Bodies of knowledge: Beyond Cartesian views of persons, selves and mind
Burkitt I. (1998) Bodies of knowledge: Beyond Cartesian views of persons, selves and mind. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 28(1): 63–82. Available at http://cepa.info/4051
Table of Contents
The cartesian view of mind, body and knowledge
The active body
The thinking body and its artifacts
Beyond the concepts of mind and body, culture and nature
Embodied persons and selves
In the Western world we have become accustomed to thinking of the body as a purely physical entity, which is separate from the mind and from culture. There are many debates about whether culture affects the body and, if it does so, in what ways and to what extent. However, in this piece I want to explore some of the ways in which the body has been seen as a social construction; that is, as a malleable organism which is open to reformation through its location within historically variable social relations. My position will be slightly different to recent varieties of social constructionism which focus on the discursive production of bodies and, following Foucault, see the body as a surface for textual inscription. From this standpoint the body is theorized as disciplined, regulated and turned into the subject of power. Instead of the metaphor of textual inscription, I want to consider the ways in which the body is made active by social relations: that is, how it is brought into being and mobilized by its positioning in the interweaving networks of interdependence. In this, I adopt a similar outlook to Hirst and Woolley (1982) who argue that social relations have a decisive influence on human attributes, which cannot be characterized as either natural or social, but are both: human attributes are socio-natural. I also share their view that social relations need not form one interconnected whole, but may be fragmentary and disparate (1982: 24). This means that bodily dispositions and capacities will not be uniform or even within cultures, because within any group we will find people of different characters, skills, beliefs or abilities, due largely to the varied influence of social relations upon them.
This position represents a move away from a purely textual metaphor for understanding the body because I consider this to be one-dimensional. Humans are not just speakers and writers but doers – active beings in a multi-dimensional world which can be understood as a complex materiality composed of relations between human beings, relations between humans and objects (including human made artifacts), and the joint production of symbolic forms of understanding. As Shilling says, ‘the body is not only affected by social relations but forms a basis for and enters into the construction of social relations’ (1993: 199). Hopefully, this metaphor of the productive body is an enabling one which presents our corporeal presence as not just trapped within social relations, but possessing the capacities to change them. Equally, embodiment allows for the development of capacities which can transform the physical world, and also provides the potential for the creation of artifacts, which are prosthetic extensions of the body. Indeed, my argument will be that we cannot separate the thoughtful activity that has previously been attributed to some inner realm of ‘the mind’, from the social and material contexts in which such activity takes place, including the means through which activity is accomplished. This position involves rejecting the Cartesian idea of the existence of two fundamentally different realms or substances, mind and matter, and instead replacing this notion with the assumption that there is ‘one (exceedingly complex) reality … we can call it material reality but we must at once bracket commonsensical ideas of materialism’ (Kitwood, 1995.)[Note 1] In order to bracket such commonsensical ideas, while still holding onto some conception of materiality, I will use Elias’s metaphor of a five dimensional reality, which includes a symbolic dimension that is part of, but irreducible to, the other dimensions of space and time. I argue that this helps to lead us out of the division of mind and matter that is to be found in Cartesianism and its modern forms.
The cartesian view of mind, body and knowledge
In contemporary society we still live in a world greatly influenced by the work of Rene Descartes who, in philosophical terms, gave clearest expression to an experience of which the people of the seventeenth century were becoming increasingly more aware: that they existed as persons or minds who were somehow distinct from their bodies, or at least they could not be reduced to any aspect of their body. According to Descartes, people experience and understand themselves in two different ways; firstly, as bodies occupying a specific location in space and time, but secondly, as persons or selves who are associated with the processes of thinking. Descartes claims that if we stop and reflect upon it, we cannot associate ourselves with any aspect of our own bodies, for if many of the attributes of our physical presence were to disappear we would still continue to exist as a self. We could still think of ourselves as the same person as we were before, even though our bodies may have changed, or certain of their characteristics have been lost. This is why as we grow older we may not associate ourselves with the age that we really are, feeling ourselves younger than our outward appearance: or why someone who has lost limbs or who is paralyzed may feel that their personality has not changed. Who we are is not associated with our bodies, but with our thought processes. Indeed, if a person is medically considered to be ‘brain dead’ or in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ after an accident or illness, many people believe they should not be kept physically alive, for once a person can no longer think of their own existence, can no longer act or is incapable of free will, then the person has really ‘died’ and their body is no more than a living carcass. Here we see a clear example of how a person is associated with their thought processes and not with their bodily existence.
However, whilst the body in such a personless state is a good illustration of Descartes idea, it should not be taken as proof that the idea is correct, certainly not for those people who are conscious and mobile. In these cases it does not necessarily apply that the person associates with only their thinking, nor that thought is somehow dissociated from a body which exists only as an unthinking thing – as a machine. As Descartes puts it:
therefore, from the mere fact that I know with certainty that I exist, and that I do not observe that any other thing belongs necessarily to my nature or essence except that I am a thinking thing, I rightly conclude that my essence consists in this alone, that I am a thinking thing, or a substance whose whole essence or nature consists in thinking And although perhaps (or rather as I shall shortly say, certainly, ) I have a body to which I am very closely united, nevertheless, because, on the one hand, I have a clear and distinct idea of myself in so far as I am only a thinking and unextended thing, and because, on the other hand I have a distinct idea of the body in so far as it is only an extended thing but which does not think, it is certain that I, that is to say my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it (Descartes, 1640/1968: 156).
This is an extremely radical and, in my view, very wrong idea of the body. While Descartes does admit that we are united with our bodies, he does not examine this unison in any way: instead, he maintains that because we have the idea that we exist purely in thought or spirit, then this is the basis for the sense of self – the inner being we refer to when we speak of ‘I’. In short, what Descartes does not pursue is the connection between embodiment and thought, nor does he question the notion that the sense of self can only emerge from the inner process of thinking. However, if we pursue the connection between mind and body we find that being embodied and located in the extended world of time and space is not only a necessary precondition for thought, it is, rather, its very basis. That Descartes conceptualizes this not to be the case stems from his view of the human mind and its role in the creation of knowledge.
Descartes claims that we cannot know our own selves through our bodies or through any bodily sensations, nor can we know anything about the external world of objects in this fashion. We cannot know that the different parts of our world are discreet and separate entities or objects purely through sensation, just as we cannot know that we are really associated with our bodies. Sensation cannot be the guarantor of knowledge because the senses can be fooled and are thus unreliable. What we know of the world is not based on the information gathered by touch, sight, smell, or sound, but how this is classified and worked on by the intellect. It is the mind which defines the different objects of the world and creates ideas about their nature and their differences. Nothing can be known with certainty unless the mind creates ideas of the objective world which are clear and distinct. Descartes, then, was asking in his philosophy whether any perception, consciousness, or knowledge about the world could be regarded with any certainty. Do we possess any knowledge that, under certain circumstances, cannot be doubted? In the search for this certainty of knowledge, Descartes tested everything that we normally take as tacitly given by subjecting it to doubt, questioning everything that ordinarily would be regarded as certain. His doubting took him to the very extremes of uncertainty, rejecting even the notion that God would never allow humankind to totally deceive themselves about the true nature of the world. A truth can only be claimed as such after it has stood the test of doubt.
I shall suppose, therefore, that there is, not a true God, who is the sovereign source of truth, but some evil demon, no less cunning and deceiving than powerful, who has used all his artifice to deceive me. I will suppose that the heavens, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things we see, are only illusions and deceptions which he uses to take me in. I will consider myself as having no hands, eyes, flesh, blood or senses, but as believing wrongly that I have all these things I shall cling obstinately to this notion; and if, by this means, it is not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of any truth, at the very least it is in my power to suspend my judgement (Descartes, 1640/1968: 100).
However, there is one thing that Descartes concludes he cannot doubt and, thus, only one thing that is certain. He finds this certainty by asking – ‘I had persuaded myself that there was nothing at all in the world: no sky, no earth, no minds or bodies; was I not, therefore, also persuaded that I did not exist? No indeed; I existed without doubt, by the fact that I was persuaded, or indeed by the mere fact that I thought at all’ (Descartes, 1640/1968: 103). The ability to think, then, is what gives Descartes the certainty of his own existence and for him to say, ‘I think therefore I am’ is the only thing that cannot be doubted.
As I said earlier, Descartes did believe that the mind and body were united, to such an extent that we do not view things that happen to our bodies in a passive and disinterested way. Descartes explains this in his Sixth Meditation by way of an analogy: we do not look at our bodies in the same way a captain views his ship, so that if some damage occurs to it he sees it with his eyes and notes what has occurred. But if damage occurs to our bodies we do not just note this, we feel it. The mind records this occurrence as if it has been injured, so that the relationship we have with our bodies is an intimate and necessary one. Similarly, when we experience dryness of the throat the mind will tell us we are thirsty and need to drink: however, it is not the bodily sensation which we call thirst, but the ideas that are stimulated in the mind. It is ideas such as these which we associate with ourselves and that create the notion of our own body with its different needs and sensations. These will only be clear to the extent that the mind has clear ideas as to what these needs and sensations appertain and to what they are related. It is still the mind, then, as distinct from the body, that makes possible the sense of self and which generates ideas about the nature of objects in the world, seeking in itself the essence of truth. The body can be considered as a reactive machine whose dispositions are set by its own organic nature, whereas the mind is the element that introduces to humankind freewill, imagination and truth seeking
However, while Descartes is right to claim that the person or self does not entirely reside within the body and cannot be identified with any of its parts, I believe he is wrong to set up a duality between body and mind on this basis. Although they cannot be reduced to one another, what we call ‘mind’ only exists because we have bodies that give us the potential to be active and animate within the world, exploring, touching, seeing, hearing, wondering, explaining and we can only become persons and selves because we are located bodily at a particular place in space and time, in relation to other people and things around us. Furthermore, it is not necessarily the ‘mind’ that brings us understanding of the world and of ourselves, so that none of these things would exist without some spiritual essence that we can label the ‘mind’. Rather, I want to suggest, through the work of Merleau-Ponty and Ilyenkov, that there is no ‘thing’ called the ‘mind’, considered as something complete and contained within itself: that is, as an entity or essence separate from the (non-mechanical) body and its spatially and temporally located practices.
The active body
In his phenomenological studies, Maurice Merleau-Ponty attempted to capture some of the relational and active aspects of human thought and consciousness. For Merleau-Ponty, consciousness was not the product of some disembodied mind located somewhere outside the material world, beyond time and space; nor was it simply the result of a body reacting to its surroundings. Instead, consciousness is part of the active relationship between humans and their world, so that prior to the Cartesian ‘I think’, there is an ‘I can’, a practical cogito which structures not only our relationship to the world, but also the ways we think about it. Prior to thought and representation, then, there is a primordial coexistence between the body and its world which grounds the possibility of developing conscious awareness and knowledge. Space and time are not something that the body is in, in the sense that the relation between them is distanced and intellectualized, but rather there is a unity between the body and space-time.
In so far as I have a body through which I act in the world, space and time are not, for me, a collection of adjacent points nor are they a limitless number of relations synthesized by my consciousness, and into which it draws my body. I am not in space and time, nor do I conceive space and time, I belong to them, my body combines with them and includes them. The scope of this inclusion is the measure of that of my existence; but in any case it can never be all-embracing. The space and time which I inhabit are always in their different ways indeterminate horizons which contain other points of view (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 140).
So here, Merleau-Ponty is not only declaring the unity between the body, space- time, and consciousness, but also drawing our attention to how consciousness is always situated in a particular location, and that, because of other perspectives, there are always different points of view on the world. We can never attain ‘objective’ knowledge of a world that exists separately from our own subjectivity, for there is no such knowledge to be had: a disembodied view of the world is a view from nowhere and is therefore impossible for humans to attain. All knowledge is embodied and situated, created within that fundamental unity between subjects and objects which is the product of having an active body. We never understand the world from some passive and disinterested spot, but always from within an active and related perspective. Furthermore, this perspective involves not only the fundamental relation between the body and its objects, but also between different human bodies located in space and time, and therefore between different subjects, so that the human world is primarily a social world. This entire unity, this being-in-the-world, is the context for human consciousness and knowledge.
What is at the basis of human thought, then, is not some abstract mind or cognition, but the human body and its accumulated actions which form into habits. The body and its habitual actions are not mechanical processes, such as simple physical reflexes, but are forms of knowledge – ways of carrying on effectively in the world. However, while this bodily knowledge is not mechanically produced, neither is it constituted as self-reflexive and fully articulated understanding. Habits are repeated actions that take place in an oriented space, and these make consciousness possible by dividing up and organizing the world around us. They are, in a sense, non-cognitive forms of categorization which are prior to the emergence of cognition. Here we find a notion that sets Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology apart from theories of the mind, in that thought is not structured by anything that could be considered as a ‘mind’ which is somehow distinct from the body, whether this is a set of cognitive structures or categories, or innate ideas. Instead, it is learned bodily actions or habits which make thought possible.A similar notion also exists in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1977; 1990), who talks of the habitus, a set of learned dispositions that a body may reproduce within an appropriate social context or ‘field’. These dispositions are not automatic mechanisms, but are – as Theodore Schatzki describes the same concept in Wittgenstein – ‘more like a condition which can or might be expressed in certain circumstances’ (1993: 303). This helps us to build on an idea germinating within Descartes own philosophy, that the mind is not like the captain of a ship who steers a vessel which is not part of him or herself, for the body is part of our own personal identity. However, if we take this notion seriously, then it challenges the whole distinction between body and mind, for as Schatzki claims, with reference to Wittgenstein, the body is not a vessel or mechanism to be steered by the mind, but rather thought expresses itself in and through the body, which can no longer be conceptualized as a machine. Rather, it is the body that thinks, so as Varela et al.(1991) point out, thought must be seen as ‘embodied action’ – an aspect of the sensory body.
However, while Merleau-Ponty rejects any notion that the T is located in another dimension to a body acting in space and time, one of the ways in which he is Cartesian is in his suspicion of the information provided by the senses. He believes that sense data in itself cannot be the basis of consciousness, because this data has to be organized for it to have any meaning for us. This organization does not take place in the mind, but through active perception. That is to say, a body that is active in the world brings together the senses in a coherent way, and the formation of habits play a part in this process of perception. Action and emotion, then, are the things that distinguish amongst the sense data, and, for Merleau-Ponty, there is originally no distinction at all between the senses of the body, which form a primal unity – a synaesthesia. As Christopher Macann elaborates on this;
since this original synaesthetic experience comes before the polarization of experience around the dichotomy of subject and object, it has to be attributed to an agent which is, properly speaking, anonymous in the sense that (s)he is not yet the ‘I’ which (s)he will later become (1993: 182).
However, there are problems in the phenomenological approach to the body, for it tends to assume that the structure of the body and its sensory experience is shaped by bodily activity in a neutral material dimension of space and time, ignoring the way that the senses and perceptions are formed in a social world composed of networks of relations, which, as far as any single individual is concerned, has already been historically constituted by previous generations. The body is the locus of social relations, its sensual and perceptual experience moulded by cultural and historical circumstances (see Classen, 1993). The phenomenological perspective also takes the physical form of the world as pregiven rather than transformed and made by human beings. It is true that phenomenologists see the world as a product of human meaning, but they have less to say about the transformation of the social relations and material contexts in which such meanings are situated. Furthermore, it can be argued that the transformation of the world, both materially and in meaning, is an integral process, achieved through the invention and production of artifacts – tools, technology, symbols, signs and language – which mediate the relation between humans and the non-human world. An understanding of this relation and its transformative power, along with the way it changes the experience of embodiment, can be found in the work of Ilyenkov.
The thinking body and its artifacts
The term ‘artifact’ is taken from the work of Evald Ilyenkov (see Bakhurst, 1991) who used it to refer to a created object in which human activity is embodied. That is to say, the object has been fashioned for some use within human practice and therefore embodies that practice. For example, a saw or a hammer, invented for a certain purpose, is designed to be used in a particular way so that we all know what a sawing or hammering motion of the body looks like when we are using these tools. Being brought up in the human community, we all learn from the early days of infancy how to use such artifacts, along with the practices, purposes and capacities that accompany their usage. More than this, Ilyenkov’s point is that such artifacts acquire a significance or meaning because of their central position and mediating role in practice. They are not dumb objects like those found in the natural world; they speak to us and take on a significance because we see reflected in them our own activity and strivings. Artifacts are, then, extensions of bodily practices and the social contexts in which they function.
Leontyev (1981) also captures something of this notion with his concept of ‘appropriation’, which is the mastery of transformative practices through the use of tools. A tool or artifact has built into it a certain mode of usage, a practice, which people must master before they can use the artifact. Thus, artifacts support and reproduce types of transformative practices through their constant use. This is similar to Jj. Gibson’s (1979) concept of ‘affordance’, which refers to the properties of objects which invite and sustain certain bodily actions: for example, some objects are edible, some graspable, others pliable or usable for a purpose. Whatever the nature of the object, this is detected by the perceptual system of the body and objects can take on a meaning because of the role they play in affording human action. However, as Sinha (1988) points out, Gibson ignores how meaning is extended through symbolic systems and also how, as Leontyev shows, actions are afforded by objects that are socially created artifacts, which therefore have practice embodied in them. We can also add that because such artifacts are remodelled or reinvented through transformative practice, new modes of social action are created and supported through their constant deployment. Artifacts do not remain the same, they are socially created and recreated and, in this process, the practices they embody change along with them.
One of the central elements of Ilyenkov’s theory of the artifact is that words are also artifacts, because they are physical entities which have human activity embodied in them, and thus have meaning due to their use in social practice. Mead (1934) once referred to words and signs having meaning because they are collapsed social acts: that is, the word contains the action it signifies within the network of meaningful interaction, and it can be used to signal this activity – or its possible occurrence – to others. Language only has meaning because of its use within the joint activities of the social group. However, Ilyenkov reverses the argument often run by Mead and the latter day social constructionists, that objects take on a meaning because of their inclusion in symbolic systems, thus giving primacy to signs. Instead, for Ilyenkov, symbols and words are a subclass of all humanly created, meaningful artifacts, rather than the primary base of all meaning (Bakhurst, 1991: 186). So all artifacts that embody practice are meaningful, and symbols, signs and words are but one element of the humanly created, objective, artifactual world. Meaning does not just reside in those objects that have been fashioned by humans, for once this process has begun, meaning infuses a large part of the environment. Even those objects not created by humans are given a meaning so that we no longer live in a purely physical environment, but one saturated with meaning in which people can recognize their humanity, purposes and needs in even the most inert, non-human objects.
For Ilyenkov, the world as conceived by Descartes and Kant is to be rejected. There is not a level of pure, disembodied thought, or a transcendental mind which must somehow make contact with a world that is external to it. Ilyenkov is against Kantian transcendentalism which sees the structures of human comprehension as already contained in the a priori principles of mind, and instead he claims that the world is given structure through the forms of social practice in which people come to experience and understand it. As Bakhurst says of Ilyenkov’s position:
human practice transforms the natural world into an object of thought, and by participating in those practices, the human individual is brought into contact with reality as an object of thought Each individual enters the world with the forms of movement that are constitutive of thought embodied in the environment surrounding him or her. It is not that each mind must find the world anew for itself we are born in to a world that history has made cognizable (1991: 197-8).
Here we see the expression of what Bakhurst refers to as Ilyenkov’s radical realism, ‘that treats the thinking subject as located in material reality, in direct contact with its objects’ (1991: 215). Furthermore, like Merleau-Ponty, Ilyenkov sees thought as movement and action within this reality. What his radical realism highlights so well is how social action is always placed in a material context and that social relations and practices are the structures embodied in our understanding of reality. One could say that reality is always reflected in human meaning and knowledge, and that these things are also an intrinsic part of human reality. This radical realism led Ilyenkov to challenge another aspect of Cartesian dualism, that between body and mind. We have already shown how, in Descartes’ scheme, the mind is seen as producing thought and action, while the body is mute and unthinking. But if we reject such notions of the non-corporeal, as Ilyenkov insists we should, then we arrive at a very different view, where:
There are not two different and originally contrary objects of investigation – body and thought – but only one single object, which is the thinking body of living, real man... Living, real thinking man, the sole thinking body with which we are acquainted, does not consist of two Cartesian halves – ‘thought lacking a body’ and a ‘body lacking thought’. In relation to real man both the one and the other are equally fallacious abstractions (Ilyenkov, 1977: 31).
Ilyenkov goes on to fine tune this idea, stating that;
Between body and thought there is no relation of cause and effect, but the relation of an organ (i.e. of a spatially determinate body) to the mode of its own action. The thinking body cannot cause changes in thought, cannot act on thought, because its existence as ‘thinking’ is thought. If a thinking body does nothing, it is no longer a thinking body but simply a body. But when it does act, it does not do so on thought, because its very activity is thought.Thinking is not the product of an action but the action itself, considered at the moment of its performance, just as walking, for example, is the mode of action of the legs, the ‘product’ of which, it transpires, is the space walked. And that is that (1977: 34-5).
Harrê has noted a similar thing using Streets-Johnstone’s idea of dance improvisation as an act of thinking. ‘In such thinking, movement is not a medium by which thoughts emerge but rather, the thoughts themselves, signification made flesh, so to speak’ (Streets Johnstonein Harre, 1991: 29). Thinking, then, is not separate from the actions or movements of the body, for thought is bodily action. Furthermore, as Ilyenkov points out, thinking is not something that goes on in the head of an inanimate and isolated person, as in Rodin’s representation in his statue ‘The Thinker’. Here we see a lone man sat motionless, head resting on chin, lost in solitary contemplation. It is not that Ilyenkov is denying the existence of such thinking, only that this is not the primary mode of thought. The immobile, lone thinker is only possible because of the active process of learning how to think and the social conditions that give us something to think about. As Ilyenkov points out, thought does not arise from within the person as water appears from a well-spring in the ground, but rather
to explain the event we call ‘thinking’, to discuss its effective cause, it is necessary to include it in the chain of events within which it arises of necessity and not fortuitously. The ‘beginnings’ and the ‘ends’ of this chain are clearly not located within the thinking body at all, but far outside it (1977: 37).
This ‘outside’ in which the thinking body is located is the social world of interrelations, practices and meanings, so that what a thinking body is actually capable of doing is orienting itself in its community of meaningful praxis. Thought is therefore lived in and through its embodiment in public activity, in the person’s meaningful social relations with others and with objects. Here we see a deconstruction of the concept of the ‘mind’ similar to Shotter’s (1993), for the mind is no longer seen as a metaphysical substance, nor as a container which holds the thoughts of the person, but is a category deployed in the way people talk and act. The term ‘mind’ is deconstructed by the refusal to see it as a ‘thing’ or an ‘entity’ opposed to the body. However, Ilyenkov relocates thought processes not so much in embodied conversation, but more in terms of embodied practices mediated by artifacts. Thought processes follow the course of the person’s practices within the life activity of the social group. This activity, structured by social relations and conducted largely through artifacts, is the means by which humans are not only able to think about their world but also to change it.
Beyond the concepts of mind and body, culture and nature
Through the work of Ilyenkov, then, we can begin to see how human bodies and their practices, located in space and time, become the basis for thought and for the transformation of the social and natural world. Ilyenkov also attempts to conceptualize how practice involves the production of artifacts which constitute both tools and signs; human-made objects are symbols and, through this route, meaning becomes extended to non-human objects. Elias (1987; 1991) has referred to this as the symbol dimension, which cannot be separated from the other dimensions of space and time. He talks of the existence of five dimensions within human life, the fifth dimension being that of symbols and culture. From this, I take Elias to mean that the first three dimensions are the dimensions of space (quantified in terms of breadth, height and depth), the fourth dimension is that of time, and the fifth dimension is made up of symbols. The reason that I like this explanation, cast in terms of dimensions, is that using it allows us to think of different dimensions of human life, none of which can be separated from the others, yet at the same time they are distinct and cannot be reduced to one another. Just as in a three dimensional picture where it is impossible to draw a dividing line between the start of one dimension and the end of the other, so it is impossible in social life to say where the dimension of symbols ends and the others begin (and, of course, vice versa). For example, time is a symbolically created concept and is measured by socially created means, such as clocks and calendars. However, we are all aware of the physical effects of time, such as life-spans and the change in seasons. Thus, time is not purely a symbolic construction, for that would be a one dimensional view and a denial of the current human reality that bodies age and die, and that our lives are marked by what we consider as the passage of time. But to say where the symbolic markers end and the realm of time in itself begins is impossible, for there are no such markers and therefore no realms in themselves. Human life is irreducibly multi-dimensional.
Another example of multi-dimensionality is the experience of what we have come to call an ‘earthquake’, for the way we define and understand the tremors of the earth are symbolic constructs. In contemporary Western societies we now understand such quakes as due to geological faults and measure them on the Richter Scale, whereas at one time people may have thought of them as punishment by God for a collective wrong, the severity of the tremors equalling the weight of the crime. Yet while in this sense it is correct to say that the whole notion of an earthquake is a social construct, the experience of the violent shaking of the earth which necessitates our attempts at understanding the phenomenon are not in themselves constructs. It is true we never experience such quakes without interpreting them, but the symbols and signs we use in such interpretations do not constitute the whole of the experience. The meaning giving properties of human cultures are just one dimension of the total experience.
According to Merleau-Ponty and Ilyenkov, thought originally belongs to the spatio-temporal dimension and is extended through the symbolic realm. Thus, thinking involves a body engaged in spatial and temporal activity, one that is related to other people, animals and objects, and which carries out a series of socially defined activities; a body that is always thinking in the sense that it is aware – to some degree – of its location, its movements, and the things it is seeing or hearing. For humans, we are not only partly aware of these things, but we become conscious of many of them and this consciousness is the ability to reflect on one’s sensations and thoughts; to ask, ‘Why am I feeling this’?, or ‘What exactly am I seeing here’? The ability to consciously reflect on thought or sensation – which are initially spatially located – comes through the symbolic dimension. This dimension is blended with space and time, for symbols are used as a means of communicating with others: only later do we use this medium as a means of communicating with ourselves, by thinking consciously using the tools of symbols and language, or, put more simply, by talking silently to ourselves.
This idea is one that is now very familiar because of the impact of such thinkers as Mead and Vygotsky. However, what is often ignored is that they also believed that language is, initially, a spatio-temporal activity and is therefore a material phenomenon. For example, both Mead and Merleau-Ponty thought that language had its roots in gesture through which the individuals within a group adjusted their conduct to one another. For Mead, gestures are linked to the social instincts of human beings and are dependent on the body adjusting its actions to those of the others within the group (Mead, 1934; Burkitt, 1991: 32-36). For Merleau-Ponty, such gestural meaning is the foundation of language and speech, for this is derived from the place that words occupy in the context of action, spoken by people taking part in communal life. The meaning of words and the knowledge of how to use them is also gestural in the sense that it is not lodged in the human intellect, but in the practical use of language in everyday life. Words persist within us rather than being stored in a place called the ‘mind’, and in this way they belong to the body as much as they belong to any intellectual capacity. Again, this taps into the idea of language as a material phenomenon.
What remains to me of the word once learnt is its style as constituted by its formation and sound. […] I do not need to visualize the word in order to know and pronounce it. It is enough that I possess its articulatory and acoustic style as one of the modulations, one of the possible uses of my body (Merleau-Ponty, 1963: 180).
So, for Merleau-Ponty, language is a form of material action within the world, and it is produced from a certain bodily sense which has been developed in individuals in social practices. However, while the symbolic dimension may be rooted in the gestures of spatio-temporal activity and in the production of artifacts, the more elaborate codes of writing and speech can also be used to transcend space and time, by communicating symbolically with people who are not in our immediate presence (or communicating with future generations through stored knowledge). Similarly, we can use symbols to distantiate our own thinking from an immediate space-time location and abstract it into the realms of imagination, fantasy, or fiction. But this process of abstracton does not rely on a spirit, essence, or location that we can label as ‘mind’, for thought spans all the dimensions of human life – space, time and symbols.
This raises some complex questions about the nature of the material world. Whereas Descartes’ philosophy tended to dichotomize the corporeal and material, on the one hand, from the spiritual and the mindful, on the other, the multidimensional approach opposes notions of spirits and essences which are fleetingly attached to, but of a different order than, the material world. Neither does it support crude notions of materiality where everything can be reduced to this one dimension, so that human thought and action is simply a reflex or reaction to immediate sensuous experience. Karl Marx (1845/1977) saw through this trap in the Theses on Feuerbach, where he tried to steer a course between both materialism and idealism: materialism being the idea that human consciousness is contemplation of an objective and independent reality, while idealism is the equally false notion that consciousness alone is the active force that shapes the human world. For Marx, the resolution of this dichotomy was to assert the primacy of an active humanity that is in constant relations of transformation with material circumstances, an idea that was pursued by Ilyenkov amongst others. In this way we can see that human thought and action are never dictated by the material world, for people act to transform that world into something different: however, social action does take place in given material contexts – an ecology of natural and human-made resources, tools, and culture, including the power of the human body itself and its prostheses (such as various forms of technology) – which set the scene for activity and the possibilities of change.
Although Marx did not develop any theory of language in association with human action and thought, he was aware that consciousness was created through language (1970: 51). If we add language and consciousness into the picture, then we come to a very complex notion of materiality which complements Marx and rejects the Cartesian view of mind and matter as opposing substances. As Elizabeth Grosz has said, new conceptions of materiality and corporeality need to be developed, notions which see human materiality in continuity with organic and inorganic matter but also at odds with other forms of matter, which see animate materiality and the materiality of language in interaction, which make possible a materialism beyond physicalism’ (Grosz, 1994: 22). Grosz has attempted to create this new conception of materiality and corporeality through the work of Deleuze and Guattari, whereas I have chosen to formulate it in terms of the work of Ilyenkov. But the general aim is similar, in that the new conception involves an idea of the human body as productive, and also a notion of what Haraway (1991) and Latour (1993) have called ‘hybridity’, where there are no clear cut boundaries between people and things, but rather the identities of subjects and objects are created through their relationships.
Again, artifacts become important at this juncture, for Haraway makes a similar claim to that of llyenkov in that artifacts are not just material objects, but are always symbolic because they are ‘an active, meaning generating axis of the apparatus of bodily production’ (1991: 200). Artifacts, which would normally be seen as inert matter, are here given the power of agency, thus challenging the accepted conception of matter. When the world is raised to an artifactual level, objects can ‘speak’ to us in meaningful ways and invite and enable practices, no longer remaining as mute and lifeless. Thus, the distinction between subject and object, actor and acted upon, begins to break down, as do the imagined barriers between ‘nature’, ‘society’ and ‘technology’ (Stone, 1991). This is why, for me, artifacts are so important, because, like the humans who produce them, they are the inhabitants of the multi-dimensional world. As Latour has said of artifacts and quasi-objects, they are ‘simultaneously real, discursive and social. They belong to nature, to the collective and to discourse’ (1993: 64). Furthermore, artifacts connect and mediate the relation between humans and the various dimensions of existence, changing our relations to space and time, and our understanding and experience of it.[Note 2]
The concepts of multi-dimensionality, hybridity and artifacts are also useful in attempting to avoid the dichotomies between culture and language, on the one hand, and material reality or nature, on the other. Much of contemporary social theory seems to be troubled by this distinction, especially the debates that have emerged between social constructionists and realists over the relationship between language, or discourse, and ‘reality’. Whereas realists tend to hold on to the notion that there is a material reality separate from human culture with its own internal causal mechanisms and structures (Bhaskar, 1989), constructionists want to overcome this dichotomy by concentrating on the discourses people use to try to understand the world and the type of stories they spin to achieve such understanding (Edwards et al., 1995). However, realist concepts tend to separate material reality and its hidden causal powers from human cultures, and fail to account for the transformation of materiality in practice. The simultaneously material and cultural status of humans and artifacts is also ignored. The varieties of constructionism also have similar problems because, in concentrating primarily on discourse, there is a tendency towards one- dimensional thinking and an inability to encompass notions of the material. Language tends to be the only artifact which is considered in terms of the role it plays in human practice, thereby relegating the importance of the thinking body and the various technologies that mediate its practices. In this largely linguistic and discursive approach, where materiality can be seen as a product of various texts, Cartesianism reappears in the form of doubt about the existence of anything other than the centrepiece of the analysis, which in Descartes’ case was the ‘mind’, while in the case of constructionists it is language. The product of both these ways of thinking, however, is what Marx called idealism, in that ideas are seen as the sole force which act to construct the world, whether they be mentally or linguistically produced, and the active role that the thinking bodies of humans play in producing forms of culture and reality, through relations mediated by artifacts, is ignored.
In Cartesian philosophy and social constructionism, the mediated nature of experience – through the mind in Descartes and through discourse in constructionism – separates people from the world because they have no direct access to reality. However, if we understand the mediated nature of our belonging to the world as multi-dimensional, we can conceive of this as a series of flows with many directions, in that artifacts connect us to the world in deeper ways, while also allowing us to feel more separated from it. The artifact/symbol, and the conscious thought it constructs, also belongs to the other dimensions of space and time, and while it does not directly reflect them – but, rather, ‘diffracts’ them, as Haraway says – the symbolic deepens our understanding of, and our relationship to, the practical and embodied. The symbolic also makes possible the realm of imagination, or the imaginary, through which we attempt to understand the world in various ways. Through this medium we are connected to the world more deeply because we can attempt to understand it and our own actions within it in an imaginative way, and we can give meaning to the world that it does not have of, or within, itself. But we are also partially separated from the world because the artifact/symbol creates an ability to ‘stand back’ and distantiate ourselves from reality. It gives us the capacity to disembody and imagine.
Thus, the artifactual and symbolic does not simply separate us from the other dimensions, ripping apart bodies and minds, natures and cultures, but connects them in richer, more consciously thoughtful and imaginative ways. It is correct to say that through the artifact we construct a shared understanding of the world which shapes our experience of it, and which enables and limits our practices, but it is not strictly true that we entirely construct our reality. The constructed and the non-constructed form a continuum with various degrees of hybridity along it, ranging from non-constructed objects such as rocks or stones which are given symbolically created meanings, to artifacts and other signs fashioned by humans for specific purposes, which have no prior existence. The human body plays a central role in this construction, but this is not just an organism without an identity – it is a person whose identity is created within social relations.
Embodied persons and selves
Because humans are always part of the symbolic dimension as well as the spatiotemporal, a body is never just a body, but is always regarded to some degree as a person with an identity. Human persons are hybrids because they are members of the socio-natural world; they have bodies belonging to time and space, but also an identity constructed through the symbols, signs and values of their culture. Gergen and McNamee (1995) have argued that human bodies are always located in relationships and, in this context, they can be referred to as ‘persons’. I want to use this definition because within cultures bodies are always taken up and shaped within particular lifestyles and activities, whether this is simply to do with climate, nutrition, the kind of work and rest a person gets, their living conditions and standards of hygiene, or whether it is to do with deliberate body altering practices such as building, stretching, piercing, tattooing, cutting or amputations. Many of these body altering processes mark out a person’s social status within the group, their role or tasks, and so can be regarded as part of their identity. Unlike Descartes, then, it can be argued that the body is central to the identity of a person and that personhood does not simply reside with the ‘mind’. The person has a fairly stable identity that changes only slowly with place and time; like the body itself, it has a more enduring, though not unchangeable quality, a bit like the image of a person’s face as it gradually ages. The lines, creases and crevasses are read for signs of ‘character’ and ‘experience’, although in different cultures these may be differently valued as symbolizing either wisdom and maturity, or decrepitude and obsolescence. Thus, the embodied person changes in a way that is similar to the human face, where the basic features remain the same but their appearance goes through various transformations.
In contrast to the more stable aspects of a person’s character there are also the various selves that develop which are more context dependent and can change from situation to situation in the space of a day. The perspectives we have on our own embodied person can change as rapidly as our viewpoint changes, creating the impression of a variety of selves, or different ways of viewing and presenting ourselves in different social contexts Like the person to which they are intimately related, various selves only emerge in the symbol dimension and yet they configure around a body belonging in space and time. Persons and selves could not exist without their embodied location, yet, because they have their origin partly in the symbolic, they cannot be reduced to the body. This does not mean that their existence is separate from it; it is simply another dimension of embodied human life. The difference between person and selves is that the latter allow for a degree of reflexive distance from embodied personhood and for the ability to take a more universal, although still partially situated, stance towards other people and things We are able to see ourselves from the viewpoint of others or from the perspective of other things and, as Mead first suggested, it is this capacity that allows us to take a more ‘objective’ view of our own embodied being. It is this taking up of a stance towards our embodied position, through the mediation of symbols, that enables us to create various self-images that form the impression of a ‘deep’ subjectivity or interior. In the contemporary age, as communication and information technologies proliferate and become more sophisticated, these selves can multiply as the opportunity for symbolic contact and dialogue with a wider range of people and cultural influences also multiplies (Gergen, 1991). Here again, we see the role that technology plays in the formation of the self.
The body is a biological entity which is incomplete at birth and only at the very beginning of its formation as a person. The continually ongoing process of becoming a person, with different selves and various capacities, is made possible by artifacts and symbols which fuse with biological processes – moulding, copying, changing and supplementing them. All this occurs within a person’s biography which is located in relational networks and in space and time. Biography is the life-history of the person, the way that their location in relationships and culture has formed the various selves. The person’s place in relationships – which includes their status, living standards, working practices, beliefs, etc. – becomes invested in every sinew of their body, reflected in the way they walk and talk, the way they present themselves to others, their gestures and manners, dispositions and tastes (Bourdieu, 1984). A person’s class, gender and racial position in the group will be reflected in bodily carriage, gestures, capacities, accent and tone of voice, and also in the way that they experience their bodies (Young, 1990). Grosz (1994) is right to say that the body is not the expression of a private and internal subjectivity, but it does express its position within social relations in the nuances of every movement and sound it makes. However, the body also has the capacity to change its relations and to generate what is new, not because it is a biological organism which opposes or is somehow outside of the social, but because the dispositions and capacities of the body are created within social relations that are fragmentary and disparate. This means that dispositions and capacities are never uniform within a culture, but always diverse and variable, and thus persons are always equipped to act against the power structures of society as well as to conform to them. It is in this way that embodied persons are capable of transforming social relations as well as being a basis for them.
A practical example of this is the way that the women’s movement is currently challenging gendered power relations in Western societies by, among other tactics, calling into question the very Cartesian ideas of embodiment I have been criticizing here. Mary Gergen (1994) has shown, from the analysis of autobiographies, how it is men who more often experience their bodies as machines which are separate from the ‘inner’ sense of ‘I’. By challenging the social arrangements contained in such ideas, where men are seen as rational thinkers and women as more emotional, feminists are aiming to transform social relations through opposing male domination and asserting the embodied experience of women and their active position in society. It is my hope that theoretical critiques such as this, along with feminist academic work, can connect with practical movements in order to strengthen their transformative political programmes
As persons and selves, then, we are embodied beings with socio-physical powers of transformation: through collective action we not only transform the world we belong to, but reformulate our bodies in the process. The artifacts we create give us new powers, not only to change nature, but to supplement and augment our bodies, making us into prosthetic beings or hybrids. In such conditions of mediated action, thinking bodies are always connected to a transformed materiality and sociality. There is no absolute separation between nature and culture, body and mind, materiality and knowledge, for these can be understood as dimensions, interconnected through mediated relations and practices, involving the thinking bodies of persons and selves. The human body is ultimately inexhaustible and unknowable, because it is open to endless transformation and reconstruction. However, strands of philosophical and social scientific knowledge can be brought together and fed into collective political action, to take us beyond the dualistic Cartesian world and help us to grasp the multi-dimensional aspects involved in the transformation and reconstruction of bodies and their social relations.
I would like to thank the four anonymous referees of the original draft of this article for their constructive comments and advice.
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Artifacts supplement and reformulate the human body and change the way we belong to space and time. Modern technologies of mass communication such as telephones and televisions have not only extended and amplified the human ear and eye, but they have reconstituted time and space, making it possible to communicate with people over wide geographic distances in an instant (Giddens, 1991). Computers and information technologies have taken this process even further (Gergen, 1991), to the point at which people can communicate and interact through messages on a screen without having to reveal their bodily presence in terms of visual or auditory image.
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