What is a human “body”?

December 23, 2008 | By | 2 Replies More

In his 2008 book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, philosopher Mark Johnson makes a strong argument that “meaning is grounded in the body” (p. 274). That assertion, however, invites the question: “What is a human “body”?

Johnson implores us to not slip into mind/body dualism. He also warns us not to consider the body to be a mere “thing.” Yes, a human body is made up of skin, bones and organs but it is “surely more than a lump of pulsating flesh that will someday stop pulsating.” A body is not merely a thing, but it is a “lived body.” Johnson warns us that we need to give up our “reductive, hypostatizing concepts of the body” in order to get a “very much richer and more complex picture of how we are at once always embodied and yet also always more than a thing.” Drawing on his previous work with George Lakoff (Philosophy in the Flesh (1999)),  Johnson asserts that meaning and mind are embodied in at least five non-reductive ways:

1. The body as biological organism. This is the living, flesh and blood creature that we call our “body.” It is a “functioning biological organism” that works “in marvelous coordination” to interact with and transform its environment. This sense of the body also includes “preconscious capacities” for bodily posture and movement.

2. The ecological body. Johnson asserts that no body can exist without an environment and that we must think of the body/environment as “one continuous process” in order to avoid the trap of mind/body dualism. We must be careful to note that the body is not separate from the environment and that “any boundaries we choose to mark between them are merely artifacts of our interests and forms of inquiry.” This point dovetails nicely with Andy Clark’s conception of “the extended mind.”

3. The phenomenological body. This is our body as we live it and experience it. It is our “tactile-kinesthetic body,” and we are aware of our body through proprioception, internal body states and emotion. This is the body that we know through our “reflexive and self-referential perceptions, attitudes and beliefs about our bodies.”

4. The social body. Johnson asserts that the body is not just physical or biological. Bodies are also composed of “intersubjective relations and coordinations of experience.” We are who we are only “in and through others and by virtue of our intersubjective capacity to communicate shared meanings.”

5. The cultural body. Because environments are not only physical and social, bodies are constituted also by “cultural artifacts, practices, institutions, rituals, and modes of interaction that transcend and shape any particular body in any particular bodily action.” In this category, Johnson would include gender, race, class, aesthetic values and various modes of bodily posture and movement. Culture is not a simplistic top-down influence, however. Without embodied creatures, there is no culture. On the other hand, culture has a “relative stability and independence,” and it can “transcend and outlive particular individuals.”

Johnson concludes this section of his book by warning that folk psychology sees the body as almost exclusively the biological body, a physical thing to which everything else stands outside of our bodies. This, once again, inevitably leads to mind-body dualism. He warns that “the reduction of the body to the mere physical organism is just as misguided as the opposite error of claiming that the body is nothing but a cultural construction. They are both reductions.

Johnson does not seek to deny that our most central sense of the term human body is our biological body. But that is not the end of the inquiry. Consequently, “no single method of inquiry could ever capture everything we need to help us understand the tightly interwoven phenomena of body, meaning and mind.

Recently, I have been contemplating the widespread resistance of many people to the idea that humans are animals (see this post on terror management theory (TMT) and here). I believe that Mark Johnson is offering us a way to bridge human differences on this question. Perhaps many of the people who don’t want to think of humans as “animals” are thinking of animals only in the sense #1 listed above: the body as biological organism. It has never been my intention to deny that human animal-ness encompasses each of the five aspects of “the body” listed above.

Perhaps, with Mark Johnson’s expanded and explicit notion of “the body,” we can return more fruitfully to the fascinating issue of why so many people refuse to think of themselves as animals. When I make the claim that humans are “animals,” I am not (nor have I ever) been making the argument that humans are animals only in the sense that they are biological organisms, to the exclusion of any of the other four aspects of “body” discussed by Johnson.


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Category: Human animals, Language, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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