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Part One (First Course): On Selfhood

Lecture VI: The Self's Relation to Its Body

1. The problem that will engage us in the greater part of this lecture is the very old one of the relation of the self to its body. It is common ground that selves as we know them in experience in some sense have (or perhaps are) bodies as well as minds. The question is in what sense? Over this question the history of modern philosophy records a great clash of opinion.

Among the many problems which the mind-body relationship raises however there is one that is peculiarly fundamental for the purpose of these lectures which is to discover the general nature and structure of the human self. It is this. Is the union of body and mind within the self a merely de facto union so that their separation is at least conceivable? Or is it an essential union so that a self which is not body and mind in one a self which is not an ‘embodied mind’ is not a thinkable conception at all? Since at this stage in our total argument it can (I hope) be taken for granted that mind at any rate belongs to the essence of the self we may pose the question in the form ‘Does or does not body also belong to the essence of the self?’

It has sometimes been claimed that Common Sense opinion for what it is worth comes down heavily on the side of those who declare the self to be essentially body as well as mind. But I suggest that this claim is ill-founded. It is true that to the question ‘Is a physical body essential to a self?’ the plain man may be tempted to reply in the affirmative under the impression that the ‘self’ that is being referred to in the question is the self in this earthly existence of ours. But the affirmative answer in that case comes near to being a mere tautology since the very notion of ‘earthly’ existence carries with it an implication of ‘bodily’ existence. It is quite evident on the other hand that the plain man is by no means prepared to limit the possible existence of the self to earthly existence. He talks freely about the possibility of ‘a future life’ of the self's ‘survival of bodily death’. This is manifestly incompatible with his conceiving the self as essentially body as well as mind; unless indeed he is assuming (which seems unlikely) that some new kind of astral body will accrue to the self after it has lost its fleshly body.

And here we may notice a very significant point. Almost everyone—even those to whom a negative answer seems virtually certain—takes it to be in principle intelligible to ask whether the self can survive the destruction of its body. But it is taken by no one to be in principle intelligible to ask whether the self can survive the destruction of its mind. This can only mean I suggest that for our ordinary opinions a mind is conceived as belonging to the essence of the self in a sense in which a body is not. For it is implied that what survives might be a self even if it had lost its body but that it could not conceivably be a self if it were deprived of its mind.

It is necessary of course to keep clear the question of the essential nature of the self from the question of the essential nature of man. Undoubtedly we think of body as belonging to the essential nature of man; since by ‘man’ we mean a certain biological species into whose definition (as into the definition of all biological species) mention of an organic body enters as a constituent. But when we are thinking of ‘selves’ we are not thinking of a biological species and the assertion that every self has a body is not like the assertion that every man has a body an analytic proposition.

The views of the ordinary intelligent man on such matters as the self-body relationship are not I think wholly devoid of value. He has considerable experience of and may well have reflected seriously upon the entities which are under discussion; and he is entitled accordingly to have an attention paid to his views here which he could not sensibly claim if he were offering his opinions on say the constitution of the atom. But although he does here in a real if limited sense ‘know what he is talking about’ he may of course have arrived at a wrong conclusion: just as he often does e.g. in the field of ethical controversy where he also in a real if limited sense ‘knows what he is talking about’. It may be that if he reflected more deeply and more consistently upon what it means to be a self he would come to take the view that it is after all unthinkable without a bodily component.

And that is in fact the conclusion to which certain modern philosophers of great distinction have come; notably the late Professor G. F. Stout whose views always entitled to respect carry exceptional weight on problems on the border-line between philosophy and psychology. According to Stout ‘What self-consciousness reveals is not mere mind or “mental phenomena” but mind and body together in the inseparable unity of the embodied self.’1 We must consider this contention at some length for it has implications of the most far-reaching kind.

2. The doctrine that there is no self but the ‘embodied’ self rests if I understand it aright upon two main premises. The first is that in every self-conscious experience even in those cases where we should find it most natural to say that what we are aware of is a purely mental functioning of the self it is possible by careful introspection to detect the presence of ‘organic sensations’ (under which general term we may here include ‘kinaesthetic’ sensations). The second premise is that in experiencing organic sensations we directly locate them in or refer them to our ‘body’—they are as it were experiences of the self qua body.

Given these two premises the doctrine of the embodied self follows I think cogently enough. For it would then appear that we just do not have the kind of experience which would enable us to attach meaning to a self that is not body as well as mind. There is no such thing as an experience of a merely mental state. Descartes was wrong on this view in supposing that any greater certitude attaches to the existence of our mind than to the existence of our body. In point of fact (it is alleged) the ‘I think’ carries with it an assurance of our bodily existence every bit as indubitable as the assurance of our mental existence.

The doctrine fails to follow if either of these two premises is invalid. And it is my opinion that in fact both premises are invalid. I propose to concentrate however upon the second of them—i.e. the contention that in experiencing organic sensations we are directly aware of them as bodily—because the first in the nature of the case lends itself much less readily to demonstrative argument one way or the other.

3. Let us begin by getting quite clear about that which is common ground to our opponents and ourselves. I agree with the advocates of the embodied self that there are two radically distinct ways in which we apprehend our own bodies. The body is apprehended first in the same way as any other physical object is apprehended by the self through external perception; chiefly though not of course solely visual and tactual perception. But it is apprehended secondly in a way in which no other physical object is apprehended through what Stout calls ‘internal perception’. The crucial feature of the latter mode of perception as contrasted with the former is that in it the body is not apprehended as object to and in that sense external to the subject but as itself subjective as actually constituent of the apprehending subject. Suppose e.g. I want to examine some minute part of my own body and require because of its minuteness a special focusing of my eyes in order to get the image as clearly defined as possible. In so focusing I have or may have certain organic and kinaesthetic sensations which I identify with movements of my eyes. I shall in that case be apparently apprehending the bodily process of focusing my eyes as well as apprehending the bodily state upon which they are focused. But whereas in the latter my body is apprehended as object to my subject self in the former my body is apprehended as participating in the process of apprehending and as therefore a constituent of my subject self. This is one route along which we come to the recognition that our body and our mind are (in Descartes’ phrase) ‘so closely intermixed’ with one another as to ‘compose a certain unity’.

So much then is common ground. What I am going to deny is that this location of organic sensations in one's body is something that is intrinsic to the having of the organic sensations. If it is not then even should it be true that all our ‘mental’ experiences involve organic sensations it will not follow that our ‘mental’ experiences necessarily involve a reference to our body.

It seems to me that this premise of the ‘embodied mind’ theorists is wrecked upon one simple fact; the fact namely that young children experience organic sensations long before they are aware that they have a body—long before therefore they could possibly ‘locate’ them in their bodies. No one denies that for adult experience organic sensations carry with them this reference to one's body and normally to some specific part of it. Nor is it to be denied that this reference as we now make it shows no trace of conscious inference. What has got to be maintained however if the premise is to be adequate to the ‘embodied mind’ conclusion is that the reference to the body is intrinsic to organic sensation in the sense that we cannot have an organic sensation without referring it to our body. And this seems to be just false; unless indeed it be denied—as so far as I am aware no psychologist denies—that the child's discovery that it has a body is a gradual achievement long ante-dated by its experience of organic sensations. If this latter proposition be admitted then the reference of organic sensations to the body cannot be intrinsic. It must presumably be an interpretation based ultimately on some sort of inference; though an interpretation admittedly which habit has rendered automatic at a comparatively early period in our lives.

Nor does it seem to me particularly difficult to understand how such an inference comes about. We need not attempt a detailed account of how the young child gradually comes to isolate a specifically bounded portion of what is at first the externally observed world as belonging to its self in that peculiarly intimate sense involved in the recognition of it as ‘its body’. It is clearly an elaborate and complicated process involving primarily I think the correlation of certain external perceptions of occurrences in this particular bit of the physical world with certain feeling and motor experiences. The infant discovers e.g. that when this particular bit of the physical world and only this particular bit of the physical world undergoes certain observed physical effects from other bits of the physical world it (the infant) experiences in its self certain feelings—predominantly of pleasure and pain. It discovers further that this particular bit of the physical world in sharp contra-distinction to all other bits of the physical world is in a measure responsive to its (the infant's) wishes; moving within limits under its control. In such ways as these the young child comes to realise that there is a definitive portion of the physical world with which its self is uniquely and intimately identified and to think of that portion of body as its own ‘body’. And it is to be especially noted that these ways and I think all other ways through which the child can come to identify a particular portion of body with itself presuppose in the child a consciousness of the self which is up till then not a ‘bodily’ self.

Now once one has become aware of one's body as one's own body the interpretation of organic sensations as being located in one's body seems to me in principle easily intelligible. Intrinsically organic sensations are simply sensations with a certain quale. What gives rise to the interpretation of them as feelings ‘of one's body’ is the fact that the quale of certain organic sensations has for the subject of them a recognisable likeness to the quale of certain feelings which are excited in him by externally observed affections of part of his body feelings which he has therefore quite naturally come to identify as ‘body-feelings’. For example an externally observed punch in the solar plexus excites besides mere pain a certain qualitative feeling; and it is natural (in view of its observed origin) to think of that feeling as a ‘body-feeling’. Now when an organic sensation which has a similar quale occurs—as in the case of an ordinary stomach-ache—it would be odd if we did not interpret this qualitatively similar feeling as a ‘body-feeling’ likewise even though we have not here observed that our body is affected in any way. Which specific feeling—qualia represent which specific parts of the body can of course be learned by experience alone. But in view of the great multitude of external affections of one's body that are open to one's inspection and are attended by feelings of distinctive qualia it is not in the least surprising that a wide and fairly accurate knowledge of such correlations is built up in a comparatively short time.

We may note in passing that there are certain well-known facts concerning the apprehension of our bodies through organic sensation which seem much easier to account for on the view that the body-reference is an interpretation based on analogical inference than on the view that it is direct. I refer to the phenomena of mislocation. There are any number of instances in which our organic sensations are referred by us to the wrong part of our body—not to speak of the familiar case in which a person who has suffered amputation of a member refers his sensation to a part of his body that no longer exists. There is nothing in the least infallible about the body-reference of organic sensations. Now such mis-location presents no special difficulty if the reference to the body is an interpretation of a felt quale based on inference. Suppose that after the surgeon has removed my foot I have a sensation which I identify as an itch in my big toe. If the ultimate ground of that identification is my past experience of correlation between this kind of sensation and observed affections of my big toe I may feel perhaps some surprise but no serious intellectual shock to discover that in the present case my judgment is mistaken. For I am perfectly well aware of the fallibility of all inductive inferences from particular cases to general laws. If on the other hand the reference of the sensation to my body is supposed to rest not on inference but upon some sort of direct apprehension of my body as is suggested by the doctrine that organic sensation carries with it an intrinsic reference to my body then my apprehension of a bit of my body that isn't there seems to be distinctly more puzzling.

To summarise—my contention is that while we do of course directly experience organic sensations we do not directly experience them as bodily. The apprehension of them as body-feelings is an interpretation based on analogical inference. But the practice of so interpreting them speedily becomes habitual so that the body-reference speedily acquires what F. R. Tennant has called a ‘psychical’ as distinct from a ‘psychological’ immediacy2—very much as in the case of our adult apprehension of spatial perspectives where we seem to ourselves to apprehend directly what genetic psychology shows to have become a possible object of our present apprehension only through past inferential processes.

If I am right in this account of the matter it follows that it is untrue that we have no experience of ourselves save as embodied; untrue that the self has the same direct assurance of its bodily as of its mental existence; and untrue therefore that we must regard the body no less than the mind as belonging to the ‘essence’ of the self. It will not follow of course that the self does ever as a matter of fact engage in activities in which the body plays no part. This may or may not be the case for all that we have shown. All that we claim here is that self-consciousness does not as has often been confidently alleged reveal ‘body’ to be an intrinsic necessity of selfhood.

If seems to me therefore that Common Sense is correct in regarding it as at least an intelligible question whether the self can survive the destruction of its body. It may be the case that it is not possible to conceive of states of the conscious self that do not include organic sensations. But if what has been said above is sound we can perfectly well conceive a self which has organic sensations but does not refer them to a body or again a self which has such sensations and mistakenly refers them to a body.

And after all is it quite certain that we cannot conceive a self which has no organic sensations at all? That in all self-conscious experience organic sensations are detectable was it will be remembered the first premise of the argument for the embodied self. But there seems to be some evidence of pathological conditions in which there is total suspension of organic sensation and in which the patient is self-conscious.3 For the patient apparently then regards his body as a ‘foreign object’ and he clearly could not do that if he had no consciousness of self. Hence if the facts are as reported it is not true that the only self of which we can be aware is an embodied self. But the facts of the situation are elusive and perhaps insufficiently established to constitute a firm basis for theory.

The problem of the immortality of the soul is not one that will be systematically debated in these lectures. The significance for it however of the point I have just been trying to make is obvious. If it be granted that the self as known to itself is not in essential but only in de facto union with its body then the continued existence of the self after the destruction of its body falls at least into the category of abstract possibilities. Admittedly an ‘abstract possibility’ does not take us very far. But it leaves the way open for discussing on their merits the various ethical and religious considerations bearing upon the problem of immortality which so far as I can see we should be obliged to rule out of court a priori if it were indeed the case that any self to be a self must be an embodied self.

4. So far in this lecture I have been concerned with only a single aspect of the mind-body problem; though manifestly a very fundamental aspect and one that is of especial significance for philosophical theology. I have been asking whether it is possible in principle to conceive of a self apart from a body—as it is certainly not possible even in principle to conceive of a self apart from a mind. This question I have answered with some confidence in the affirmative. Now there are of course a great many other aspects of the mind-body problem which have been the subject of philosophical controversy. But about these with a single exception I propose here to say little or nothing. Not indeed that I consider it to be of no account what view we take about them. It merely happens that the view I myself take coincides with the view that is taken by the great majority of philosophers today; and it would be an unrewarding business to rehearse the old hackneyed arguments in support of doctrines which almost no one is seriously interested in disputing. I refrain from discussing therefore the Behaviouristic hypothesis that mental events are a species of bodily events so that the mind-body unity in man is in fact just a unity of body. If anyone really cares to commit what the late Professor Bowman once aptly termed the ‘Fallacy of Eccentric Identification’ and say that he means the same thing when he speaks about thoughts as when he speaks about cerebral and laryngeal motions and the like I am content here to leave him to it. The refutation of Behaviourism I regard as a purely academic exercise and it seems wiser that we should spend our limited time upon hypotheses which have at least some initial plausibility. Nor shall I discuss the hypothesis that goes by the name of ‘Neutral Monism’: the hypothesis that body and mind are different arrangements of a common ‘stuff’—usually identified with sensation—and that we call events ‘mental’ when constituents of this common stuff are in one kind of relation to one another and call them ‘bodily’ when they are in another kind of relation to one another. It seems clear that this attempt to reach a unifying concept for body and mind can appeal only to that small minority of philosophers who find themselves able to accept a Phenomenalist account of body and a Sensationalist account of mind. As earlier lectures have I hope made plain both of these accounts are in my opinion distortions of the facts. I feel no compunction either about omitting here any critique of the Epiphenomenalist theory of the relation of mind to body according to which mental events though admitted to be irreducibly different in quality from bodily events are yet derivative from these events as their ‘by-product’ and are in themselves without any effects whatsoever either in the sphere of mind or in the sphere of body. Epiphenomenalism though it may still hold attractions for some scientists with philosophic leanings is not to the best of my knowledge now held by any philosopher of standing; and I am bound to say that the reasons for its rejection seem to me a good deal more than adequate.

5. Let us take for granted then that these suggestions at any rate about the mind-body relation in man can be brushed aside. It remains to consider an aspect of our general problem about which there cannot be said to be a solid consensus of opinion among philosophers one way or the other and upon which I must therefore not merely state but seek in some measure to justify my own view. I refer to the seeming interaction of bodily and mental events within the self. I say ‘seeming’ interaction. But were it not for certain difficulties in understanding how mind and body can affect one another their interaction would be regarded as plain matter of fact. Evidence of it confronts us every day of our lives; in e.g. the regular sequence of the mental events we call ‘perceptions’ upon certain physical events in our sense organs and nervous system and in the regular sequence of certain movements of our body upon the mental events we call ‘volitions’. There is no doubt about the ‘appearances’. Certain considerations however have led some philosophers to doubt or even to deny outright that the appearance of mind-body interaction can represent the real fact.

Historically speaking there have been I think two major considerations inclining in this direction. One of them we may now discount. For it seems to have become a matter of pretty general agreement that the principle of the Conservation of Energy in any sense of it at least in which it is a securely established principle of physical science is not necessarily violated by the hypothesis of mind-body interaction. There seems today to be only one widely held objection to the interaction hypothesis; but this is felt sufficiently strongly by a number of philosophers (though perhaps a dwindling number) to induce them to cast about anxiously for some alternative hypothesis which might explain the appearance of interaction without admitting the fact.

The objection in question is based on the extreme unlikeness of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ where the interaction is supposed to be between mental entities and physical entities. And the objector is neither satisfied nor silenced when he is reminded that even within the purely physical sphere where he acknowledges causal interaction cause and effect are often extremely unlike one another. He will admit this: and probably he will even admit that cause and effect are always to some extent unlike one another (otherwise they would be indistinguishable) and that the likeness between cause and effect can never be more than a matter of degree. What troubles him and what seems to him to put mind-body interaction in a category of its own is that mental and bodily events seem to have no degree of likeness to one another at all. That which is essentially inextended and indivisible seems to lack any sort of community of nature with that which is essentially extended and infinitely divisible. So long as things have at least some character in common we can conceive them in virtue of that common character to belong to the same system; and there is no special mystery about members of the same system mutually influencing one another. But if (as their usual definitions tend to suggest) mind and body have no common character at all their alleged interaction seems to confront us with the paradox of ‘communication without community’.

Now I must admit to being rather sceptical about the logical as distinct from the psychological force of the postulate ‘No communication without community’. So far as I can see there is only one common character which entities must possess in order for it to be logically possible that they should influence one another; and that character is shared by literally everything that is. For everything that is eo ipso shares in the common character of being. I can see no a priori grounds whatsoever for demanding that entities should share in some more determinate character in order that their interaction be logically conceivable. In so far as they share in the character of being they are fellow-members of the same universe. Just what a priori knowledge are we supposed to have of this universe that forbids us to believe in their mutual interaction unless they have some more special characters in common?

But in point of fact it does not seem to me that in the particular case here in question the mutual influence between mind and body we are forced to rely simply upon their common possession of this most general of all characters the character of ‘being’; nor even upon that plus the further character which it would be hard to dispute that mind and body share of ‘temporality’. We know our mind and body I think to have a much closer community of nature than is implied in their common possession of ‘being’ and ‘temporality’. For although I have been at pains to deny as against Stout that the unity of body and mind within the self is (for us) anything more than a de facto unity it does not seem to me possible to deny in the light more particularly of the phenomena of internal perception that it is none the less a unity. The internal perception of our body it will be recalled yields an apprehension of our body not as object to but as constituent of the apprehending self. We thus become aware of certain bodily processes as at least sometimes and indeed normally characterising the ‘I’ just as we are aware of certain mental processes as characterising the same ‘I’. But if the ‘I’ manifests itself in certain bodily processes and likewise manifests itself in certain mental processes then these bodily and mental processes have the community of nature that consists in their being alike modes of the same entity.

Hence even if the postulate ‘No communication without community’ be granted this will not serve to disprove body-mind interaction. Not only is there community between body and mind in respect of the very general characters of being and temporality. There is the more specific community implied in their being modes of the same determinate system the ‘body-mind’ of the empirical self. For however little we understand it it does not really seem doubtful that within the empirical self at any rate body and mind do ‘compose a certain unity’. If that unity be acknowledged the only serious objection to body-mind interaction vanishes. There seems no difficulty in supposing that a body-mode of the body-mind system can have causal efficacy upon a mental mode of the body-mind system and vice versa.

6. Since I have now I think for the first time had occasion to use the expression ‘empirical self’ and since this expression implies a distinction from some sort of ‘non-empirical self’ it is proper that I should try to make clear in what sense precisely I take such a distinction to be called for.

A word first about what the distinction is not. It is not a distinction between two different ontological entities. There is only one self. Nor is it a distinction of Kantian lineage between the self as it really is (the non-empirical self) and that same self in the form in which our human minds apprehend it (the empirical self). In my view (which will receive later defence and development) it is false to suppose that the self in the form in which we apprehend it is not the self as it really is.

But it need not be the whole of the self as it really is. And that brings me to the positive point intended by the distinction between the empirical and the non-empirical self. What I mean by the empirical self is the self considered in respect of its functioning in human experience. And what I mean by the non-empirical self is that same self considered in respect of a possible functioning outside of human experience.

An obvious objection to this manner of speaking leaps to the mind at once. If we only know the self in so far as it functions in human experience (and how else could we know it?) what sense is there it will be asked in distinguishing from it the self as not so functioning? Why suppose that there is anything corresponding to the expression ‘non-empirical self’? The answer is that we are not supposing that there is. All we are doing is to recognise and allow for the possibility that there may be. For although there obviously cannot be evidence in experience of the self's non-empirical functioning it does not follow that there is no evidence in experience for believing in the possibility of such functioning. It is only to leave room for this possible functioning that I deem it necessary to make the distinction in question.

What I have in mind in speaking of evidence in experience for believing in the possibility of the non-empirical functioning of the self is simply this. The self to which self-consciousness testifies I have constantly urged is a self which has rather than is its experiences. But given that the self is thus distinguishable from its experiences we have no right to assume that that self manifests all that it is in the human experiences through which we know it—its ‘empirical’ manifestations. It may well be for all we know that there are latent in this spiritual substance capacities whose expression is inhibited under the conditions of human experience and in particular under the condition of union with a physical body.

And here it is relevant to remember what was earlier argued that the self's union with a physical body is for our intelligences a merely de facto not a necessary union. If we had to conceive that union as integral to the self then it would of course be idle to posit a possible functioning of the self apart from its body. But if the union is for us merely contingent it is mere dogmatism to assert that the self is limited to this way of functioning.

We do well to bear in mind also that even apart from the mystery of the self's union with a physical body the self as disclosed in self-conscious experience is not a being that we understand. We find as an immediate deliverance of self-consciousness that we are the self-same subject in different experiences but this ‘identity in difference’ of ours is not intelligible to us. We do not know how we are what we are. And I may here confess to a good deal of doubt whether in the end it really makes sense for finite beings to ask how they are what they are. It may be that our philosophy will lead us to the view that for us finite beings there is no alternative to accepting as ultimate certain brute facts which we do not and in the nature of things cannot understand; facts which represent the basic conditions of finite experience and could become intelligible to a finite being only if per impossibile he could transcend the conditions of his own finitude.

But the discussion of these large matters must await the metaphysical enquiries reserved for our second course of lectures. Here my point is just this: that in default of such understanding there can be no ground for asserting that our self expresses all that it is in the different forms of self-manifestation disclosed by human experience. The self as an ontological entity as a spiritual substance may be for all we can say to the contrary a being of far richer potency than is or ever can be revealed under the conditions of human life; in the guise that is to say of the ‘empirical self’.

7. Nevertheless it is in its empirical manifestations alone that we find our positive clues to the nature of the self: and we are a long way yet from having exhausted these resources of positive knowledge even as regards the fundamental characteristics of our selfhood (which constitute the limits of our enquiry in these lectures). We have still to consider the empirical manifestations of the self as a practical being and more particularly in its capacity as a moral agent. That will occupy us for the greater part of what remains of this course; and I am hopeful that we shall derive therefrom strong confirmation of our substantival interpretation of the self as well as important further information about its basic structure. But there is one topic which I think it would be well to clear out of the way before embarking on this project. It will not have escaped notice that in several passages in recent lectures I have virtually assumed without discussion that we have at our disposal valid methods of empirical self-knowledge. Thus I have implied that introspection can yield authentic information about the manifestations of the subject self. I have been unwilling to interrupt the main course of the argument before it was absolutely imperative but I think we can no longer decently avoid attempting some formal justification of assumptions which are after all challenged in a good many quarters. I propose therefore to devote a considerable part of my next lecture to saying what seems to me necessary in order to defend the conception of empirical self-knowledge whose validity I have so far been taking for granted.

  • 1. Mind and Matter, p. 308.
  • 2. Philosophical Theology, Vol. I, p. 46.
  • 3. Dr. F. R. Tennant tells us, though unfortunately without quoting authority, that ‘when, through disease, coenaesthesis is in abeyance, a patient will regard his body as a strange and inimical thing, not belonging to him’ (Philosophical Theology, Vol. I, p. 71).
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