This is a draft of my short piece, a 'Reflection', for the Oxford Philosophical Concepts volume on 'Embodiment'. To learn more about the volume go here.
Is the philosophical problem of embodiment peculiar to the so-called 'Western' philosophical tradition? Or is it of universal interest? Is the problem an artefact of certain contingent developments in the intellectual tradition that extends, roughly, from Thales to the contributors and readers of the present volume? Or is it one that imposes itself wherever human beings reflect on their deepest natures and their place in the world-- which is to say, wherever there are human beings?
Unfortunately, questions of this sort have not been part of the standard approach among philosophers, including historians of philosophy, to the problems that interest us. The situation is rather different in other areas of intellectual history. Thus Sheldon Pollock, writing of the history of Sanskrit literature, pays considerable attention to the parallel history of European Latinity. "There is a natural tendency," Pollock explains, "exhibited even (or especially) in social and cultural theory, to generalize forms of life and experience as universal tendencies and common sense." The way out of this intellectual dead-end is comparison, which "offers an antidote... by demonstrating the actual particularity of these apparent universalisms" (Pollock, 2006, 259). As to the question that interests us, a comparative approach reveals that embodiment is the product of a mostly local, particular history, with a particular starting point and a possible future end.
Bruno Snell has compellingly shown that Greeks in the age of Homer still lacked a conception of the body (see Brooke Holmes's chapter in the present volume), and that such a conception would only appear at the moment the complementary notion of spirit took shape. On this view, in order to think of oneself as being embodied, one must first come to think of oneself as some sort of immaterial, or at least pneumatic, subject capable of being embodied. Yet many thinkers, and traditions of thought, have also imagined subjects without bodies; that is, the idea of spirit does not always lead to an idea of embodied spirit. This much is particularly clear from what is often called ‘dualism’, a doctrine associated with a number of modern European philosophers, and above all with Descartes. The ability to conceptualize spirit independently of body has often been taken to be a singular attainment of abstract reflection, as a thinking away from the givens of perceptual experience. Notwithstanding Snell’s thesis, it has generally been supposed in and of the Western philosophical tradition that we start with the obviousness of the body, and we discover the secret of the spirit through great effort (and perhaps some assistance from divine sources).
This may be a case of hasty self-congratulation. 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" (Leenhardt, 1947, 212). 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, whereas our embodiment is something immediate, certain, and obvious to any sentient creature, even those presumed to be incapable of reflection.
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.
The evidence from the Americas is particularly compelling-- let us not call this 'ethnographic' evidence, either; let us call it 'Native American philosophy'. From the very earliest encounters between two broad philosophical world views --the Spanish Christian-Aristotelian and the Native American-- we see a reciprocal confusion about the basic ontological commitments held by the people on the other side. Thus Claude Lévi-Strauss relates in his Race and History of 1952:
In the greater Antilles, some years after the discovery of America, as the Spanish were sending investigative commissions to study whether the indigenous people had or did not have a soul, these latter were busy drowning white prisoners in order to determine, through extended observation, whether their cadaver was or was not subject to putrefaction (Lévi-Strauss 1973/1952, 384).
The common gloss on this by now well-documented reciprocal misunderstanding has it that while the Europeans often suspected the Native Americans of being animals, the Americans in turn took the Europeans for gods, and therefore had trouble believing that the Europeans' bodies were in fact bodies in the normal, biological sense. This is a partially adequate characterization, but of course in it we are all too tempted to understand 'god' in terms that needlessly flatter the Europeans.
It would be somewhat more accurate to say, following Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, that the encounter was a clash of two different forms of ethnocentrism, or, to put it differently, of two different 'ontological regimes' (Viveiros de Castro, 2009, 16). In the European regime, the soul is the 'marked dimension', the element that must be there in order for some being that is held up for candidacy in the human species to qualify as a human being. But for the Europeans the bodiliness of any such candidate-being is never in question: the body is the part that is certain. For the Native Americans by contrast there is never any doubt that the Europeans have souls, and yet this in itself does not qualify them as human beings-- it must also be determined whether their apparent bodies are real bodies. Thus Viveiros de Castro explains:
The ethnocentrism of the Europeans consisted in a doubt that the bodies of the others contained a soul that was formally similar to the souls that inhabited their own bodies; the ethnocentrism of the Amerindians, by contrast, consisted in doubting that other souls or spirits could be provided with a body that is materially similar to indigenous bodies (Viveiros de Castro, 2009, 16).
Thus we have two sets of ontological commitments, two philosophies, bumping up against one another in perhaps the most destructive and transformative cultural encounter in world history. We all have the reflex, now, of denouncing as absurd the Spanish conquistador's doubt as to the full humanity of the Native Americans he was in the course of conquering. In retrospect, we are able to see that this doubt arose from rather provincial ontological commitments, or, to put this another way, we are easily able to unmask the ontology as mere ethnocentrism. But the overwhelming nature of the conquest has occluded from our view the fact that there was also a Native perspective on the Europeans-- that the Native Americans asked themselves questions about the nature of the Europeans, questions that were in their own way motivated by non-universal ontological commitments.
To the extent that these commitments can be recovered, what we find when we study them is that the European philosophical model of the human being, as essentially a soul that is embodied within a corporeal home or prison, that is wrapped up with it in varying degrees of intimacy but never identical with it, is not a universal tendency, nor simple common sense. It is the product of a particular, local history, which just happens to be the local history that would overflow its traditional boundaries, conquer the world by force, and, in time, impose its own philosophy curriculum.
Leenhardt, Maurice, Do kamo. la personne et le mythe dans le monde mélanésien, Paris, Gallimard, 1947.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude, "Race et histoire," in Anthropologie structurale deux, Paris: Plon, 1973 .
Pollock, Sheldon, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India, Berkeley: University of Califoria Press, 2006.
Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo, Métaphysiques cannibales. Lignes d'anthropologie post-structurale, tr. Oiara Bonilla, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009.