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Recovering the Body

Recovering the Body: A Philosophical Story

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 380
  • Book Info
    Recovering the Body
    Book Description:

    Following the metaphysical and epistemological threads that have led to our modern conception of the body as a machine, the book explores views of the body in the history of philosophy. Its central thesis is that the Cartesian paradigm, which has dominated the modern conception of the body (including the development and practice of medicine), offers an incomplete and even inaccurate picture. This picture has become areductio ad absurdum, which, through such current trends as the practice of extreme body modification, and futuristic visions of downloading consciousness into machines, could lead to the disappearance of the biological body. Presenting Spinoza's philosophy of the body as the road not followed, the author asks what Spinoza would think of some of our contemporary body visions. It also looks to two more holistic approaches to the body that offer hope of recovering its true meaning: the practice of yoga and alternative medicine. The metaphysical analysis is accompanied throughout by a tripartite historical and epistemological analysis: the body as an obstacle to knowledge (exemplified by Plato and our modern-day futurists), the body as an object of knowledge (exemplified by Descartes and modern scientific medicine); and the body as a source of knowledge (exemplified by the Stoics, and the philosophy of yoga).

    eISBN: 978-0-7766-2080-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Sociology, Public Health

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Chantal Beauvais

    Never has it been more urgent to be enlightened by a philosophical reflection on the body. Confronted with such crucial issues as organ traffic, organ donation, assisted suicide and biomedical research, citizens, politicians and policy makers certainly need solid scientific evidence to justify their decisions. But, first and foremost, actors in the public forum need to identify what the real issues are. This cannot be accomplished without getting at a problem’s philosophical underpinnings. Too often, solutions address only pseudo-problems. Take this line of reasoning, for example: there is a shortage of organs; therefore we should implement policies and programs for...

  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    The purpose of this book is to tell a story, to uncover the history of the body in our Western philosophical tradition leading up to the modern conception of the body as a machine. It is also a work of recovery, bringing to light many aspects of this history that have been lost or forgotten in the West since the Scientific Revolution. At a time when our biological knowledge of the body has never been greater, a philosophical void exists in our understanding of the body’s relation to mind, soul, nature and cosmos.

    Surprisingly, this is not a story that...

  6. PART I The Road to Mechanism:: Ancient Greece to the Scientific Revolution

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 13-16)

      My story of the body in philosophy begins with Plato; however, there are concepts of the body pre-Plato that are of interest to my narrative. My story focuses on philosophy in the Western world, but later chapters bring in Eastern concepts of body for comparison and contrast. An interesting aspect of the history of the body before Plato is the number of comparisons that can be made between ancient Eastern (particularly Chinese) and Western conceptions of body and cosmos. The most important of these in relation to my narrative is the concept of breath in the two cultures.

      In his...

    • CHAPTER I Body and Soul at War: Plato
      (pp. 17-44)

      The comment has often been made that all of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato,¹ and this claim is certainly true as it pertains to the Western view of the body. In this narrative, Plato provides the opening chapter of the dualistic story of soul and body that has influenced philosophical and religious thought for over two millennia. His dualism is more complex than our modern version, however, having dimensions that are missing from contemporary mind-body debates. While he appears to have a clear separation of soul and body (and elevates the former at the expense of the latter),...

    • CHAPTER II Body and Nature: Aristotle and the Stoics
      (pp. 45-78)

      Aristotle (who lived from 384 to 322 BCE) is one of the giants of the history of philosophy. At the same time, he is a philosophical figure who does not fit readily into my narrative of the body. Unlike Plato, he does not fit the dualist stream, since he does not accept that the mind and body are separate entities, and he is indifferent to the question of the immortality of the soul, something that was of primordial interest to Plato. On the other hand, he does not fit neatly into the monist stream, as do the Stoics, whom we...

    • CHAPTER III The Resurrection of the Body: Christianity
      (pp. 79-104)

      If it is difficult to generalize about a unified philosophy of the body in Stoic philosophy due to its temporal and geographic spread, it is even more difficult with respect to Christianity, a religion that has spanned two millennia, has been reformed and transformed, and has sprouted multiple branches throughout its long history. At the same time, there are certain fundamental beliefs of Christian philosophy and religion, which have their roots in the first centuries after Jesus Christ, in which the body—human and divine—figures prominently. In fact, the body is the focus of several central mysteries of the...

    • CHAPTER IV From Astrology to the Cult of Dissection: The Renaissance
      (pp. 105-132)

      One of the threads of the first chapters of this book has been the notion of the macrocosm-microcosm, entailing the belief that a human being is a reflection in miniature of the cosmos and is in some manner connected with it. This is evident in the Platonic myth of creation, where the Demiurge creates the human soul out of the same material as the world-soul. In Plato’s dualistic vision, it is the soul that reflects the cosmos, since the body, as an impermanent part of the ever-changing world, will die, and the soul will return again in another body. The...

    • CHAPTER V The Body-Machine: Descartes
      (pp. 133-166)

      René Descartes is a pivotal figure in the history of philosophy. He was born in 1596, just as the Renaissance was drawing to a close. He was educated at the Jesuit college of La Fléche at a time when the Jesuits were called upon to counter the Protestant Reformation through the education of young Catholic minds. From the age of ten, Descartes received a classical humanistic education, but he was particularly impressed by the precision and certainty of mathematics. Although he was a product of the scepticism of his age epitomized by Montaigne, he resisted it, and some of his...

    • CHAPTER VI The Road Not Followed: Spinoza
      (pp. 167-192)

      As we have seen in Chapter 5, in spite of the radical nature of his metaphysics, Descartes was what we might today consider a mainstream thinker. He occupied the same conceptual space as his predecessors, and, while he transformed many ancient concepts and ideas, he took pains to remain within the confines of religious orthodoxy. He would not publish his important work on physics because of the controversy over Galileo and the heliocentric universe. He did his best not to offend the religious authorities—and even to solicit their approval—as can be seen in the Introduction to hisMeditations,...

  7. PART II The Limits of Mechanism:: Contemporary Problems and Solutions

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 193-196)

      In philosophical terms, the seventeenth century represented a turning point, which many consider the beginnings of modernity. Not all philosophers agree with this; some hold that modernity started much earlier, for example, with the Renaissance and the beginnings of humanism, while others see it starting a century later with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. From the point of view that is being set forth in this book—the body and its relation to nature and the cosmos—it was the seventeenth century that provided the mechanistic framework that has governed science and philosophy up to the present, and...

    • CHAPTER VII The Legacy of Mechanism: The Fragmenting and Disappearing Body
      (pp. 197-234)

      One thing that becomes clear as we follow the philosophers’ thinking on the human body through the history of philosophy is that, in the final analysis, we can arrive at no consensus about what the body really is. In philosophical terms, this means that we are actually quite ignorant regarding the ontological status of the human body. At the same time, the sciences that are most particularly linked to the body (biology, physiology and medicine, for example) have all accepted as a presupposition the idea of the body as an object of nature, subject to the same physical laws as...

    • CHAPTER VIII Recovering the Body: Yoga
      (pp. 235-264)

      Millions of Westerners, and in particular North Americans, are practising yoga. They pick up their yoga mats, head for a local yoga studio, and spend an hour or two performing the physical exercises (postures) of the many different and evolving forms of hatha yoga. They are taking part in a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice that is also an art, a science and a philosophy¹—although for many of them it is not perceived as much more than a good workout that gets their bodies into shape and enhances their energy levels. “Yoga has been secularized and turned from a rigorous spiritual...

    • CHAPTER IX Recovering the Body: Alternative Medicine
      (pp. 265-288)

      So far in this narrative, we have been following the metaphysical threads of holism and dualism and examining how they relate to Western concepts of the body; in the last chapter we looked at competing eastern and Western paradigms through our discussion of yoga. We have seen that the dominant contemporary Western view of the body is rooted in dualism and mechanism, and, since the scientific revolution, treats the body as an object of knowledge (particularly medical knowledge). The eastern approach to the body is much older and, in spite of competition from Western, technology-based medicine, is enjoying a renaissance...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 289-294)

    Hans Jonas refers to the road through dualism as irreversible. In his view, dualism represents “the most momentous phase in the history of thought, whose achievement, however overtaken, can never be undone.”¹ Having sundered the world of matter and the world of spirit, we cannot think them back together again. If he is right about this, then what I have been proposing in this book is a pipe dream. The road not followed cannot be travelled now. He goes on to suggest, however, that while we cannot undo the polarity, we can attempt to absorb it “into a higher unity...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 295-304)
  10. Index
    (pp. 305-318)