Let’s get physical: The Philosophy of the Body.

Future Based #5

Long before Dick Swaab, both Plato and Descartes had already contended that we are our brains. They premised that thought is conducted within the head, and—since the head sits atop the body—stands in direct communication with the divine. Dangling from the head there is the body; passionate, surly, mechanical, and in need of domestication. Every single thought or action is ushered through the head, our hands and feet willingly bending to that which is imposed from above. This conception is reflected in theories that celebrate the brain as the apex of humankind; the command centre that governs all. The physical body, in this respect, is viewed as merely instrumental, if not utterly subordinate.

In 1543, the Belgian physician Vesalius published the principal anatomical atlas, mapping out the body as we still know it today, and fundamental in its influence on contemporary views of the body. For the first time in history, the body was methodically opened, its insides made visible and thoroughly analysed. Rendered inanimate and spiritless, the body is reduced to a mechanical ‘thing.’ This perception of the body is further reinforced by medical technologies such as the x-ray, the CT- and MRI scan, and modern-day self-tracking apps.

These approaches tend to view the human body as an object for control and surveillance. We might ask ourselves whether this is correct. Is it fair to accept the brain as the lord and master of the body? How can we abandon such (Cartesian) dualistic thinking?

The neurons that cause the heartbeat to increase and the skin to sweat are part of a network that functions throughout the body, operating independently from the brain and spinal cord. It should come as no surprise that the body, whilst stimulating these neurons, affects the brain in turn. This in turn takes effect on one’s hormone production, mood, and behaviour. By manipulating the body—be it through dance, sports, or posture—the brain is also manipulated.

There is something funny going on here. Whereas on the one hand, the physical body has become the centre of attention, with a focus on sports, exercise, fitness, yoga and healthy eating habits. Correspondingly, science has shown an increased interest in the significance of the human body within psychiatry, cognitive science and education. On the other hand, the body remains nothing but an instrument, even in light of the most innovative of projects. The human being is made equivalent to whatever is housed within their brains; the body, paling in comparison, vanishes.

The upsurge in outsourcing human labour to robots; the algorithmic coding of behaviours; and the reduction of thought to neurological processes, are all developments that seem in support of rendering the physical body irrelevant for the future to come. 

The philosopher Merleau-Ponty, in contrast, insists on the subjectivity of the body. The body is our window to the world; without it, perception, and thus knowledge, remain inaccessible. Contemporary philosopher Michel Serres emphasizes the intelligence and creative ability of the body.

Scientific research has shown that much of the activity in the nervous system originates not from the brain, but from elsewhere within the body. Practices such as tai-chi and yoga are based on the principle that the body controls the mind, contrary to the conceited presupposition that the cognition our heads which controls the body. This coincides with the way that art and music, taste, touch, sight and smell influences our behaviour. It is also how we function when we play sports; during physical activity, many processes occur subconsciously.

We find ourselves in a conflicted situation; a dualistic relationship to the body. For why would we work out and exercise if the body will be of no significance in the future? Why break a sweat if anything we think or do is already pre-programmed in an algorithm, in the brain, or in a genetic code?


During the meetup on the 23thrd of May (more information and tickets can be found here) we will collectively explore the dimensions and complexities of the human body. The meetup will last for two hours, and is dedicated in particular to the philosophy of the body. Philosopher Aldo Houterman shall lead with an introduction, which will form the base for a group discussion. Artist Cindy Moorman will introduce her work methods, in which physical presence and the relation to the other are of vital importance to her research, which centres around social structures and the position of the body within its environment. – Ticket link

Is there such a thing as the thinking body? Is the body a subject? What happens to us when we travel in packs? What energies are released between one body and the next? How does our body relate to that of the other? What does it mean to have a body?

Speakers:


Aldo Houterman studied Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. Aldo is a teacher and researcher on the subject of Philosophy of the Body and Brain. He has researched bodily experience within psychiatry and physiotherapy. He is currently writing a book on the philosophy of sports and exercise, and is a doctoral candidate at the Erasmus University. He also teaches Ethics and Philosophy at the department of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Amsterdam, as well as in the Physiotherapy department at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht.

Cindy Moorman is a visual artist. She obtained a Bachelor in Fine Arts at the University of the Arts in Arnhem (1999-2003) and a Master in Fine Arts at the AKV Sint Joost in Breda. She has exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem. Cindy Moorman makes structures visible – ranging from sculptural forms to social rituals. With drawings, performances, paintings, photography and interventions, her oeuvre can be considered as much formalistic as socially rooted. Meaning and form are abstracted by Moorman; she makes existing social rituals her own, with a major focus on its physicality.

Cover Photo: Cindy Moorman / De Constructies, 2013/ More information on this work can be found here