The Mind-Body Problem That Wasn't
The idea that there is a mind-body problem perptuates violence against bodies
Posted May 31, 2019
I am going to make a brief comment about a big problem.
The big problem is the “mind-body” problem.
My brief comment is that this “problem” provides ideological cover for violence perpetuated against “the body” – violence that comes to seem inevitable.
How did I get here?
The Big Problem
This mind-body “problem” assumed its modern shape in the seventeenth century in the work of philosophers and theologians who posited the distinction, and even opposition, between “the mind” and “the body” as the difference between consciousness and a material object. Once separated, and ever since, scientists and scholars across fields have wrestled to articulate the nature of this relationship, and address the intellectual, social, personal problems caused by “fact” of this separation.
Such issues include: How does consciousness emerge from matter? What happens when we die? When does life begin or end? How do we heal our bodies? Our minds? How do we make good decisions for ourselves in the realm of health and well being, or love and relationships? How are mind and body related? How should they be related? And how do “we” make it happen?
The Brief Comment
My brief comment is inspired by an article I read about Ibram Kendi’s National Award winning book on racism, Stamped from the Beginning, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi argues that racism emerged in the U.S. as an ideology that justified the practice of enslaving black Africans. The economic benefits of slavery came first; the ideological rationale followed. Kendi’s conclusion: no amount of love and education is going to change the ongoing legacy of racism. What is needed are specific policies that eradicate ongoing practices of racial discrimination.
Kendi reminded me of what I know from my study of Marx: an ideology can serve as a cover–not an account of what is true, but a sugarcoating that masks the reality of what is happening and makes the pain of it palatable. Marx, for example, described religious beliefs as an “opium” that deceives laborers into thinking that God is responsible for their sense of alienation, and thus renders them unable to pinpoint the source of their suffering in capitalist relations of production.
It struck me: the mind-body problem itself is an ideology in this sense. It works to convince us that particular kinds of personal and social pain are inevitable; and then diverts our attention away from the sources of our suffering, such we are unable to address them. In this case, at least one source in question is… reading and writing.
My brief comment, then, is this: The mind-body problem provides ideological cover for the violence that practices of reading and writing require – especially in relation to “the body.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I love reading. I love words. But I also know that reading and writing alone are not all that humans need in order to make sure that what they do with their words aligns with their ongoing health and well being.
The modern manifestation of the mind-body problem owes much to changes in literacy, education, and book use brought about by the invention of the printing press. Ordinary people–not just monks and rulers–began to practice sitting for lengths of time previously unimagined in order to learn to read and write. They learned to think and feel and act as if they were minds living in bodies.
In the past I have written about how the increasing time spent reading and writing created opportunities for (some) people to learn to perceive themselves as agile, mental agents living within still and sitting bodies. The mind-body dichotomy, I have argued, is a concept made possible by the sensory education of reading and writing. In this reading, the negative effects of mind-body separation are simply unintended consequences.
Now I want to take the argument a step further. The idea of mind and body as two separate and separable entities serves to justify discrimination against "the body." In this view, the mind is the seat of the human soul/self/spirit; the body exists to serve the mind. Thus, whatever must be done to “the body” in order fully to lift and liberate the mind is worthwhile, even desirable – including learning to ignore and override one’s own sensory and kinetic awareness. We come to believe that we have to control our bodies so that they conform to our expectations; we lose touch with what our bodies know. We believe that pain involved is inevitable and that the results are worth it. The shift from books to screens amplifies the problem, in so far as our range of motion shrinks, even as the possibility for mental stimulation via moving image and sound as well as word increases.
This shift in argument makes a difference. Why?
For one, it makes it clear, as Kendi says of racism, that love and education are not enough to heal the wound between mind and body. It is not enough to “love” our bodies. It is not enough to engage in mind-driven practices that aim to unify “mind” with “body.” Nor is it enough to study how the evolution of modern culture requires and perpetuates ongoing repression of bodily agency.
Our ignored and neglected bodies are a mess. They are craving, addicted, overstimulated and undernourished, over-worked and under-exercised. Our minds are anxious, addicted, and depressed. Our actions and activities have made them that way. And our solutions, so much of the time, perpetuate the problem by focusing either on mind or body to the exclusion of the other and in particular, by ignoring the self-creating agency of a bodily self.
The practices we need, then, are ones that gradually restore a sense of agency to our bodily selves. "We" need to recover the wisdom that resides in our capacity to move.
We don’t need to stop reading and writing altogether, only sometimes–enough to engage in actions that educate our sensory awareness in complementary directions.
Seeing the mind-body problem as an oppression-enabling ideology also illuminates why dancing, as a practice and as a source of ideas is so important to us in this historical moment. To dance is a radical act. It is radical, as I describe in my book Why We Dance, because it exposes the mind-body problem as ideology. The mind-body paradigm cannot explain the persistence and prevalence of dancing. This dancing cannot be explained as a matter of a mind’s choosing to act, or a body’s submitting to communal example. The world presence of dancing can only be explained as a sign of what the mind-body problem exists to ignore: that the source of human life lies in its own relational bodily movement.
From such practices, then, ideas will emerge that do not discriminate between mind and body when discussing knowledge, truth, wisdom, justice, goodness, health, and beauty–or gender and race.
There is no mind-body problem. There are only bodily selves, creating themselves, creating their minds, with every bodily movement that they make.