body, mind … soul

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Vitruvian Man'

Leonardo da Vinci's 'Vitruvian Man'

Nietzsche famously said that ‘soul’ was just a word for something about the body. And, as I understand it, contemporary New Testament scholarship would tend to agree — it follows in the footsteps of Luther in developing an anthropology that holds body and soul together as a pyschosomatic unity.

And yet I still seem to be able to distinguish between a kind of inwardness — the ‘real me’, a sort of ghost in the machine — and the body I find myself inhabiting which is often constrained and limited in ways I experience as impositions upon the ‘real me’.

As if I wasn’t confused enough already, my recent dabbling in Levinas has turned up his suggestive attempt to relate my sense of having a soul distinct from my body (and mind) to my ‘face’:

The soul, reified as some-thing, is, phenomenologically, what shows itself in the nonreified face; it shows itself in expression and, in this appearing, has the structure or the glimmer [la pointe] of someone. That which Descartes makes a substance, all the while protesting against the image of the pilot in his vessel [nacelle], that from which Leibniz makes a monad, that which Plato posits as the soul contemplating the Ideas, that which Spinoza thinks as a mode of thought, is described phenomenologically as a face. Without this phenomenology, one is pushed toward a reification of the soul, whereas here a problem other than to be or not to be is posed, a problem prior to that question.* (‘What Do We Know of Death’ in God, Death, and Time)

I’m not sure I quite get it (I had to look up ‘reification’ for example). But it sounds great!

*For Levinas the question prior to Hamlet’s question — which (according to Heidegger) is just that of Western philosophy — of being or nothingness is the question of ethical relation, respecting the other. This, is what I find most intriguing about Levinas: by making ethics the ‘first philosophy’ he asserts the priority of relationships — a moral and (ultimately) theological question — over substances…


  1. Prof. John Wyatt had some interesting stuff to say about the tension between body and soul (or as he put it “physical” and “immaterial’) last night at the second of his New College lectures on bioethics. Won’t attempt to reproduce his thoughts here but definitely worth a listen when they’re available for download…

    1. Ahh, the challenge of exposition (what, you mean quoting it is not enough?!)…

      I think it might work like this. Imagine someone’s standing in front of you. How do we account for the fact that it seems (undeniably) like there’s more to that person that just their body (and mind).

      Levinas won’t buy any of the usual explanations — ie. that it’s some sort of invisible substance connected to our body via our pituitary gland (Descartes’ suggestion) or whatever.

      Instead, he opts for saying that it’s ‘the nonreified face’ of that person. That is, not some thing that we can grasp (or exploit or whatever). But the particular, irreducible ‘otherness’ of that person — the way they cannot be reduced to an aspect of me (‘the same’).

      Which is a long way of saying that I think that, for Levinas, the sense that the person standing in front of you is more than just a body springs from the basic ethical obligation their presence as someone who isn’t you — or something you can use/control.

  2. Nathan, thanks for the tip off. At around 11 minutes in he said this, which I suspect gets the best out of Levinas’s hunch that ethics has a lot to do with it:

    Oliver O’Donovan argues that we cannot demonstrate that a person exists by scientific testing for various attributes such as rationality or responsivity. Instead we discern persons only by love, by discovering through interaction and commitment that this person is irreplaceable.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s