What Is the Human Body?

Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind. This is the consummation of his difficulties, and yet it is his very being.

- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, II, 72

Podcast of the Day

Maurice Merleau-Ponty was one of the most interesting of the French phenomenologists, but his reputation has been eclipsed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir's. In this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast Katherine Morris discusses some of his ideas about the body with Nigel Warburton.

Listen to Katherine Morris on Merleau-Ponty on the Body

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

An amputee struggles to use his new prosthetic limb. A patient with a frontal-lobe brain lesion insists that her left hand has a mind of its own. The alleged criminal claims in court that he did not fire the gun, even though several eyewitnesses watched him do it. Each of these individuals is grappling with two elements of the mind-body connection: ownership, or an ability to separate ourselves from the physical and social environments, and agency, a conviction that we have control over our limbs.

The human brain typically handles these phenomena by comparing neural signals encoding the intended action with those signals carrying sensory feedback. When we are born, we make erratic reaching and kicking movements to map our body and to calibrate our sensorimotor system. During infancy, these movements solidify our self-awareness, and around the time we first walk, we are quick to investigate a sticker placed on our forehead when looking in a mirror, recognizing the foreign object as abnormal. By the age of four, our brains are proficient at distinguishing self and other.

Continue reading Roman Liepelt and Jack Brooks' article: Understanding Body Ownership and Agency

Further Reading

The human body is thought of conventionally as a biological entity, with its longevity, morbidity, size and even appearance determined by genetic factors immune to the influence of society or culture. Since the mid-1980s, however, there has been a rising awareness of how our bodies, and our perception of them, are influenced by the social, cultural and material contexts in which humans live.

Drawing on studies of sex and gender, education, governance, the economy, and religion, Chris Shilling demonstrates how our physical being allows us to affect the material and virtual world around us, yet also enables governments to shape and direct our thoughts and actions. Revealing how social relationships, cultural images, and technological and medical advances shape our perceptions and awareness, he exposes the limitations of traditional Western traditions of thought that elevate the mind over the body as that which defines us as human. Dealing with issues ranging from cosmetic and transplant surgery, the performance of gendered identities, the commodification of bodies and body parts, and the violent consequences of competing conceptions of the body as sacred, Shilling provides a compelling account of why body matters present contemporary societies with a series of urgent and inescapable challenges.

Read Chris Shilling's book: The Body: A Very Short Introduction

Related Topics

 Human Nature | Genetics | Nutrition

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.

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