Last modified 03/28/03

The Body - According to Whitehead and Other Realists

"The concept of the mind is an age-old inheritance of ancient and oriental philosophy. From a tender age, everything to do with the problem of body and mind or soul has been influenced by every word or our parents and teachers, by the entire authority of the Christian religion and idealistic philosophy, by every book written by our great poets, and even by the expressions of idiomatic speech. As a result, the conviction has been hammered into us that the mind is something that exists in its own right and is independent of the body. In addition to this, any contemplation of the mind must necessarily be an introspective contemplation of one's own mind. And this very mind, the presence of an individual ego, is the most certain of all things. Indeed, it is the only thing that is beyond any doubt. The concept of the mind is one half of a pair of opposing concepts which could not exist at all without the counterpart, the concept of a mindless body." (Konrad Lorenz, The Natural Science of the Human Species: An Introduction to Comparative Behavioral Research, The "Russian Manuscript" (1944-1948), Agnes von Cranach (Ed.), Robert D. Martin, Translator, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press,1996, pg.157)

"Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature: Science can find no aim in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. These negations are true of natural science. They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of physical science lies in the fact that such science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience. It divides the seamless coat - or, to change to the metaphor into a happier form, it examines the coat, which is superficial, and neglects the body which is fundamental.
    The disastrous separation of body and mind which has been fixed on European thought by Descartes is responsible for this blindness of science. In one sense the abstraction has been a happy one, in that it has allowed the simplest things to be considered first, for about ten generations." (Whitehead, Alfred North, Modes of Thought, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1938)

"... the deeper question [is] whether spontaneous first-person, self-reflective self-utterances can be made by anything short of a living body, or at the least, short of being 'arranged' in accordance with some living body's experience. This is because a felt bodily sense of a situation is absolutely essential to spontaneous self-reflective self-utterances upon the situation. In a word, somebody must know what it is like. In effect, there is no way in which a tactile-kinesthetic corps engagé can possibly be left out of the picture." (Maxine Sheets-Johnston, The Primacy of Movement, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pg. 415, 1999.

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Of course, we all taste with our tongues and palates, smell with our noses, hear with our ears, touch with our fingers, nipples, etc., become aware of moving with our vestibular apparatus, hurt with our skin and other organs, and see with our eyes. The common denominator in all of these sensory activities is that something happens to cells in different parts of our bodies. In short, the lesson is that we sense with the body. In fact, even when our sensory experiences are caused by electrical stimulation of neural tissue, i.e., without an actual stimulus in the periphery, the resulting sensory experiences are ordinarily referred to the body. The realization that all experience (excluding, of course such things as "out of the body" and other so-called paranormal experiences) is via the body is one of the cardinal features of the process philosophical approach. Indeed, consciousness itself is a summation of the experience of all the organisms of the body, organisms that are continually "feeling the feelings" of their contiguous neighbors and of the world itself via perception in the mode of causal efficacy. In fact, the way we know our body, both from the inside and the outside, is perhaps the clearest and most irrefutable example of the fact that perception always involves two modes, perception in the mode of causal efficacy and perception in the mode of presentational immediacy. So, our body is not simply a device that is moved around in the world by the mind. Rather, our mind is our body in the world. Maxine Sheets-Johnston, in The Primacy of Movement, has ably described the dynamic interplay between body, world, and mind:

"...thinking in movement is a way of being in the world, of wondering or exploring the world directly, taking it up moment by moment and living it in movement, kinetically. Thinking in movement is thus clearly not the work of a symbol-making body, a body that mediates its way about the world by means of language, for example; it is the work of an existentially resonant body. An existentially resonant body creates a particular dynamic world without intermediary." (pg. 490, italics added)

In Modes of Thought (1938) Whitehead has some things to say about the actual occasion referred to as the body.

"The human body is that region of the world which is the primary field of human expression." (MT 22)

"The body is that portion of nature with which each moment of human experience [normally most] intimately cooperates. There is an inflow and outflow of factors between the bodily actuality and the human experience, so that each shares in the existence of the other. The human body provides our closest experience of the interplay of actualities in nature." (MT 115, italics added)

"... every type of crucial experiment proves that what we see, and where we see it, depends entirely upon the physiological functioning of the human body... All sense perception is merely one outcome of the dependence of our experience upon bodily functioning. Thus if we wish to understand the relation of our personal experience to the activities of nature, the proper procedure is to examine the dependence of our personal experiences upon our personal bodies." (MT 158)

"Nothing is more astonishing in the history of philosophic thought than the naive way in which our association with our human bodies is assumed. The unity of man and his body is taken for granted. Where does my body end and the external world begin? For example, my pen is external; my hand is part of my body; and my finger nails are part of my body. Also the breath as it passes in and out of my lungs from my mouth and throat fluctuates in its bodily relationship. Undoubtedly the body is very vaguely distinguishable from external nature. It is in fact merely one among other natural objects.
     And yet, the unity "body and mind" is the obvious complex which constitutes the one human being. Our bodily experience is the basis of existence. How is it to be characterized? In the first place, it is not primarily an experience of sense data, in the clear and distinct sense of that term*...And yet our feeling of bodily unity is a primary experience. It is an experience so habitual and so completely a matter of course that we rarely mention it. No one ever says, 'Here am I, and I have brought my body with me**'" (MT 114. Italics added).

Charles Hartshorne, one of the foremost champions of a process philosophical approach, has spoken to the importance of the body:

"... the self is the life of the body, and the feelings in the body are hence the feelings of the self. The feelings intrinsic to external sensations are external feelings. Not belonging to the body, they do not, in a pregnant sense at least, belong to the self. They are object-qualifying, or not self-adhering affects, or, again, affects with 'psychic distance.'" (Charles Hartshorne, The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, pg. 53, 1934)

"[T]he bodily cells, in their turn, prehend the wider physical environment." Charles Hartshorne, ibid, pg. 181)

In a more recent work aimed at explicating a non-dualistic approach to the nature of things, Timo Jarvilehto (Theory of the Organism-Environment system: IV. The problem on mental activity and consciousness, Integ. Physiol. Beh. Sci. 35: 35-57, 2000) had this to say:

"Hence, consciousness - in a very general sense - means appearance of an organism-environment system in which every single organism-environment system acts as an element of the system as a whole which is directed toward common results that are useful for the whole co-operative system. In such a system it is possible to change dynamically single organism-environment systems so that they may site each other in the process of achievement of results. In this larger system the body of the individual gets the character of a tool; it is in a similar position to any other part of the environment in as far as it can be used in the achievement of a common result. I can look at my hand in quite a similar way as I look at the hammer in the hand; I can use both for certain purposes. However, the body of the individual is not only 'outside,' it is also 'inside,' because the body sets the point of reference for all actions of the individual. The body sets the perspective to the world, the individual point of view to the common result." (pgs. 46-47)

David Ray Griffin (Unsnarling the World Knot: Consciousness, Freedom, and the Mind-Body Problem, Berkley, CA: The University of California Press, 1998) noted that

"... many today have adopted a 'physiological attitude' with respect to the mind-body relation. The dominant approach, however, interprets the physiological and psychological evidence in externalist categories derived from sensory perception. Whitehead means something quite different: an approach that interprets what we know from physiology in terms of what we know about the body from within (pg. 142)... sensory perception involves an integration of the perceptual mode of presentational immediacy with that of causal efficacy. If we attend to that other mode, then even (external) sensory perception tells us something about the body... It tells us that our bodily units must incorporate within themselves aspects of the world beyond themselves." (pg. 143)
And he cites Whitehead (Science and the Modern World, 91-92)"
"Your perception takes place where you are, and is entirely dependent on how your body is functioning. But this functioning of the body in one place, exhibits for your cognisance an aspect of the distant environment... If this cognisance conveys knowledge of a transcendental world, it must be because the event which is the bodily life unifies in itself aspects of the universe."(pg. 143)

But, as Griffin pointed out elsewhere (Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, pg. 141, 1997), our perception of our own body is one of the most powerful examples of perception in the mode of causal efficacy (i.e., prehension) that is available to us:

"One of the clearest everyday examples of this nonsensory mode of perception is our perception of our own bodies. I do not mean, to be sure, when we look at our hands or look at our eyes in the mirror: These are ordinary instances of sensory perception. I mean when we feel our bodies from the inside - for instance when we feel pain in them, or when we become aware that we see by means of our eyes. In seeing the paper, I am not also seeing the eye. I am seeing the paper by means of the causal efficacy of the eye. Accordingly, I have a (sensory) perception of the paper by means of a (nonsensory) perception of my eye. In such instances our minds are aware of both the actuality and the causal efficacy of something beyond them selves, even though this something is part of that portion of nature that is our own body. Of course, we perceive bodily pains and organs (such as eyes) by means of routes of nerve cells running from the brain to various parts of the body. We learn data from these routes of influence, however, through the mind's [i.e., dominant occasion of experience's] prehension of its brain."
Griffin stresses that nonsensory perception is more fundamental than ordinary sensory perception. He says (pgs. 141-42, generating in the process some formidable mereological*** difficulties because of his allegiance to the notion that the brain is in the business of representing things) that
"In vision... photons travel from the external object to the eye, and then the information travels up the optic nerve to the brain. For the mind to perceive the outer object, however, the relevant part of the brain must first affect the mind, which means - to say the same thing from the other perspective - that the mind must perceive the brain cells. Now, the mind obviously does not see the brain, as if the mind had eyes of its own. Rather, the mind directly perceives the brain in a nonsensory mode. The mind prehends or directly grasps the relevant brain cells, thereby receiving the information that they had received from the cells in the optic nerve. Sensory perception occurs when the mind receives diffuse, emotion-laden feelings from contiguous organisms (brain cells) through nonsensory perception, then turns some of the information latent in these feelings into rather clear and distinct information about noncontiguous things. For example, in seeing a tree, I receive information from my brain cells, which are contiguous to my mind, but I turn some of this information into a clear and distinct image of a tree some distance from my body. In terms of this analysis, we can see that sensory perception presupposes nonsensory perception. Nonsensory perception is, accordingly,... a more fundamental mode."

But, see the footnote on mereology for some important clarifications. The main point is that in the act of perception we (and our minds) are as much in the world as in our brain: embodied human consciousness is bimodal.

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*No, its "meness" is the result of its being experienced in the mode of causal efficacy.  Somehow, in rare individuals, the right hemisphere comes to be the only hemisphere that can perform this function for the left side of the world and the body.   These individuals become anosognosic when they have a right hemisphere stroke involving the parieto/temporo/frontal areas.

**But perhaps they should if they wanted to (jokingly) emphasize that having a dominant occasion of experience is as if there was a mind inside the skull.

***Mereology is the study of part/whole relations. It is nearly impossible to avoid a mereological fallacy - the misattribution of features of the whole to a part - in talking about the mind-brain-body-world relationship, especially if one considers the brain to be in the business of 'information processing' and 'image or representation formation.' This stems from the fact that for the kind of experiential event that we refer to as a perception, such as seeing that tree yonder, the 'mind' is constellated by the unified compounded feelings of all the contributing organisms, including the most proximate ones (the neurons and glial cells of the central nervous system), the intermediate ones (rods and cones of the retina), and the most distal, remote ones (the organisms of the tree). Thus, since the mind, albeit in part, is the brain cells, it is quite improper to say that "the mind must perceive the brain cells." Such phraseology smacks of dualism. As for the incoherent, impotent notion that the brain/mind makes representations of the outside world see M.R. Bennett & P.M.S. Hacker, in their fine paper, "Perception and memory in neuroscience: a conceptual analysis" (Prog. Neurobiol. 65: 499-543, 2001). The truth of the matter is that, in an interconnected quantum universe, where all objects are images, and prehension is the fundamental mode of perception, there is simply no need for the brain to generate images of the external world. The idea of 'neural representations' is merely a device to keep a large number of neuroscientists off the streets, where they might cause some real trouble.