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The Fight You Can't Win: Discovering Who I Am

6:00:00 AMCatherine Yanko

In the ring tonight we have two of the fiercest of fighters. On one hand, we have the spring break body. Tonight the spring break body is fighting the stomach. Will the stomach’s desire for the trophy cookie beat out the spring break body? Only time will tell.

As spring break approaches, I think a lot of us are seeing ourselves like this. How much can I fight against my desire for a cookie? How much can my mind fight back against my body? 

I would bet this fight goes well beyond our desire to look good. How did we think about our exhaustion on Monday morning? Instead of accepting the fact that I was simply sleep deprived, I waged war. I armed myself with caffeine to fight back the desires of my body for sleep. Or, how did you think about the moment you were straight up wheezing on the treadmill last time you worked out? Did you tell yourself to keep going no matter how much your body hates you? 

In these instances, there seems to be a really clear split. On one hand, we have the body. On the other hand, we have the soul. My question for you is this: where are you? Are you desiring the cookie or is your body? Are you the one that keeps telling yourself to not giving up in your work out or is it your soul? 

This tendency to associate ourselves either with our body and soul is one I blame a philosopher for. Rene Descartes couldn’t have been more destructive here. He sees human persons as two parts: body and soul. Our bodies are in space and time with a physical existence composed of “stuff”. They have their own material realm where they do bodily things like eat and drink and laugh and act. Our minds, on the other hand, exist only in time and have an immaterial aspect. And respectively, they have its own immaterial realm where it does things like think and feel and pray. Body. Soul. Body. Soul. But once again, where are you?

For Descartes, this split leads to him saying that my “I” is my soul. But, what if this body and soul thing is a myth? What if we aren’t just body and soul? What if I am just me and you are just you? 

Gilbert Ryle, a British philosopher, proposes this view. He says that Descartes’ split can be best defined as a category mistake. The example he provides of a category mistake is of a man who visits Oxford for the first time. He is shown the library, museums, departments, administrative offices, and then asks where is the university (6). The man is not understanding that the category of university is much broader than these individual parts. Likewise, Descartes is seeking to define the person in a way that is not its category. While the body and soul are certainly parts, they are not the person. This is analogous to the way that the library and administrative offices constitute the university. 

I really believe Ryle is onto something here. By calling Descartes’ view a myth, he leaves the floor open for an integrated approach. Let’s think about our experience again. What would we say about the person who is slapped across the face and doesn’t have any feelings? They’re crazy! Emotionally, they should feel pain. Or, what happens when your best friend gives you a hug? Obviously, you feel happy. These experiences of our physical things create a unity with our spiritual soul. This cannot be accounted for by Descartes. 

By driving a wedge by distinguishing our body and soul at the level of our personal identity, we are losing our “I”. We have lost ourselves. I can only see myself as part body and part soul. I am not a whole person. If we side with Ryle and begin to see ourselves simply as person, our actions are not just merely on account of our body or our mind. When I make the decision to keep working out, it forms a character of perseverance in my self. It is not just an act of the body or just a choice of the soul. It is the two together that make this act happen and in return create virtue. Likewise, no husband longs to love the body of a woman. He longs to love his wife. The false dichotomy between body and soul in regards to the source of my “I” leaves us truly paralyzed in both of these areas.

What is at stake here is my ability to act as myself. My true identity cannot be identified with either my body or soul in this false dichotomy. The capacity our body has to act and form our selfhood is lost in a strong adherence to this distinction. The value of physical affection, emotional response of being slapped, and awe and wonder in gazing at a beautiful material object are non-existent. They are merely things of the material realm and thus cannot impact the immaterial realm of the mind. When we seek to define ourselves in terms of our parts, the whole is lost. I am the whole. I am the person. I am only able to experience my selfhood insofar as my body and soul are integrated into one substance: my person. 

Both of our contenders seem to have vanished, and now only one remains. The fight is over and the person has won. 

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6) Chalmers, David, Philosophy of Mind, 34. (article)

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