The body and the mind

by bjmuirhead

The obvious point of what I have written here so far is that everything goes back to the body, and to the senses. We experience ‘the world’ through our senses, and out of our sensuous experience of the world we create explicit knowledge and thought processes on the basis of our tacit knowledge—the experiences themselves, which necessarily remain bodily (sensuous).

The more we think explicitly, and the more importance we attach to explicit thought and its products, the more we ignore and/or fail to take into account bodily (tacit) knowledge and the body itself. This is a process of almost wilful ignorance that has been going on for as long as humans have been thinking about ourselves. It is, perhaps, also one reason reason why visual art has been held in high esteem throughout human history—visual art, irrespective of any specific uses at any particular time, always has focused on the senses and the body, thus bringing us back to ourselves, back to physical realities. But there is much visual art, our ‘high’ art in particular, which no longer performs this function, and which leaves the ordinary viewer entirely nonplussed, and this may well be one of the unspoken forces behind the ever growing popularity of photography as an artistic medium: photography keeps us in contact with the senses, with a bodily awareness of our physicality within the world. This ‘keeping in touch with the world’ is particularly important when we remember that the majority of our ‘perceptual knowledge’ (tacit knowledge) arises from movement of our own body and through interactions with moving (and stationary!) objects. Moreover, the first thing of which we make sense is our own bodies, and we do this without the use of words or explicit thought processes.

This type of bodily, perceptual (tacit) ‘sense-making’ is the standard by which our sense-making of the world unfolds. (See Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body, Chapter 1)

To say this, however, is to tell half the story at best, for it still does not tell us anything about what the body may mean.

The idea that the body may mean something beyond its immediate functions and existence seems to be an odd notion, especially when the body clearly has meaning in various obvious senses. It clearly is the case, e.g., that a naked body often is taken to mean sexual availability or desire, or it may be taken to be a symbol of sexual oppression (either positive or negative, depending on the society in question). Meanings such as these, however, are not universal; as we all know, the ‘sexual meaning’ of the naked body, and of the nude in art, vary from context to context, place to place and time to time. What matters here is whether or not we take meaning to refer to ‘things known or conceptualised, or whether we take it to refer to the fullness of our experience, logically prior to our useful abstractions from it. The question I am asking refers not to our explicit abstractions, but to the fullness of our experience.

It may be that this is not a coherent question, in that the type of meaning commonly sought in answer to this type of question is some explicit and abstract statement of meaning within some cultural or social context. The notion that the naked body always in sexual and always carries a sexual meaning is just such an interpretation of the body and one of its functions. As an interpretation it relies, for the most part, on explicitly formulated moral beliefs which do not take into account the possibility of a non-sexual nudity, which tends to be ruled out as being impossible, irrespective of evidence to the contrary. Such meaning is an interpretation of the body separate to what may or may not inhere in the body in all cultures and at all times.

This type of search for universality is very difficult, perhaps impossible, of only because it does not seem possible to step outside of our own culture. None the less…

Driving Force

Driving Force

The bluntest and possibly most poetic statement of the type of position I am edging toward belongs to Nietzsche, and comes from the speech On the despisers of the body in Also Sprach Zarathustra. In this speech Nietzsche has Zarathustra proclaim that the ‘awakened and knowing’ say I am body alone and that Soul merely is a word for something about the body. Moreover, within each of us is a ‘ruler’ or ‘unknown sage’ who, in fact, is your body, and that it is the body which created spirit as an instrument and plaything.

The appeal that this particular Nietzscheanism has for me should be obvious. Rather than placing the mind (the spirit) in the central position, Nietzsche declared it to be the creation of the body or, at best, an aspect of the body.

Without wanting to debate points of Nietzschean scholarship, it can be seen that the rôle the senses and experience play in creating perceptual/tacit knowledge, and our subsequent rendering of as much of this as possible into explicit form, reflects the Nietzschean idea that the mind (the soul, etc.) arises from the body to become what it is, rather than being a superior aspect somehow imposing on the body from ‘above.’

What fascinates me about this is the implication that the body is the self in some deep manner, and that the mind is an extrusion, so to speak, of the bodily self.

The closest contemporary approach to the Nietzschean position are theories of the ‘embodied mind’, which revolve around the idea that cognition and cognitive states (loosely: thought and the mind) exist, in part or in whole, within or as an aspect of the bio-mechanisms of the human body. Cognition and cognitive states, this is to say, are regarded as being grounded in our body and/or sensuous experience, situations, (mental) simulation, and so on.

Thought and mind have been regarded as grounded in some manner throughout most of recorded history (see Barselou 2008), but this changed with the Cartesian assumption that thinking is not required for sensing and acting in the world. This assumption is possible only if we identify ‘thinking’ with ‘higher order reasoning and abstraction of the type displayed in language use, i.e., explicit thought. It was the belief that humans are the only animals possessing thought which enabled the conclusion that thought was separate from the senses; if this was not the case, then cats and dogs and horses and earthworms would need to be regarded as possessing the ‘human characteristic’ of thought. For Descartes, however, it was clear and obvious that nonhuman animals do not possess the ability to think, ergo thought cannot be an aspect of sensing and acting in the world. (The famous Cartesian split between mind and body.)

This Cartesian distinction between (i) sensing and acting within the world, and (ii) thought, marks the boundary between the tacit, sensory, experiential dimension (of thought), and the amodal, symbol manipulation of (explicit) thought (cognitivist theories). However, as I’ve pointed out previously, there is no sharp either-or-but-not-both boundary. The two types of thought are clearly linked to each other, and amodal, abstract, symbol manipulating thought seems to ‘grow out of’ sensory, experientially based tacit thought. 1

Of course the idea that sensory perception (the mere use of the senses) may be a type of (tacit) thought is not an idea which sits easily in contemporary consciousness. A goodly part of the difficulty here is that we are not accustomed to thinking of the senses in this way. Rather, we tend to gloss over our senses with the idea of experience—experience is something we have of the world, and our senses merely are the conduit for knowledge (albeit tacit) of the world, which we then experience ‘within ourselves.’ The gloss of ‘experience’ disguises and hides from us the possibility that our senses are a part of us and never can be, as far as we know, in any other relationship to our body.

I don’t want to get rid of or dismantle this gloss (it is too useful), but I do want us to be aware that it is a gloss in the sense that we do not (cognitively) reflect on an experience, say, of touching a lover’s skin. The initial touch, and our initial reflections (thoughts) are sensory. This is to say that the initial cognitive response is sensory in and of itself. That we immediately translate, or are able to translate, this sensory (and necessarily tacit) cognitive response (evaluation, pleasure, thought, etc,) into explicit thought processes which may be stated or written down does not stand against this; it merely obfuscates our awareness of the situation that oour senses engage in thought processes.

The types of thought processes (cognitive operations) involved in (engaged in by) the senses are: analysis and synthesis, the grasping of essentials, comparison, completion, correction, problem solving, combining, separating, contextualising. As Rudolf Arnheim put it, these processes are ‘the essential ingredients of perception itself.’ (p.13) As such, perception qualifies, in some sense at least, as thought (cognitive processes and/or states).

One of the most important aspects of this for me is the strong implication that the human mind and body are inseparable in any coherent sense, hence John Dewey’s term body-mind. Perhaps more important, however, is the suggestion that we may see more deeply into a person when we look at their body and/or face than we ordinarily believe. Furthermore, and just as important, is the suggestion that experience is something we undergo, as I have read in many philosophic and psychological texts. Rather, it suggests that experience is an ongoing tacit cognitive process, and that what we explicitly conclude via reflection on our experience, is in large part merely a translation into explicit statements of the conclusions we have arrived at perceptually with the senses. (This has been termed ‘perceptual thought.’)

Having said this, it is particularly important to state that these suggestions do not deny the importance of learning, culture and ongoing experience. Nor should they be taken to imply that cognition somehow arises, sui generis, in each of us as we grow and perceive the world. Rather, it is important to remember that


Perception is not determined simply by the stimulus patterns; rather it is a dynamic searching for the best interpretations of the available data. The data is sensory information, and also knowledge of the other characteristics of objects. (R.L. Gregory )


To the extent that this is the case, we none the less cannot be sure to what extent the interpretation of perceptual data is necessary at the beginning of life, or as life continues.

How much does a baby need to learn in order to recognise another human? Or are we ‘hard wired’ to recognise particular types of shapes? And so on…

Questions such as this are and have been the subject of ongoing thought and research. For my purposes, however, the obviousness of mind and thought as grounded in the senses, coupled with the obviousness of various thought processes occurring as an aspect of sensory perception is sufficient. Neither of these prove or in any way show that our bodily existence and the senses are all that make up mind and thought. Indeed, this is the old debate between empiricist and non-empiricist approaches, i.e., the old debate between those who believe that all ideas and thought processes arise from the senses, and those who believe that there are many a priori ideas with which we are born and which are used to guide the senses and understand sensory information.

This is a debate which I am happy to leave to others at this stage. What is important to me is not that one or the other view of mind is absolutely, one hundred percent correct; what is important is the undeniable nature of the rôle of the senses in providing (tacit) knowledge and their cognitive nature. The point, in other words, is to stand against the separation of mind and thought from the body, but without thereby claiming that thought and mind are solely an outgrowth of the senses and body.2

in thought i spied her

in thought i spied her

The point of everything I have written here about experience, tacit and explicit knowledge, thought and mind, has been to show that a nude, especially a photographic nude, provides much more than a mere erotic thrill. It can and does provide real but tacit knowledge which grounds our conception and awareness of ourselves. Indeed, all photographs, and most likely all art, does this.

Needless to say, a summary and clarification of this, and its importance in respect of the nude in art, is my next task. Part one of my work will then be complete, but for revisions, additions, and perhaps a change of mind here and there….

1Whether or not this is the case is irrelevant for my purposes; my subject continues to be the nude, and in this context it is enough to note the distinction.

2What I mean is: it may well be the case that some, or even all, thought is a process of manipulation of amodal symbols, but it may also be the case that many of the amodal symbols are manipulated derive from modal sensory perception. This would not alter my main point, it merely would add another layer to the process. In any event, modality should not be taken to stand against amodality, nor vice versa.