writings explore the body most thoroughly (Behnke 1997, Spinelli, personal communication, 2 March 2005). I will also note briefly how these theories engage with the work of Medard Boss, the existential dimensions described by Binswanger and van Deurzen, and then linking it with cognitive theories of the body. Finally, I will discuss the problem of terminology.


What purpose does Cartesian dualism serve? For Descartes the separation of the mind from the body and the mind’s primacy over the objectified and mechanical body, brings a sense of order, and a freedom from doubt. In his Discourse on Method (written in1637), Descartes describes how cities designed by one man rather than the accumulated work of many men, are more pleasing. He is disturbed by the disorder variety brings when houses of many kinds are built against one another (1976: 35).


Existential inclusiveness and diversity are not to his taste. Similarly in The Meditations, 1641, Descartes sets a separate intelligent substance over the uncertainty of the imagination and perceptions which are relegated to the body, a body which is distinct from himself (ibid:157). Descartes keeps doubt and disorganization at bay by separating mind from body, in an attempt to exert control over the uncertainty of ‘bodily’ emotions, illness, and pain; this is perhaps a sacrifice that Descartes is happy to make in light of the safety it brings.


The wide acceptance of Cartesian duality is evidence of its strong appeal. Its focus on causal relationships, helped to develop scientific method, attempting to satisfy ‘the need to know’, creating an even stronger dualism in language and culture, objectifying the body in art, religion, medical practice, and psychology, while denying embodiment and a mind body unity.


While philosophic blame is levelled at Descartes, this cultural phenomena has been brewing a long while. Some theorists locate its beginnings in Classical philosophy and reflective thought, linked metaphorically with seeing, which is often expressed as understanding (Kilborne 2002:7). The idea of vision and its primacy is also explored by Robert Romanyshsyn (1989), showing how development of perspective in art in the 15th century changed how we look at and objectify the world, our bodies and others.




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