What has the mind-body distinction done for us lately?

If you want to be uncontroversial in Philosophy today one thing you can do is oppose is the mind-body distinction. Being a dualist is even less respectable than an idealist. So, if idealism is out, the mind is prima fascia out and we are stuck with the body. Since science has emerged as the Cadillac method for telling us about matter, and to science the body just appears as another assemblage of matter, a scientific story about the body looks like the most promising way continue to talk about thinking and cognition without invoking dualism or idealism.

However, we then are faced with a difficulty: if what really exists is the body as science describes it, it is very difficult to find certain things Philosophy would like to take for granted. For instance – concepts must now mean not abstract entities of mental substance, but actual types of neural firings. We can continue to talk about concepts, but we must think of them as a sort of useful fiction, as what really exists is not “concepts” but some electricity in the brain moving about in various ways.

This leads to a second difficulty: if concepts and understanding are bits of electricity moving about the brain (a physical object), what is the brain? We would like to say “matter” – but what are we saying when we say matter? Conventionally speaking, “matter” names a concept of some scientific rigor, but it is admittedly contingent. We use the concept “matter” and a thousand other concepts to talk about the world, but we might have used different ones – and at times we did have different ones (for instance – matter meant something different for the Greeks, for the Scholastics, and for the early Christians as it does for us).  Furthermore, we now know concepts are just bits of electricity moving about the head, but “bits of electricity moving about the head” is a string of concepts – itself a flow of neurons. We thus find ourselves, having committed devoutly to materialism, to be stuck in a web of idealism. What really exists? Matter. But what’s that? …a concept.

So, it turns out we might not be over the mind-body distinction at all. If we give it up and ask Science to do the work for us, we find we need to either return to the mind body distinction or become idealists. Since Science is fundamentally opposed to idealism (this is perhaps a contingent phenomenon – Kant was a great philosopher of science and wholly a supporter of Newton), this option looks worse.

But might there not be some other, clever way of overcoming the mind-body distinction? I suggest yes, and the answer is already there in Aristotle. Rather than make the case for Heidegger’s reading of Aristotle, however, I wish to talk about Merleau-Ponty’s logic of “situations”. A “situation” is exactly what it sounds like – a manner of being situated. It consists of a set of circumstances in which we find ourselves involved. However, it is not merely us as mindful beings thrown in a set of empirical circumstances, it is much more clever than this. The turn is to recognize how the subject is thoroughly intertwined with the object whenever it is situated – the object-side of the situation is the situating of a subject, and the subject is the objectifying of the object. In other words, the subject only becomes subject when s/he is situated in a particular way (try to imagine not finding yourself in any circumstances whatsoever), and the object is only a set of circumstances inasmuch as it actually holds a subject “in its grip”.

Merleau Ponty is an “existentialist” philosopher – a word mostly emptied of meaning by popular but lousy undergraduate courses on Heidegger and Sartre. If it retains any meaning, “existentialist” means that existence is primary – meaning that experience comes first. Any “essences” are beholden to “existence” – which is factical existence, existence as you find yourself. We might remember that Heidegger’s notion of factical existence begins with “Befindlichkeit” – which translates roughly to “where-your-at-ness”. In keeping with the primacy of experience, we should think about what “situation” means not in terms of abstractions and concepts, but in terms of real factical situations. The best sort of situation to envision is one that holds you, one that has a grip on you. These kinds of situations are the useful life experiences that allow some existentialist philosophers to work out their concepts of “angst”, “boredom”, “wonder”, etc… because when a situation has a hold on you, you can get a hold on it and understand the way its having a hold on you. So, what kind of situations have a hold on you? What about a fight you had with your partner, perhaps a big one, or perhaps a little one that still nags at you a week afterwards. The circumstances of the fight seem to have disappeared but they have not – the situation remains insofar as it continues to have a hold on you.

Other circumstances we would intuitively want to call “situations” are situations only privatively, and make bad examples because they fail to have a hold on us. For example, if one takes the bus everyday, the average everyday journey of taking the bus is completely forgettable – nothing about that situation has a grip on you, and as soon as its over you will never remember it again, or if so very rarely and by accident. If, however, a situation arose on the bus that had a hold on you, it would be a different story. You might catch an attractive person’s eye looking at you, and play glance-tag all the way up the subway line. When you are about to disembark, you either turn your head away or look at them looking back at you and laugh, perhaps from outside the train. The situation is unresolved, you’ll always wonder, “what if I’d talked to them?” The situation nags at you, and you might remember that one thirty years from now. If you want any proof that this kind of situation gets a hold on people I can simply refer you to the craigslist “missed connections” pages. If it were merely because of the real chance of meeting the lost person again no one would bother (the odds are astronomical). However, this is the wrong interpretation – the point of these postings are to actualize the formal possibility that the other person might find you, and this eases the tension and reduces the extent to which the situation has a hold on you.

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