Abstract for a paper forthcoming in the Oxford Philosophical Concepts series on 'Body'.
Sometime in the 1920s, the French Catholic missionary and ethnographer Maurice Leenhardt found himself in conversation with a Melanesian acquaintance named Boesoou. Leenhardt suggested that as a result of contact with Europeans, the Kanaks of Melanesia had been introduced in their thinking to the notion of spirit. Boesoou protested: "Spirit? Bah! You didn't bring us spirit. We already knew about the existence of spirit. We always acted in accordance with spirit. What you brought is the body."
Why, now, does Boesoou's observation strike us as counterintuitive? We seem to suppose that, whereas our mental faculties are something that need to be discovered through a process of reflection, undertaken only by adults, or by the learned, or by members of certain 'advanced' cultures, our embodiment is something immediate, certain, and obvious to any sentient creature, even those presumed to be incapable of reflection.
Yet it may be that the order of obviousness here is not simply dictated by our primary experience, but rather is conditioned by what we might identify as a historical ontology: the history of the way people talk about the basic elements of reality. But what, we may ask in turn, would it be like to be born into a different ontological legacy, such as the Melanesian, in which, if Boesoou is to be believed, the notion of one's own embodiment does not arise? Could it really be that under these circumstances one would not even notice one's own embodiment? Now of course there are Melanesian words for 'hand' and 'foot' and 'torso', and no one wants to say that until the missionaries came the Kanaks never noticed that they were be-torsoed, be-footed, etc. The suggestion seems to be rather that it was an imported European idea, whatever the evangelists may have wanted to teach about the immortal and saveable soul, that beings are as it were made up out of body parts integrated into a whole, physical self.
Here is not of course the place to provide any new interpretation of Melanesian ethnographic data, but by beginning with a view from outside the main tradition that will concern us in this paper, we might be in an improved position to make sense of those philosophical theories that have emerged in Western philosophy that seem outlandish or counterintuitive to most today, and that have as their core claim the idea that the body is in some way or other a result of spiritual activity, and that it is this activity that is most closely associated with the self. Embodiment, we are now well positioned to see, is not simply given. Every human being experiences him or herself as outfitted with some minimal set of parts --hands, torso, etc.--, but these can just as easily be conceptualized as flowing from spiritual activity, as the congealing of potentiality for the execution of a function, or as resulting in some other way from an ontologically more basic, non-bodily reality.
From here, in turn, we are able to gain a new perspective on the history of dualism as it developed in modern Western philosophy: what was at stake, philosophically, in its initial formulation, and what motivated the vigorous resistance to it. It may be that what was truly novel and upsetting in the initial formulations of modern dualism was not that it posited a contrast between interior and exterior aspects of self (here, in spite of a certain fashionable habit of seeing this as a recent invention, in fact the ethnographic record suggests that such a contrast is extremely widespread), but rather that it gave an unprecedented account of body as ontologically separable from an immaterial principle more correctly identified with the self. On this account, body comes to be strongly associated with matter, even if a conceptual distinction remains between the two; body is that portion of the matter available in the world that is brought together and organized in the service of some individual soul. This contrasts sharply with the understanding of body as a metaphysical principle sharply contrasting with matter, and closely associated with spirit-- where body, that is, is seen as the exterior unfolding or expression of the activity of spirit. When we come to see such an understanding as, so to speak, the default view of what constitutes a human being, and more generally a living being, we are in a position to better understand modern resistance to dualism, and to place the philosophy of a figure such as G. W. Leibniz --who precisely saw body as an expression of the activity of immaterial entities-- in its proper historical context, and to connect it back up with what may very well be the mainstream of human thinking, from Melanesia to Europe and from antiquity to the 17th century, about the nature of embodiment.
In this paper, then, I would like to argue that what we think of as the modern separation of body and soul --that is, the advent of dualism-- might be better understood as a key moment in the historical ontology of embodiment, as the moment of the rise of the body as a free-standing ontological principle, one that would come to be seen as given, as an indubitable feature of what it is to be a self at all, only as a result of this rise. Necessarily, the discussion will proceed at a high level of generality, but I would like to keep it focused by using the body theory of Leibniz as a sort of leitmotif throughout the discussion of the larger philosophical question at hand. I will argue, in particular, that what appears to us as Leibniz's deviation from everyday ways of thinking about reality is in fact only a consequence of the recent success of a creaturely ontology that can quickly appear, with just a bit of distance of the sort we are invited to take by Boesoou, both highly implausible and historically deviant.
 Maurice Leenhardt, Do kamo. la personne et le mythe dans le monde mélanésien, Paris, Gallimard, 1947, p. 212.