A Cause of our Culture’s Current Body Confusion

The house of the human person has been divided against itself, soul against body

Leonardo da Vinci, “The Vitruvian Man” (detail), c. 1492
Leonardo da Vinci, “The Vitruvian Man” (detail), c. 1492 (photo: Public Domain)

It is a cliché in our society to regard philosophy as useless and irrelevant. But as many other better philosophers than me have pointed out, philosophy matters. St. John Paul II: “Philosophy emerges as one of the noblest of human tasks.” James Schall: “It is by our philosophy that we see the world, not by our eyes.” Mortimer Adler: “It cannot be too often repeated that philosophy is everybody’s business.” Philosophy matters, and I believe we are witnessing some consequences of societal acceptance of false and unexamined ideas.

In the 1600s a fascinating, but wrong, philosophical idea was introduced: that what we know is nothing more than our own ideas, perceptions, and mental processes and not anything outside of us. “That dog is black,” someone might say. “You don’t really know that. That’s just your viewpoint. You only know that you are having the perception of a black dog,” these philosophers would respond. So the system argued: the world I have access to is what goes on inside my mind, and that is all. All knowledge is subjective and interior. Since that time epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, has been dedicated to safeguarding a way out of the mind to guarantee direct access to things in the world. The task is futile because the mistake was beginning with the assumption that our mental entities are what we know rather than those things by which we know other things.

In this piece, though, I do not want to focus on the causes and mistakes inherent in this radical subjectivism. Instead, I want to point out some of the modern effects of the idea that we know only our own minds. Even though the problems of epistemological conundrums in philosophy may seem purely academic, worldviews have consequences, and we all have a way of looking at the world. Whether we like it or not, we are all wearing a lens of some kind, and that lens affects everything we think and do. Peter Kreeft: “Philosophy is not confined to philosophers. Everyone has a philosophy.” I have come across many Catholic thinkers who have warned against the dangers inherent in this kind of subjectivism. Most recently I was reminded of its danger in Richard Geraghty’s companion to Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.

At first glance, it seems irrefutable and somewhat commonsensical that what we primarily know are our perceptions of things and our own thoughts and ideas rather than things themselves. But this creates the image of an inwardly focused scheme of knowing. I don’t really know anything outside of me. All I really know is what is going on inside me. In this way, radical subjectivism leads to radical individualism. I am at the focus of my own attention and knowledge.

Another philosophy that is closely tied to this outlook — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “in-look” — is the separation of the soul from the body. Since the senses are unreliable and all I really know is my own mind, the source of the mind, the soul, is divided from the body. The mind in the soul is reliable, the body is not. I am primarily my soul. The body is an irresponsible and unruly appendage.

In the sundering of the internal world of ideas from the outside world of things and the soul from the body, philosophy has successfully employed the old Roman war tactic, divida et imperia, divide and conquer. First, create enmity amongst your enemies between themselves so that they are divided, and they will be much easier to conquer. It worked for Caesar against the Gauls, and it worked for modern philosophy against truth. If we lose the unity of the soul and the body and the unity of ideas and things, then it is difficult to avoid philosophical and cultural death. Truth unites; error divides. The house of the human person has been divided against itself, soul against body, and we all know what that means.

Couple these separations with the cultural lack of trust in the intellect, and the soul is now primarily a collection of feelings, preferences and personality. If I am my soul and I really know only what happens in my soul, then I am my feelings. I am impervious to the truth of my body or of the natures of things. Surround me with a technologically produced virtual reality and a world of comfort where I can keep the demands of my body from constantly assaulting me and asserting the body’s reality, and the illusion becomes all the more convincing.      

I want to make clear that I am not arguing that our culture’s current confusion about the body is solely a result of modern epistemology, but I think that there certainly is some causal connection.

Now, let us look up for a moment. The truth is that we have no knowledge in the first place without encountering a created world of things. We only know ourselves by reflecting on our processes of learning and interacting with the world around us. Our natural posture is primarily outward, and the body is the means of encounter. My body is the sacrament of my soul, that which physically manifests a spiritual reality. I and the people and things around me have a nature independent of what I think or feel about them. All the world and even my very self are given to me as a gift to be received. There is a natural unity among things and myself, but when that unity is removed, I lose the things and even my very self.