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"The Absent Body (and Beyond)" by Drew Leder (Keywords: Dualism; Mind-Body; Self; Illness; Healing)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 3 ("Bodies").

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I am writing early in the morning. To my left sits a cup of tea prepared to provide a little pleasure and a wake-me-up. I have closed the door of my office so I will not be disturbed. I am typing on a computer keyboard, a mouse to my right. I’m engaged in intellectual activity, right! Same for you, as you read this piece. And yet all of these activities are profoundly embodied, even those which might seem the property of “mind” like writing and reading.

Let’s survey the scene. The cup of tea, an arm’s length away, was prepared for my body and by my body, seeking a caffeinated jolt. The keyboard and mouse are designed and arranged before me with due awareness of my reach, and my hand and fingers’ capabilities. These abilities are part of what Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty termed the “I can” structure of the lived body. The body is more than just a physical thing like a table or rug. It is an ensemble of abilities, acquired by habitual use, such that the things “I can” do have come to in-habit the body, which thus can in-habit the world, fulfilling desires and intentions. Many of these habits sink beneath the level of conscious awareness. For example, I absent-mindedly take a sip of tea; I write a sentence, knowing just where my fingers need to fly – though if you asked me to tell you where each letter was on the keyboard I really couldn’t. My “conscious mind” doesn’t remember, though my body knows. The same is happening on your end. In reading these words you are probably unaware of the eye muscles you are using to focus in at the appropriate length, and the training you’ve received in the English language that makes the word-symbols (for words have a body) transparent to meaning – and yet all of it part of your embodied grasp of the text.


This is what I was exploring, some thirty years ago, in my book, The Absent Body. I had trained in medicine, in which the body is usually taken up qua mechanical object, but also in phenomenology, the branch of philosophy that attends carefully to the structures of lived experience, setting aside all scientific or metaphysical presumptions that may get in the way. One discovers, as Merleau-Ponty outlines brilliantly in The Phenomenology of Perception, that the lived body underlies our constitution of a lifeworld. It is not only an ordinary object to be seen or measured, but also the subject of experience, that which opens up a world of observable objects, and people, and meanings, and desires.

You wouldn’t discover this if you simply stuck with texts from the history of Western philosophy. There are multiple ways in which the body has been written out in favour of “mind” or “soul” as the hero of the story, the repository of the essential (and possibly immortal) self. For the Socrates of Plato’s Phaedo, it was by cultivating a reason purified of sensual perceptions, distractions, and desires that the philosopher’s soul was best able to apprehend the Divine Forms, and dwell amongst them after death. For perhaps the founding father of modern philosophy, Descartes, the world is divided into two substances. Res extensa, physical bodies, including our own and those of animals, are “extended” in space, capable of being mathematically measured, and operate according to mechanical forces. On the other side of a metaphysical divide lies res cogitans, “mind,” or “soul,” (for Descartes equates these), which is possessed by God and human beings alone. Cogito ergo sum is Descartes’ famous formula from early in the Meditations: I exist as a thinking thing even as I can doubt the existence of external bodies, including my own. Though Descartes ends up arguing for the sure existence of the external world, the Cogito is immaterial and immortal, quite separate from and transcending the body.

The lived body underlies our constitution of a lifeworld. It is not only an ordinary object to be seen or measured, but also the subject of experience, that which opens up a world of observable objects, and people, and meanings, and desires.

Descartes thus successfully avoided the fate of Galileo by dividing the domains of study between the theologians (soul) and the scientists (body). The autonomy of scientific investigation this permitted helped trigger tremendous advances in the medical and physical sciences. For example, the heart comes to be understood as a hydraulic pump whose muscular pulsations are driven by electrical impulses initiated by the sinoatrial node. Conceiving of the heart qua mechanism led to the development of medications and surgeries to modulate its function, and even to the replacement of parts, such as heart valves, by animal or artificial substitutes.

In fact, this model has proven so powerful that it is not dualism that reigns in modern medicine and science so much as a materialistic monism in which “res cogitans” has been largely excluded. Reference to God and the soul are set aside as fundamentally unscientific modes of explanation. The human being may then be viewed solely as a material entity subject to natural forces. The “mind” is no more than the brain in action; consciousness is something like an epiphenomenon arising from billions of synaptic transmissions – albeit one hard to explain. In the field of philosophy of mind this is referred to as “the hard problem” of consciousness. Here, as I sit at my computer, thinking of what to write next, a slight breeze cooling my arms, enjoying a lovely view of New York City out the window; how can all that arise from and be equated with the billions of activated calcium channels bringing about the release of neurotransmitters that bind to post-synaptic clefts?

The answer is it can’t. It is no coincidence that the “hard problem” of consciousness hasn’t been solved; I would contend that it won’t be as currently formulated. We are struggling to form a totalized world-view from one half of Descartes’ account. When he divided up the world he restricted the account of material substances such that all reference to subjectivity – feelings, desires, thoughts, experiences – was excluded. All this, of course, was assigned to res cogitans. (In certain writings, Descartes does give a more nuanced account of mind-body intermingling, but I focus here on Cartesian metaphysical dualism.) Since the material world is defined as that which is devoid of subjectivity – in fact rigorously excludes it – this materialism cannot then be totalized in such a way as to ground and explain subjectivity.

Of course, subjectivity is still there, in plain sight though methodologically repressed. After all, the scientist studying neuroanatomy is 1) pursuing an interesting problem, 2) deciding if it would be grant-worthy, 3) gazing intently into a microscope, 4) interpreting ambiguous traces in light of a guiding hypothesis. And so on. Even if his or her published research sticks to analysing neurons from a portion of the brain, the lived body or the conscious subjectivity of the scientist underlies this whole investigatory process. These can neither be eradicated, nor accounted for, by the materialistic monism of much of modern science.

It is no coincidence that the “hard problem” of consciousness hasn’t been solved; I would contend that it won’t be as currently formulated.

Yet in the history of philosophy, as I spoke of earlier, mind-body dualism is often characterized not by a collapse into materialism, but by an opposite elevation of mind or soul. This might be seen as evidencing the power of metaphysical commitments to blind us to lived experience, in this case the import of the lived body. However, the enduring appeal of any idea which persists over millennia and surfaces in different cultures usually lies in the fact that it does resonate with lived experience, at least to some degree. Platonic or Cartesian dualism is not merely a philosophical position – we see it echoed in a Christian theology that emphasizes guarding the soul against the sins of the flesh. Nor is it merely Western; for example in Hindu Vedantic teachings, the Atman or true self is non-identical with the body, which is viewed as a temporary casing for the transmigrating soul. Given the persistence of this notion that the body is not the true self, and is even in opposition to it, there must be multiple domains of lived experience which underlie this idea. I examine these in The Absent Body.


But how can you write a book about the body’s “absence”? It seems a rather limited or contrarian topic. Yet it turns out that bodily “absence” involves a complex series of different phenomena which are essential to human experience. For example, I speak of the surface sensorimotor body as “ecstatic”, from Greek roots meaning to “stand outside”. The body leaps beyond itself to engage with the surrounding world. As you read these words, the eyes with which you scan them appear nowhere in your visual field. Rather they “stand outside” themselves, functioning insofar as they open up to an outer world of meaningful objects. The eyes themselves constitute something of a “null point” around which the visual field is arrayed: things take their place to the left or right, above or below, my eye’s point of view; it serves as an existential version of the zero-point in Cartesian geometry. And the eyes are a “null point” in a second way: they are invisible, an absence at the heart of the visual world. Admittedly, you could see your eyes reflected back in a mirror, but those small lidded, brown orbs, one object in your visual field, are not one and the same as the eyes-qua-power-of-sight that underlie the visual field as a whole. So here is one way that the body is “absent”. In perception, but also in movement and desire, it leaps outside itself, directed toward an outer world.

Our inner, visceral body manifests a very different kind of absence. For example, I am unaware of my liver even though its ceaseless functioning makes my very life possible. It goes about its business filtering toxins, without the need of my conscious awareness or control. In fact, I have no idea how it does what it does, and that’s a good indication that it is doing fine on its own. All of this complicated machinery of the visceral body, and the trillions of microorganisms through which we form a society (more than 50% of our cells are non-human), are often shrouded from direct awareness, thereby freeing up our consciousness for active engagement with the world.

This can, however, change markedly at times of pain, illness, or impairment. For example, the liver can itself become a source of pain which may be dull, throbbing, or stabbing. We might also discover indirectly that it is malfunctioning, for example when we see a yellow tinge in the skin suggesting the jaundice characteristic of liver duct blockages. We may even develop a liver disease like cirrhosis that threatens to cut our life short. At such times, we do focus on our body because we have to. Attention, interpretation, repair, are all needed to alleviate pain, incapacity, even mortal threat.

The Platonic/Cartesian formulation captures an abiding element of human experience; the body can be a prison from which we long to be free.

But this compelled presence is yet another kind of absence: that word derives from the Latin ab and esse, meaning “to be away from.” At times of pain and illness, the body surfaces as something essential to, but also “away from” the essential self, blocking its intentions, causing it to suffer, endangering its life.

We have thus uncovered some experiential correlates for Western philosophy’s neglect of the body, as well as its persistent view of the body as limitation or threat. When operating unproblematically both the sensorimotor and visceral body are designed to largely disappear, the former by an “ecstatic” focus outward, the latter by a “recessive” infolding whereby bodily functions proceed in a hidden way. The body most seizes our attention as an object precisely at times when it surfaces qua threat: as a source of pain, illness, death (an existential problem), perceptual limitations and illusions (an epistemological problem), or as powerful sensual urges that threaten to overwhelm reason (a theological/moral problem). The Platonic/Cartesian formulation thus captures an abiding element of human experience; the body can be a prison from which we long to be free.


This conception of the body, though, has had its negative effects. For ideas do not just result from the structure of bodily experience, they also help shape it. The devaluation of embodiment in the West has led us to be inattentive to the experiential complexity and richness of the body, and/or to view it as an object to be controlled. We look in the mirror to see if our hips look fat. We join a cycling class to help reshape our torso. Or we strip down for the doctor, are weighed and measured, undergo blood tests and medical imaging studies, and then take innumerable drugs and surgeries to fix whatever ills were discovered. But with this objectification of the body, and focus on it as problem, much is lost: for example, we tend to neglect all the gentle, positive, or simply informational messages we receive from within that, if attended to, might have contributed to our health and happiness.

In one recent piece I looked at Western culture as having created a dichotomy between a “superior” and “inferior” interior. The “superior interior” includes all those images and subvocalized words that we call the “thoughts” inside our “mind”. We spend many years in school learning to think better (hopefully), and we employ and pay well (except philosophers) those who have honed to a razor’s edge their capacities for thought. This “superior interior” is associated with intellect, rationality, civilization, and progress. By contrast, the messages received from our visceral and proprioceptive body constitute a kind of “inferior interior”. What is it but a bunch of burps and gurgles, lethargic fatigues, and lustful urges? We are taught from a young age to ignore or overcome these: to sit long hours unmoving in a chair or to do repetitive motions on an assembly line; to stare at phone and computer screens, sometimes late into the evening, for work, entertainment or consumerist activity, all the while ignoring discomfort, fatigue, pain signals, the longing for movement or for a more natural setting.

When we do not hear our body whisper its discontent it talks more loudly, then finally begins to yell. This often takes the form of breakdown – tension, back pain, colds, or the chronic illnesses that result from stress, fatigue, overeating, over-working, excessive drinking and drugging. Such breakdown only seems to confirm that the body is a disruptive force, thus becoming a self-confirming prophecy. If we had instead listened to our body, honouring and cultivating its innate wisdom, we might well have avoided those lingering illnesses and expensive end-stage treatments.

There are more “body-positive” cultures, and bodily practices are increasingly gaining popularity within ours – yoga, vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, nutritious eating, movement and exercise routines, massage, tai chi, and so on, that heighten our sensitivities to the body, such that it need not be absent or alien. On the contrary, the lived body can be a source of great calm, sensitivity, and pleasures, the foundation of the proverbial “long and happy life” that we often compulsively, and unsuccessfully, chase through a focus on outward things.

The chronically ill share many of the same struggles as the chronically incarcerated. Both have the experience of physical confinement, the prisoner by outer bars and guards, the ill person by their own body

But when the body does break down, this is more than a medical event calling for the repair or replacement of a part; it can be the cause of deep existential reverberations. Given my dual medical/philosophical background I have written much on this phenomenology of illness, for example in The Distressed Body. Serious illness, pain, or incapacity can bring about a kind of tsunami overwhelming the lifeworld of the sufferer. It can alter the self’s relation to its body, to space and time, to others, to the very meaning of life.

In that same book I also address the plight of the long-term prisoners; they have distressed bodies as well. I have worked as a volunteer teacher in prisons off and on over three decades. (Note of gratitude; most of this work has been done with the full support of Loyola University Maryland; thanks to a Mellon Grant, I am also now working with prison programs run by Marymount Manhattan College.) The chronically ill share many of the same struggles as the chronically incarcerated. Both have the experience of physical confinement, the prisoner by outer bars and guards, the ill person by their own body (again, Plato’s metaphor, the body-as-prison). For the prisoner and ill person alike, space and time are disrupted. Where before one was able to move freely through the world, now there are blockages, limits, and regions rendered inaccessible. Then, too, there are powerful social disruptions. The sick person and prisoner alike are separated off as others continue ordinary routines, largely oblivious to the island-world of the sickbed or the prison cell. Even well-meaning loved ones have difficulty reaching across the experiential and institutional barriers that leave the sufferer isolated. Moreover, the chronically ill and incarcerated have had their very identity disrupted, the narrative that defined their life. Projects have been sidelined, dreams destroyed, whether by one’s body or the state.

In this sense, long-term imprisonment takes on the structure of a socially-imposed chronic illness. In an age of mass incarceration, at least in the U.S., this is a kind of social illness we all suffer from, but especially those, some 70% Black or Latino, who have been trapped within the sick punishing body of that carceral system.


But I have also been encouraged by studying the multiple healing strategies employed by both prisoners and the ill. Following The Absent Body and The Distressed Body, an envisioned last book in this trilogy will be called The Healing Body. By “healing”, I and others in the field do not refer to medical cure – many of our chronic aches and pains, our degenerative illnesses, the very fact of our aging and mortality, have no cure. Rather “healing”, sharing the same etymology as the words “whole” or “holy”, refers to the process of re-integrating all that illness (or imprisonment) have torn asunder, such that one can live a rich and full life even in the face of tough challenges.

Anyone faced with a chronic illness probably employs multiple healing strategies – whether these are supported or undermined by contact with the medical system. The basic phenomenology of the lived body renders available a kind of “chessboard” of possible moves one can make when faced by pain, illness, or incapacity. For example, the sense of being separate from the body, which I earlier said is often exaggerated by illness, can also be converted into a zone of freedom and healing. One may simply choose to ignore a bodily pain or problem, or refuse to be dominated by it. In my own bouts with chronic back and nerve pathologies, which have led to three surgeries, I have found these can be highly effective strategies allowing me a freer life. They are not as primitive as they seem. In fact, the popular “gate control” and “neuromatrix” theories, based on neurophysiological studies, suggests that pain experience is highly modulated by the level of attention we consciously pay to it; distraction and disengagement can help break the chronic pain cycle. Anyone knows this who becomes absorbed in a diverting activity such that they totally forget they were in pain (and is a pain we forget to experience even a “pain” anymore?). We can also choose to objectify our body problems (for example, giving them over to the doctor for examination and treatment, thereby gaining emotional and cognitive distance); or we can transcend, by accessing realms of the self – intellectual, emotional, spiritual – that seem to take us beyond our bodily limits.

This may start to sound like the Cartesian dualism I was earlier criticizing. But we can reject substance dualism as a metaphysics, while also recognizing that a kind of “lived-dualism” can be an effective healing tactic since it provides one with a sense of separation and protection in the face of bodily collapse. The prisoner, too, may seek a lived dualism, for example by reading a fantasy novel in his/her cell and therefore inhabiting a virtual world, transcending the physical limits posed by bars and guards. This pleasure of transcendence has always perfumed my experience of teaching philosophy in prison. It is one of the topics of a book, The Soul Knows No Bars, co-written with long-termers in a maximum security facility.

We can reject substance dualism as a metaphysics, while also recognizing that a kind of “lived-dualism” can be an effective healing tactic since it provides one with a sense of separation and protection in the face of bodily collapse.

If there are healing strategies that focus on separating from the body, there are others that involve embracing the body, moving closer to it at times of challenge. For example, we can learn to listen attentively to messages welling up from within. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage – whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.” The ill person can choose to tune into that wisdom which may teach better self-care in the area of diet, exercise, rest, breathing, movement, and appropriate discernment concerning alternative and traditional medical treatments.

Another way of embracing the body is by actively seeking to accept, even welcome, whatever is happening physically, as well as the life-alterations that result, rather than remaining stuck in fear and resistance. Then, too, we can witness body sensations dispassionately, as in Buddhist-inflected mindfulness practices now popular in medical centres throughout the country. We can also actively befriend the body. Sometimes we are all too ready to reject it (and ourselves in the bargain) because of perceived deficiencies. But a body part, for example, an injured leg, may best respond – like a child or an animal – to non-linguistic cues of care and support like massaging, bandaging, and soothing heat.


There are many strategies – recently I have been writing about no less than twenty – that can be played on the chessboard of the lived body. Perhaps a better metaphor is that of a keyboard – I think of healing as something like musical composition and improvisation, using all the notes that are available. I do not think it is helpful to rank healing strategies as better or worse, more or less effective or existentially authentic. Rather, each may have value for a particular moment, disease, or person; each also has a shadow-side if used inappropriately or excessively.

There is no one response to body breakdown. A chronic problem, be it based in illness, aging, incarceration or social discrimination will call for multiple and flexible responses on the part of the individual over the days and years. Probably the more strategies one has at one’s disposal, the better. Embodied life, along with its abundant pleasures, will bring its many struggles. I have learned this in my medical training, and as a philosopher, but, most importantly, simply as a human being.

Drew Leder is professor of Western and Eastern philosophy at Loyola University Maryland. He is the author or editor of many books, including The Absent Body (1990), a classic text in phenomenology published just over 30 years ago. Website:


From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 3 ("Bodies").

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We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

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