Dualism and Renaissance: Sources for a Modern Representation of the Body

Diogenes 36 (142):47-69 (1988)
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Abstract

Representations of the body depend on a social framework, a vision of the world and a definition of the person. The body is a symbolic construction and not a reality in its own right. A priori, its characterization seems to be self-evident, but ultimately nothing is less comprehensible. Far from being unanimously accepted by human societies, making the body stand out as a reality in some way distinct from man seems an uneasy effort, contradictory between one time and place and another. Many societies do not retain it as part of their vision of the world. They do not detach man from his body in the dualist fashion so common to Western man. We might recall here the incident recounted by Maurice Leenhardt, who asked an elderly Kanak what the West had contributed to Melanesia. The answer surprised him. “What you brought us is the body”. With the intrusion of cultural and social values and forms from the Western world that tend to individualism, there came an awareness of the body as a barrier and a boundary distinguishing each person from every other person. In the societies to which we refer, the components of a person include the flesh without setting this off separately. The body itself is an abstraction. On the phenomenological level, only a person whose body gives him a face and establishes his presence in the world can exist. Man is indiscernible from the flesh that models him.

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