Minds, Bodies and Other Problems*

Stuart Schneiderman


Sue Williams

1. Mysterious in its ways and means psychoanalysis was founded on a crime story. Seeking to turn mystery into history it chose King Oedipus as its first hero. Here was a detective whose relentless pursuit of his predecessor’s assassin led to his own doom. In this subgenre of detective fiction the detective who set out to discover who murdered King Laios came to see that he himself was the criminal he was seeking.

Did Oedipus solve a mind-body problem? Only in the largest sense. He did resolve a mental disturbance felt by the people of his city; their minds were unable to make sense of a trauma. And this unresolved enigma had begun to produce calamitous bodily consequences.

It is so natural to see the mind-body problem from the perspective of the individual’s mind and body that I underscore from the beginning that a social group may also have its own mind-body problem.

The individual’s mind is separated from his body in death. If death is natural, it is intelligible to society and is dealt with through a social ritual that affirms the social (against the natural) order.isolated a pure thinking substance detached from any material or extended substance. This cogito was a mind functioning in and of itself, abstracted from the impressions received from the outside world or from the senses.

Descartes thus offered the promise of discovering the true nature of the human mind; for philosophers this was heady stuff indeed. The problem was not so much that it was now difficult to bring this mind back to its body, but that few people really believed that very much could be gained by the effort.

But if this is true, are we dealing with an interesting conundrum or with a criminal action? The idea of a pure or disembodied mind is not new: such a being is nothing more or less than a Thomist angel.1 Here lies the great Cartesian sleight-of-hand. The genius of Descartes was to wrench human subjectivity from the social order, and to elevate the human mind to the level of the heavenly spirits.

2. What is “the” mind-body problem and why should it concern us? Ordinarily, this term refers to a specific moment in the history of philosophy. In the early seventeenth century Descartes should be moved, it is clear that you are talking about a dead body, a corpse. Even if you say: Turning the corner he stumbled over John’s body, you are most likely talking about a cadaver. (Otherwise, you would say that you had stumbled over John.) If you attempt to make the word “body” refer to a living body by granting it the quality of being animate, you only create something surreal:

I saw a body walking down the street.

Corpses are bodies that have been permanently detached from minds. Depending on how this occurred, there may or may not be a problem.

We say that someone came to take the body away, or that someone came to take John’s body away. But we do not say that we have buried John’s body. We bury John. We bury people, not bodies. The burial ritual confers on the body the dignity associated with the person. We say that John is buried there, but not that John’s body is buried there. And, incidentally, we do not say that John’s soul is buried there; John’s soul is somewhere else.

Metaphor excepted, we never say that the body has or had a mind. We may declare that John has lost his mind, but we do not say that John’s body has lost its mind.

If John is not the same thing as his body, and John has a mind while his body does not seem to have one of itself, then where is this mind that John has and his body does not have?

When we speak of the mind of Aristotle, we are talking of something that is still functioning; we think of it as forever present in its productions. When people offer readings of Aristotle which purport to show exactly what Aristotle meant to say, they are clearly devoting themselves to the preservation of Aristotle’s mind in as pure a state as possible. The enemy is not death, but corruption through misreading.

If, however, Aristotle had never had a body we would not be speaking of his mind. A living body received at some time the mark that named it; thus the mind that functioned through the instrument of this body may retain this identification.

3. Before proceeding any further I propose an exercise in language. Let us examine, in somewhat Wittgensteinian fashion, how the words “mind” and “body” are used in the sentences of everyday language. Certainly, language usage counts among the social practices that record the mind of a group and produce its cohesion.

The first thing we notice is that if we talk about “a body” or “the body” we are most often talking about a corpse. The exception is when we are using the term to refer to the concept: A healthy mind in a healthy body.

To speak of a living body we must connect the word “body” to a person. To be alive a body must be someone’s and that someone has to be identified. We say that Jane worries about her body or that John wants to build up his body.

However, if you should say that you saw a “body” lying on the street or that someone has identified the “body” or that the “body” When mind and body are divided by a criminal act, the social order is threatened by something that is both asocial and unnatural. Rather than restore or reaffirm order society must remove the offending criminal element from its midst.

Of course this process does not concern itself with putting the victim’s mind and body back together again. Such a reconnection is the province of religion. Christianity believes this will happen at the Last Judgment.

This resolution of a mind-body problem is neither society’s concern nor interest. After a traumatic event society must involve itself in the task of restoring order. Providing an account of the trauma and removing the perpetrator work to achieve this goal, but they do not in and of themselves put things on the right path.

If you remove the obstacle that caused the train to fall off the track, and if you punish the person who put that obstacle on the track, you have still not put the train back on the track or made it run or made it arrive at its station on time.

These latter goals are not addressed by the task of identifying the criminal. Something else is required if mental order is to be restored to the body politic.

But what do we mean by society’s mind or its body? Society is ordered by its institutions, its rituals and ceremonies. In some sense these contain a mind of their own; the mind containing the wisdom of the ages. Once the ordering power of institutions is disrupted, the body politic comes undone. The newly produced disorder functions according to the principle that produces crime: every man for himself, the winner take all.




* An earlier version of this paper was presented at a Colloquium at the Dept. of Philosophy of the University of Melbourne. I am grateful to Russell Grigg for having arranged this meeting.

1 See my An Angel Passes, Chapter 6, for an extensive discussion of this point.



© Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. Available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced or used for any other purpose. Available only through EBSCO Publishing, Inc.