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A classic problem in Philosophy is the Body|Mind controversy. Is Mind just a consequence of matter? If so, why is it so difficult to reproduce? Why so devious to train? And also: Why so fond of fiction, of stuff that simply is not there?

Conversely, is the material world just a figment of our imaginations? Just some overblown fantasy from meagre stimuli not correlated to any external reality? Then why can’t we fictionalize just as we please? Interpretation seems capable of the most outrageous silliness, but shall every last thing come from interpretation? And if it does, is it all false?

Questions without answers if there ever were any. But i’ll try to show that the paradoxical nature of this questions stem from a very real practice, and that maybe we should offer ethical answers to epistemic problems.

From this one basic dilemma rises a host of dichotomies that plague our understanding.

thinking VS instinct
spirit VS matter
theory VS practice
brain work VS grunt work
creativity VS realism
idealism VS materialism
free will VS determinism
freedom VS justice
reason VS emotion

Phrased as body|mind (or worse, matter|spirit) this sounds dated. Nobody today cares about spirits anyway.

Other ways to put it sound more modern and yet less important. Take theory|practice: they don’t seem to be “dilemmas”, just descriptions of the way things are. Even when you’re trying to figure out “more useful theories” or fighting “dumbed down practices”, which essentially are middle-ground between the two, it seems just pointless to wonder whether things could be neither.

Or take Free-Will against Determinism. We learn nothing new when we say someone’s behaviour was deterministic, we just throw an explanation on top of it. In other words we can interpret actions as either deterministic or free-willed, but we can’t measure the freedom of the will. Even when the difference matters (like on a trial where a culprit is only punishable if acting of his own free will) all we can do is lay down the results of each case and pick the course of action we like best, based on nothing but our taste for the consequences and not the quality of the actions themselves.

Now BODY|MIND and Determinism|Free-Will, while they are both very old dualisms, are not obviously alike. We could for example invert the relation and take freedom as a property of bodies, and determinism as mostly a matter of mind-borne laws and equations that can’t be denied. Even then, there seems to be some essential similarity about the issues raised, about the kind of tension these oppositions bring to the foreground: It is always a kind of lightness against weight, a contrast between something independent but lacking power to act (THE MIND) and something subjected to inertia but that can be present (THE BODY). From this perspective, Free-Will|Determinism (and the other dualisms) tries to solve the opposition, to discover some middle-ground, but instead fails, circling around that supposed centre but never shortening the distance.

What we get, then, is confusion. Take Materialism|Idealism, a central theme for most of the political disputes of the beginning of the 20th century. Materialism, while clearly aligned to the BODY, expects from «body» that it would work as the fundamental explanation, turning it into an idea and thus both over-rating and isolating concrete people’s bodies, which end up mauled by the millions under Stalin. And Idealism goes the exactly opposite way and centralizes MIND exactly to restrict the ways of thought to those reinforced by the material apparatus of big-science.

This ambiguity, where both sides are right but the middle ground is hard, carries on to the very lives lived in the context of these problems, often manifesting itself in subtle ways.

So, for example, the importance given to ideas inside the context of Materialism|Idealism ends up motivating a difference in payment for physical and intellectual labour. This difference is a sensitive point in present geopolitics. We talk about inflation, about unionising, about unemployment rates, about GDP, about the right to strike — and never question why two very similar human beings should have such antagonistic roles in society. In fact, most of the time we can’t even acknowledge that we are treating body and mind as opposites, because this reflects a philosophical debate we not even acknowledge. And, maybe exactly because we can’t see it, there is never a clear solution, no course of action that can please everyone involved — sometimes meaning all the world. Case in point, the devaluation of physical labour is a problem, but one that we can’t solve by devaluing intellectual work. If we were to “solve” this “problem” we would have to twist very deep basic patterns of our society, likely causing more trouble than when we started.

When we question the relation of these with life, when we try to translate the question into processes or behaviours, it turns out the picture becomes both harder to grasp and more pressing.

egotism VS altruism
interventionism VS liberalism
left VS right
personal VS public
intuitive VS factual
science VS faith
natural VS artificial
means VS rights
desire VS discipline

Maybe sharing this concern over process, a fat chunk of contemporary social-thought tries to find out whether human beings are, in their essences, egotistical or altruistic:

  • If we could prove that our basic gear is egotism then we could invest our energies into homo economicus models, and organize society acording to laises-faire Markethink.
  • If on the other hand we proved altruism to be essential, we’d go with human rights and charity as the building blocks of a better community.

While the two ideas are being debated in Academia as propositions, they are also field lines splitting right and left wings, and as such they basically organize political tension in most of the Eastern world.

  • Market people have chosen to believe (likely before any analysis) that the basic selfishness of the mob requires disciplining through the harsh laws of profit-motive and oligarchy. Of course they feel the rich will always do charity, but that does not seem central to their worldview.
  • Social movement people have chosen to believe (likely before any analysis) that the basic moral impulse of the people should be the only concern of politics disregarding feasibility or context. Of course they feel the groups will develop their own economic means, but that does not seem central to their worldview.

In extreme cases human beings are both ridiculously selfish and dangerously selfless, but finding one (of several possible) intermediate proposition between left and right does not lead to doing things in new ways. Positions taken a priori will of course not be bargained, and modes of behaviour remain the same, even at the times each of the parties feel a deep longing for the other. Joining Left and Right could be akin to unite humanity, but it seems the division itself is what matters, not the themes they fight about.

And yet, in a way, here is a proposal of doing exactly this impossible thing: Exploring something like a middle-ground. More to the point, i’m putting forward an explanation of why this middle-ground is so difficult.

Part of the explanation is the similarity of these various impossible reconciliations: Left|Right, egotism|altruism, mind|body, private|public. They all involve the imposition of one worldview upon others, the appliance of ideas or laws or values upon someone’s life. In this regard technique and preaching stand very close to each other, as do Science|Faith.

The impossible dualities can then be traced to Desire|Discipline.

But now we see, instead of two qualities, one mode of action. It is not that reality has two sides, but human deeds create tension between two ways of dealing with this reality: Discipline itself is the practice of the leader, who will impose higher standards upon his own body, impose upon himself strife and endurance.

Discipline makes sense as suppression of something, a Desire that never existed alone by itself, independent, distilled — and thus a desire that becomes both more controlled and more powerful because of Discipline. This is how discipline is a devaluation of the body.

Devaluation of the body was at first a mark of distinction. The body was the most important thing for slaves, but it would seem a full Greek citizen would leave behind more than his body: His speeches, his vote, his bravery, his philosophy. Of course the ancient Greeks themselves wouldn’t put things in these terms. But it seems there is some kernel of Greek culture that we still reproduce centuries latter, even while we’ve given up most of their customs. More to the point, the unsolvable distinctions in our culture can also be seen as distinctions between kinds of citizen, between kinds of human being.

(And we can ask ourselves what exactly was so harsh about the Greek form of slavery that could generate this ontological approach. Plenty of ancient (and modern) societies have used slaves, some even treating slaves with respect. The Greeks actually had nothing against for example having slaves as teachers and scholars. So: What is special about Greek society that displaced the citizen VS slave dichotomy into their (and ours) very cosmovision?)

I would venture, expanding upon Graeber’s work, that the Greek prejudice against body is a way to build a public person out of private persons. The opposition of Master and Slave, instead of diminishing the slave in favour of the master, actually diminishes both persons in order to create a third, abstract, generalized, public person. The idea of MIND (which in the present context is much broader than the original Greek rhetorical argument) is not opposed to BODY, nor to the concrete real body, but instead is a groupified version of it. It substitutes a strong arm for an array of arms, a Man for a Mob. And still it is more than a mob. The idea of MIND, more than a simple idea, is a social practice that tries to focus the power of many bodies into one person. That is why this person is seen as both free and real. That is why it is an impossible goal which we can’t stop following.

Even then, we can re-contextualise this as modes of action. The questions are unanswerable because they reproduce an impossible exercise. But focusing on the exertion itself we can act differently. This ceases being a proposition and starts being a way to live. The philosophy turns into ethics.

Deep down, the ethical solution for this philosophical problem is to behave as the society we want to be. Just like that. It is to create modes of being not only different than this Greek heritage, but better than it. This fundamental creativity is like dreaming in public.

What that means, i hope, each one might act out for himself.


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