recommended by Noga Arikha
Philosophy is a subject of abstract concepts and arguments, traditionally focusing on ideas about the soul or the mind and less so on the body. However, as modern science has made ever more apparent, very little makes sense without it. Philosopher and historian of ideas Noga Arikha recommends books on philosophy, science and the body.
Interview by Nigel Warburton
Why are we talking about the body?
The body has not historically been central to philosophy. By dint of its very nature – a set of techniques for the investigation of truth, knowledge, self, or goodness – philosophy uses abstract concepts and arguments as its primary tools. And it is perhaps our very capacity to think about thought – our uniquely “metacognitive” nature – that leads us to conceive of our mind as disembodied. This is also one reason why mind-body dualism has inhered in much philosophical thought ever since Plato posited it. By no means all such thought, since the Aristotelian legacy is much more holistic, but a dualist strand has always persisted. Historically, it was necessary for religious reasons to consider an immaterial soul distinct from the material, mortal body, as did Descartes, whose mind-body dualism was born out of the idea that we are endowed with a disembodied mind that can contemplate God. For a long time, Descartes was considered the founder of modern philosophy. There have been attempts over the centuries to consider the unity of body and mind – Spinoza is an important counterforce, for instance-but it is only in the past three decades that the Cartesian mould has become seriously challenged, and that the body has become the centre of philosophical investigations. All but one of the books I’ve chosen here are not books of technical philosophy. But all reflect the turn to the body, which has also taken place in other fields, from the social sciences and humanities to the neurosciences and psychology: these fields are becoming integrated within a broad philosophical remit that integrates feminist concerns as well.
Before we get to the books you’ve chosen, you wanted to mention the Essays by the 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
I wanted to include Montaigne because he was the first thinker to focus on his own self as the subject matter, in such a way as to show, however, that this self was never fixed, that it was always dynamic and unseizable. One may not think of him as a “philosopher” in the technical sense, and he explicitly wrote “Essays”, but his is an enactment of a sceptic’s journey through all the subjects that philosophy examines. His essays are the least self-centred exercises in self-examination, for that matter. And I thought it was important to show that not everyone thinking about philosophy in early modernity ignored the body, even though that became the dominant theme historically.
“You really can’t understand humanity without understanding animals and their embodiment”
Montaigne is also a great writer, a wise guide and a consolatory read – when one feels off, and not only, it’s never a bad idea to sit down with Montaigne and open some pages at random. In his wisdom, he was acutely aware of his body, which he never thought of as separate from his soul. Here, for instance: “Those who wish to take our two principal pieces apart and to sequester one from the other are wrong. We must on the contrary couple and join them closely together. We must command the soul not to withdraw to its quarters, not to entertain itself apart, not to despise and abandon the body (something which it cannot do anyway except by some monkey-like counterfeit) but to rally to it, take it in its arms and cherish it, help it, look after it, counsel it, and when it strays set it to rights and bring it back home again.” (Screech trans., II.17.727) One recurring theme throughout these marvelous essays are his bodily habits, in all their intimate detail. For him, they were part of truth-telling. For instance, “My bowels and I never fail to keep our rendezvous, which is (unless some urgent business or illness disturbs us) when I jump out of bed.”
How convenient, as if we weren’t the kind of thing that becomes a corpse! OK, let’s turn to the books you’ve chosen. Tell me about Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist and the author of your first book choice.
Nearly 30 years ago, in 1994, Antonio Damasio published Descartes’ Error, which shows with Hanna Damasio, through precise neuroscientific mapping, how the notion of “pure” reason is a myth, that thought cannot be disentangled from emotions, and that rational judgments are profoundly conditioned by affective states. It was an epochal publication, in many ways. Here was a neurological picture of how what we conceive as our highest faculties of procedural decision-making and moral judgment are essentially undermined in the absence of emotional processing.
You didn’t choose Damasio’s Descartes’ Error, though.
No, I chose a more recent book by him, The Strange Order of Things: Feeling and the Making of Cultures (2018). Damasio here draws a line from bacteria and the first forms of life to human culture, to show how the mechanisms that were present at the dawn of life are the same ones at work in our embodied, feeling states, those that allow ultimately for human culture and for our “flourishing”, a term he uses frequently in the book and takes seriously. What he does here is trace the genealogy of “minded life”, in order to ground firmly in our biology our very capacity to represent the world and ourselves to ourselves. Single-cell organisms are capable of sensing and responding, but they are not minded – yet this is the beginning of mind. From engaging in basic perception and action, multicellular organisms become able to create representations of the world both outside and inside themselves, via the advent of nervous systems that, he makes very clear, serve these organisms. Ultimately the brain in organisms such as ourselves serve the rest of body, too. Nervous systems respond to external and internal sensations, and as their complexity grows, so they start to map these outer and inner, exteroceptive and interoceptive (or visceral) sensations within the brain. In fact these maps are what we refer to when we say something is “in my mind”. So the story he tells lays the ground for a biological theory of consciousness – one that he has developed in his most recent book, Feeling & Knowing – that is profoundly anti-dualistic. He shows how our consciousness belongs on the continuum of the history of life. We are very much like other minded beings in that we have revulsion to pain and attraction to pleasure – all conditions for our inherently valenced relation to the world. Feelings stir us to action.
How do they differ from emotions?
Damasio is quite adamant to distinguish the two, all the more that we tend to use the word “emotion” to refer to what in fact are feelings. He calls emotions “action programs activated by confrontation with numerous and sometimes complex situations”, not always conscious, and whose upshot are the basic and not so basic emotions we know, such as fear, anger, joy, and so on. Feelings, on the other hand, are provoked by the emotive responses to sensory experience and drives – they are the “felt experiences of emotions” (99-100), and the upshot of the homeostatic regulation, that is, the set of biochemical processes by which we constantly adjust to a constantly changing environment. Damasio shows in this book how feelings contribute to cultural processes insofar as they are the motives of intellectual creation: they prompt the detection and diagnosis of homeostatic deficiencies. And both emotions and feelings partake of affect, which, as we now know, is always present and somehow an aspect of all our functions – Damasio puts it beautifully: “There is no being, in the proper sense of the term, without a spontaneous mental experience of life, a feeling of existence. The ground zero of being corresponds to a deceptively continuous and endless feeling state, a more or less intense mental choir underscoring everything else mental”. (100) I fully agree. And I can’t help but lament that cognitive neuroscience and affective neuroscience remain two distinct fields, although I can see how complex it would be to integrate affect into the experimental protocols of cognitive science.
So Damasio is talking about culture, not just about the brain and the physiological mechanisms within the body, but also about the products of those activities. As a neuroscientist, he’s going way beyond what you might expect somebody to do, first of all, by giving a genealogy of culture. And secondly, by even caring about culture, and not just talking about stimuli and responses, he combines this with discussion of not just embodied people, but of people embedded in the world.
Exactly. I think it’s quite profound because he explains how our cultural artefacts are produced out of our own, dynamic, necessarily felt relation in the world, out of our being embedded in it, indeed, as biological organisms. He effectively gives the physiological picture that underlies the intuitions set forth within the “4E” movement in philosophy that has grown out of phenomenology, and which argues that we are embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended. And on this picture culture participates in the loop, because these cultural products in turn help us regulate ourselves as well–they are homeostatic regulators of sorts.
This concern with the evolution of consciousness and feeling is also a feature of your third book choice, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life
Godfrey-Smith’s main focus is octopuses, which are in many respects the most alien form of intelligent life that we can imagine at least for now. He describes how they evolved and what they are like in fascinating detail. And his approach, as a philosopher of biology, chimes with that of Damasio: albeit approaching their subject from different perspectives, both of them are looking back at the origins of life in single-cell creatures to explicate the emergence of consciousness. Both, in fact, are interested in placing consciousness firmly within its biological home, thereby shirking any “hard problem” of consciousness. I’m attracted to these approaches and find them very important, even though I can’t help being perpetually puzzled still by the metacognitive, or meta-representational capacity we have that enables us to develop these theories in the first place, with a sophisticated language that designates abstract entities, and that remains hard to account for in biological terms. Octopuses are very bright, but they don’t write books – as far as we know. Maybe there are vast octopus libraries hidden under the sand floor, but well, they are well hidden if so!
Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist, philosophically formed, culturally aware; Peter Godfrey-Smith in contrast is primarily a philosopher. But he writes like a naturalist as well, because he has spent many hours diving in the sea around Australia, observing the marine animals, particularly octopuses, for which he has an amazing affection. He also has an incredible ability to describe the appearances and behaviour of these animals, and to communicate something of what the different sensory apparatus of an octopus might bring about in terms of consciousness or multiple consciousnesses for them, because each tentacle has, as it were, a separate brain.
What is so compelling about octopuses is, as he says, that they are “suffused with nervousness”. They are radically different from vertebrate creatures in that their very body is in part their nervous system. There are twice as many neurons in its tentacles as there are in its brain – about 10,000 neurons per sucker. They can sense the world through their arms. Their nervous system is diffused, not centralised. It is, as he says, a totally “different embodiment”, and so it is hard for us to imagine what it is like to be an octopus, perhaps more significantly than to imagine what it is like to be a bat, to take on the title and topic of the famous article by Thomas Nagel. We do not know how to relate to an octopus body. But we can communicate with an octopus. Godfrey-Smith certainly knows how. This is also why his book was, or rather still is, such a success. And why the 2020 documentary My Octopus Teacher, about filmmaker Craig Foster’s relationship with an octopus, was so compelling, too. We are rightly fascinated by these alien, communicative, intelligent creatures.
This is a lovely book and very popular. I can’t imagine a better spokesperson for octopuses than Godfrey-Smith. You’re describing their intelligent behaviour, as you say, how alien their lives are from ours. But we can see different types of intelligence in some of the behaviour, even though they only live for two years. They exhibit this incredible, speedy learning, and adaptation to environment and changing environments and so on. That’s quite remarkable. His attentive descriptions of what these animals do raises huge, interesting philosophical questions about a very different sort of embodied mind from our own. It’s quite a jolt to the system, when you’re used to philosophers talking about either human beings or maybe chimpanzees, when they talk about animal minds.
As with Damasio, Godfrey-Smith is very interested in the longer evolutionary story about how embodied minds developed. He follows that through in his later book Metazoa, too. It’s interesting how rarely the evolution of minds features in the purer kind of philosophy of mind. The backstory is missing.
The backstory is, in my view, actually the front story. The “purer” philosophy of mind as it has been traditionally practiced, particularly in circles of analytic philosophy, strikes me in part as a deceptive abstraction from felt, subjective, embodied experience. It can amount to a refusal to accept the body as the given – to use a notion developed so brilliantly by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenology is an inspiration for the 4E movement and related research. And what you say about Other Minds is exactly what is great about this book, and why I believe it should be part of a list on the philosophy of the body: you really can’t understand humanity without understanding animals and their embodiment. We are evolved animals. We are an integral part of the natural world. This crucial starting point is finally starting to take hold in collective consciousness, perhaps in reaction to the destruction we have been wrecking on this natural world. We are finally realizing – a bit late, and not even strongly enough–that killing other creatures on the scale we have been doing is akin to suicide. And the increasingly mainstream nature of arguments for the centrality of the body to all mental life is connected to this realization. We can’t avoid or escape our biology, or if we try, we do so at our peril. We are our biology.
I put it down to those religions, such as Christianity, which emphasize how different we are from other animals. By drawing that line, it’s encouraging a traditional philosophizing, along the lines of the great Christian medieval philosophers, philosophizing about this disembodied soul.
Most cultures have some sort of soul story, which is also a reification of the thinking, metarepresentational being we are. It’s quite understandable. Death as the final curtain is not a particularly appealing proposition. I don’t like it either, and I don’t like the fact that we must spend our lives reconciling ourselves with its ending in order to be “wise”. I’m not enjoying this wisdom… Our capacity to abstract ourselves from the here and now through sophisticated language and concepts is the other side of the coin of our awareness of death, which comes along with this annoyingly advanced consciousness of ours. It is precisely what creates cultures, and art, and all those efforts at leaving some trace before we die.
Back to the bacteria-culture continuum Damasio traces. It is hard to tell if octopuses, whose lifespan is incredibly short – given their sophistication, in comparison with our lifespan – know about death, as elephants seem to. Obviously, that’s not a question one can really answer, either way.
There is talk about the possibility of the literal resurrection of the body, of course, after death, but that becomes really complex, because anyone who thinks hard about that worries about the corruption of the body, the dismemberment of bodies, animals eating bits of bodies. It’s a lot easier to talk about the disembodied soul floating up to heaven than it is to talk consistently about the resurrected body. Just in passing, it seems to me that a consequence of this sort of detailed description of another species is the sudden awareness of just how the sorts of mind that we have is contingent, it didn’t need to be this way. It’s not like this is the only way to have a mind.
This may be one other reason for our fascination with the octopus. It is an inconceivable creature, in a way – the literal incarnation of a conceptual limit. When we say it is “alien”, we mean that we can’t really make sense of what it would be like to be that animal – again, to use Nagel’s phrase. Yet, as Godfrey-Smith shows, the octopus is another form of sentient animal capable of extremely adaptable behaviours, of play, attention, and so on. The book gives a very precise description of the evolution and biology of octopuses, comparing their minds to ours. Because they are indeed comparable, even if we last shared a common ancestor about 600 million years ago, the time at which the branches of cephalopods and vertebrates diverged. And at a phenomenological level–using our metarepresentational capacities – it is compelling to conceive of our own arbitrariness, to be able to compare ourselves with this utter other mind, to relativise ourselves to such an extent. How do we square our capacity to think of ourselves as potentially different from what we are, with being inevitably the bodies we are? This creates a fertile, even moving tension. We are capable of thinking of ourselves from outside ourselves, as weird aliens, just as we think of the octopus. As this bipedal, almost hairless, vulnerable, needy, not that well designed creature that knows about death and does both wonderful and terrible things as a result.
Okay, let’s move on to your next choice, Mind the Body: The Exploration of Bodily Self-awareness by Frédérique de Vignemont.
This is a book of philosophy by a philosopher who has made the body her focus, and works also with empirical data from psychology and neuroscience to study the self as an embodied entity. There is a lot of work on this now, both conceptual and empirical. But as she notes, embodied theorists often don’t pay much attention to the body itself. A lot of the literature on embodied cognition is rather disembodied, and very abstract – not really descriptive of the embodied experience, which is hard to account for, and indeed hard to talk about. The question she investigates here is: what is actually happening in the body that would help us account for our sense of embodied self? She takes a hard look at substantial experimental data to fill in the picture, never losing sight of the philosophical questions regarding the interpretation of this data.
Can I just say that that phrase, ‘the embodied self’ almost sounds Cartesian? It’s embodied, it’s in the box of the body, rather than the self being the body, which is the idea that it’s supposed to encapsulate?
That is true, and perhaps I shouldn’t have used the phrase so much in my book, now that you point this out. Certainly it bears further characterisation: it is, following Merleau-Ponty, the lived body as that through which we sense, perceive, act upon and interact with the world. It is ontologically prior, in other words. And of course, it includes the brain that subserves it–to repeat the important point Damasio makes, that the brain serves the body, not the other way round.
I think it’s a kind of state-of-the-art phrase, but it’s got those lingering Cartesian aspects. As a philosopher, like Peter Godfrey-Smith, she’s become immersed in the science. This is interdisciplinary philosophy, as a lot of the philosophy of the body is, it’s not that somebody sitting in an armchair and hypothesizing about what the body must be like. They’re highly informed by evolutionary zoology in the case of Peter Godfrey-Smith, and neurological research in this case.
And that’s why I chose these books, because I am interested in the philosophy that connects with empirical work. I think philosophical acumen is necessary for good science – to devise both what are the questions that matter, and the validity of interpretations. And vice versa: much philosophical questioning can be tackled empirically today. This cooperation in fact goes back to early modernity, when most philosophers were also “natural philosophers”, that is, investigating the natural world, as do experimentalists today. Abstract and empirical enquiry were complementary. We have returned to this, which is a good thing. And this book is an excellent example of the necessary complementarity of these approaches.
You described it as quite a technical book.
It is quite technical insofar as it offers precise philosophical argumentation. But it’s extremely clear and never uses any jargon, so it is accessible. Each chapter is divided into arguments, counter-arguments and then conclusions. What she ultimately defends in this book is what she calls the ‘bodyguard hypothesis’ as what grounds and motivates the sense of body ownership–that is, the sense that my body is my own–what gives this sense its content of “mineness”. She uses inter alia the notion of peripersonal space – the space immediately surrounding the body, which works as an interactive zone that defines the self in relation to the world, and as a protective buffer. The way in which we define the boundaries of the self in embodied terms has to do with the evolution of this body map.
The neuroscientist Michael Graziano has done a lot of research on peripersonal space (PPS), which she invokes. He has shown that it has evolved in animals as a way of gauging and acting upon threats that are perceived by the organism, either consciously or not: it allows us to protect ourselves against such threats. On this basis, she conjectures a protective and a working body map –and she defines her bodyguard hypothesis as what one uses “when one experiences as one’s own any body parts that are incorporated in the protective body map.” This is how one gets a sense of embodied unity, or, in other words, a unified sense of self. And so the idea of the self as a unity is in fact a physiological construct, an illusion that we live by. It’s an ancient idea that goes back to the Presocratics in the West and to Buddhists and some Yogic traditions in India, and has always had its place in theories of the self, throughout history. But now we have experimental data to give us a more concrete understanding of how this unity is constructed. And how it can break down, for that matter.
Interesting. So there’s a kind of evolutionary, physiological explanation of why we have a sense of our body as ourselves.
Yes: it comes down to the simple fact that it is the only way for us to stay alive. Homeostatic regulation through allostasis is the physiological story told by Damasio. De Vignemont focuses especially on body ownership. They are different approaches to the issue of defining the processes involved in constituting an embodied self.
Which seems to be the opposite of saying that there’s no such thing as the self.
We can certainly say that there is no such thing as the self, if we identify the self with a kind of Cartesian substance akin to the old idea of soul. Rather, there is a self such that it is inherently constituted by the body. This book shows in a refined way how that is the case, how “the boundaries of the body that I experience as my own are those represented in the protective body map.” She carefully draws out the content of this particular body map, including, importantly, the mechanisms involved in body ownership and the related sense of agency – that I am the author of my bodily actions. These senses are constructed – we know this because they can be disrupted. There is a vast scientific literature on this, based on experimental setups such as the rubber hand illusion, different versions of which de Vignemont analyses at length, and which involves the experimenter stroking the hidden hand of the participant before whom was placed a rubber hand, which ends up feeling like the part of the participant’s body that is stroked. These types of illusions, which encompass the phenomenon of what one calls proprioceptive drift, are powerful, and, as she shows, they can be confidently marshalled as evidence for the bodily makeup of the self.
Great. Let’s move on to your next book choice.
This leads us straight into a book edited by experimental psychologist Manos Tsakiris and philosophically trained, experimental and clinical psychologist Helena de Preester, The Interoceptive Mind: from Homeostasis to Awareness. It is a collection of scientific articles, not of philosophical ones, all focused, as the title indicates, on interoception, that is, the sense of the body from within. A useful definition of interoception is that provided in a 2018 “roadmap” of the subject, co-authored by Sahib Khalsa: it is “the process by which the nervous system senses, interprets, and integrates signals originating from within the body, providing a moment-by-moment mapping of the body’s internal landscape across conscious and unconscious levels.” This internal landscape includes heart, gut, skin, and so on, and is constitutive of how we feel, whether or not we are aware of this back office activity, as it were.
I have been fascinated with this growing research over the last few years, writing about it and making use of it in my new book, even if I’m not an experimentalist myself. I believe it goes some significant way towards providing actual answers to questions that have philosophical heft, such as the nature of time, the sources of the experience and expression of emotion, the sense of agency–indeed, broadly put, the phenomenology of the sense of self. And it is fair to say that this research on the physiology of the self, as it were, is on a direct continuum with the work of Damasio, who in turn took his cue from William James and his great Principles of Psychology – a book I would have chosen here were it not already so canonical.
Certainly, one can no longer think philosophically about the body as an anti-dualist without looking at the empirical data about bodily processes. Conversely, the conjunction of such empirical data with philosophical acumen yields very interesting insights, while a scientifically informed picture of phenomenal experience enriches the philosophical questions, in a virtuous loop.
So what would you like to pick out in this book?
All the articles are very interesting – by now they represent a small percentage of the articles that are appearing in the field on a daily basis. Research on interoception – which one can also define as the dynamic brain-body loops that represent homeostatic processes–is growing exponentially and, it seems, is on its way to becoming more mainstream than it was even when the book came out, in 2018. The paperback has just been published, in June 2022, and I do recommend it as a brilliant introduction to this transformative research.
“We are our biology”
It isn’t easy to choose one article out of all these riches. But one I found very interesting, and which I also used in my book, is by Marc Wittmann and Karin Meissner, “The Embodiment of Time: How Interoception Shapes the Perception of Time”. Time might look like a metaphysical issue, but our experience of it is, again (I’m now feeling self-conscious when using the word), embodied – it depends on the “visceral and somatosensory feedback from the peripheral nervous system”, as they write. And since the experience of time is related to emotional, visceral processes, so there are precise links between the perception of time and interoception. These can be identified via neural signatures, especially in an area of the brain called the insula – and in particular the right anterior part of the insula – which has been clearly shown to be associated with interoceptive processes, and is activated in correlation with an accurate counting of heartbeats, one indication of interoceptive accuracy. This dialogue between heart and brain (neuroscientist Sarah Garfinkel in particular has been doing significant research on it) is directly involved in our awareness of time, just as it is in our experience of feelings. The article explains how our subjective perception of duration, from brief intervals to longer ones, is a bodily process, and the ability to stay rooted within time involves a feedback between brain and autonomic nervous system and even the dopaminergic system. It is connected to feeling states and affect. I’m simplifying – living, sensing organisms are complex. But we are starting to get a picture of how we function.
Actually, we have returned here to the building blocks of life processes, and indeed to Damasio, who shows how homeostasis lies at the foundation of interoceptive processes, and who is amongst those cited by Wittman and Meisner to remind us that “body signals are integrated with perceptual, motivational, social, and cognitive information, leading to the awareness of complex emotional states”. We can in fact study scientifically the various dimensions of the experience of time, amongst other intractable aspects of phenomenal experience. So, even though many scientists are not working philosophically in a direct way, they are feeding philosophical thinking.
You’ve mentioned homeostasis quite a lot. What does it mean exactly?
It’s the constant adjustment of an organism to its changing environment, so that it is able to exist within optimal conditions – and it corresponds to allostasis, the set of regulatory processes by which the organism ensures it is existing within these optimal conditions. Allostatic processes enable homeostatic regulation. These theories are not new – the term homeostasis was coined by physiologist Walter Cannon in 1926 – but they are being used in a novel way.
What’s the final book you’ve chosen?
It’s by Siri Hustvedt. She’s neither a scientist nor a philosopher in the technical sense – she’s well-known as a novelist and essayist – but I do think of her as a philosopher and feminist thinker. She reads and writes influentially about science, and is deeply aware of how it matters. (An interview I did with her for The White Review is relevant to our topic, as it happens.). She is in fact highly respected in the scientific world for her insights, which are also the output of an artistic mind – she writes astute art criticism as well.
I had a hard time choosing one book, but I want to mention just the latest collection of essays, Mothers, Fathers, and Others. It’s about many things, but a lot of it is about motherhood, which matters supremely, and needs to be considered in a different way from the public discourse about it: all of us have mothers, insofar as all of us were contained in someone else’s body. The first essays explore the worlds of her grandmother and mother, and they travel on, as we all do – from begetting, influencing, becoming, to reading, writing, feeling, retelling, recalling.
One particularly powerful essay here is called “Open Borders: Takes from the Life of an Intellectual Vagabond”, which explores the cultural, epistemic and psychological need for defining borders, and the danger inhering in erecting them. She traces misogyny to this need for borders, for a separation between enclaves that in turns translates a fear of pollution. How do we represent the world, she asks, wondering what the hybrids and therianthropes represented in 40,000-year-old cave art are: “Did those people perceive and represent animals more or less the same way I do?” Since perception depends on context and knowledge, perceptual biases inform many beliefs, and take the shape of imaginary borders, delimitations that may help us classify and analyse, but also lead to artificial disciplinary categories, and, as we are seeing now, to distortions, hatred, bigotry, fear of the imagined other, horror of the begetting woman and begetting mother. She has been writing about research in embryology, which shows how interwoven mother and foetus are, and about the placenta, that neglected in-between organ. I agree with her critique of the delusory view that cognition can be a disembodied brain in a vat – that is, of the functional or computationalist views of the mind, views that neglect the fundamental role of the body in shaping us, that see borders everywhere. That critique was particularly developed in her important essay “The Delusions of Certainty”, which was first published in a previous collection, Women Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind (2016).
The idea she is attacking is that you could upload the software of somebody’s brain onto a computer, and you would still have the same person thinking minds there because essentially, the mind is the equivalent of a complex algorithm. This is, in a way, the new version of the incorporeal mind, and we see it coming up again and again in sci-fi movies.
I’m certain, as she is, that this is a complete fantasy – she sees this picture as a male fantasy, which arises out of the male difficulty of accepting that he is born of a woman.
I was always surprised, even in the ’80s, by the degree to which feminist philosophy centred on the body. If you’re brought up in a male-oriented philosophical tradition, we don’t really talk about the body much.
Yes, and in fact mainstream philosophy has been male-oriented even since Plato and Aristotle. This is changing, at last. But there are still many assumptions and intellectual habits that we need to examine in light of this new, welcome awareness. The work has only just begun.
Perhaps we could end by talking a bit about The Ceiling Outside, your book, one that connects in several ways with the books we’ve been discussing.
It’s about how the self studies itself, and loses itself. My starting point is the embodied sense of self. I wrote it precisely against the Cartesian framework that prevailed for so long in philosophy and cognitive science. I wanted to understand what is going on when we lose track of who we are. So I ended up sitting in on the weekly clinical sessions of patients in a neuropsychiatric unit at a Paris hospital, and was privy to the examinations and medical discussions. The patients consulted there because they had diagnoses that were ambivalent or unclear. I picked out of the many I saw those that presented something most interesting with regard to the sense of self. To try to understand these people I drew on cutting edge work in psychology and neuroscience about the embodied sense of self, particularly in relation to interoception.
Neuroscience, for me, is entangled with philosophical questions about the self. It’s not just that we know what the self is, and we’re measuring something to do with the self. The very nature of the self is up for grabs. As you said, historically, the Cartesian model of the separable mind from the body held sway for a long time. In the popular imagination, too, we tend to speak about, ‘something on my mind’ or we ‘keep things in mind’. It feels like a metaphor when we talk about the heart, not as if we are talking about the real heart, that muscle that pumps blood and keeps us alive. But actually recent neuroscience and physiology generally suggest that it’s not so metaphorical, that there really are intimate connections between our physiological states and our awareness of them, and how we feel about the world, whether we realize what we’re doing or not. We’re constantly monitoring change.
Yes, that’s exactly it. But I realized while I was in the room with those patients that very little of this cutting-edge neuroscience was actually brought to bear on the clinical cases. Doctors don’t have the time to deal with this theoretical stuff. Neurologists in particular are just trying to understand what’s going on with these patients, and what may be going on in the brain, especially – they’re not really looking at the body more generally. The lack of attention to the body besides the brain did puzzle me, though, because a lot of the problems that I saw in the room are what we call ‘functional’ and don’t have a clear organic basis in the brain. So what is going on, really? I got very interested in how recent science can help us understand this. And then while I was writing, I realized that my own mother could have been one of the patients because she was starting to develop dementia, which presented clinically as an Alzheimer’s. So the book also became a memoir about that experience which, sadly, so many people share. The question of what the embodied sense of self is, and how it is tied into memory, became very pertinent for me. And the process of writing by ignoring disciplinary borders helped me cope with it all – as did books such as the five I’ve chosen to talk about here.
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