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Human Bodies

During the 1980s I planned to write a book about how to conceptualise the human body in social theory and philosophy. The book was never completed, but several papers were written, only some of which were published.

The basic idea was to bring together certain ways of thinking about the human body to be found in the work of Michel Foucault, Wilhelm Reich and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Despite belonging to very different intellectual traditions, I argued they could all contribute to an understanding of human bodies as socially formed and meaningful entities and hence as proper objects of explanation and evaluation in social theory and philosophy. On this account, human bodies are not to be understood in purely physical or biological terms, but nor is their existence to be denied or ignored by talking only about discourses, representations or images 'of' the body. To combine these three thinkers in this way certain elements in their theoretical positions had to be removed, including Foucault's discursive constructivism, Reich's sexual energy model, and Merleau-Ponty's antipathy towards scientific realism; but I believed there were good reasons for rejecting these, anyway.

I started on this project in 1982, while I was a visiting fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, and wrote some papers exploring in turn the work of Foucault, Reich and Merleau-Ponty. An attempt to show how Reich's and Foucault's positions could be theoretically integrated was published in Radical Philosophy in 1986, and in a 1990 conference paper I suggested how all three thinkers could contribute to a somatic understanding of the concept of human autonomy. In doing so I drew on the more elaborate analysis of Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of 'the body-subject' presented in Understanding Phenomenology (co-authored with Michael Hammond and Jane Howarth, Blackwell 1991).



The Missing Body: Foucault, Habermas and Psychoanalysis 1982
This paper analyses some of the conceptual devices through which the human body has been excluded from social philosophy, using Habermas’s etherealised depiction of psychoanalysis as an illustration. It goes on to suggest how, suitably amended, Foucault’s work can provide a valuable corrective. But both Foucault and Habermas are criticised for assuming too close a connection between therapeutic discourses and specific social processes in their opposing judgments about the normative character of psychoanalysis.


Reich, Psychoanalysis and the Body 1982
This paper reconstructs the account of human bodies and their life-historical formation presented in the early psychoanalytic writings of Wilhelm Reich. It examines his view that neurotic character structures have an essentially bodily dimension, with patterns of muscular rigidity providing somatic defences against problematic experiences, and argues that this theory can and should be separated from his theory of sexual energy. Reich’s normative standpoint is also considered, including his critical remarks about masculinity.


Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of the Body 1982
Merleau-Ponty’s account of the human body is explored in this paper, with its insistence both on the embodied nature of human subjects and on the subject-like character of human bodies. Iris Young’s application of this phenomenological account to the understanding of gender-differences in modes of bodily engagement with the world is also examined, with some questions being raised about the gendered character of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophical categories.


The Human Body in Social Theory: Reich, Foucault and the Repressive Hypothesis 1986
Reich’s critique of sexual repression seems a clear example of ‘the repressive hypothesis’ that Foucault criticises in The History of Sexuality. But this paper argues that Foucault and Reich share an understanding of the human body that enables one to recognise its distinctively human character. Problems in Foucault’s distinction between positive and negative power are also examined, together with difficulties in both theorists’ tendency towards a normative naturalism.


Autonomous Bodies or Bodily Automata? 1990
This paper explores the application of political philosophy’s normative concepts to the social formation of human bodies, by considering what exactly is objectionable about the kinds of disciplinary processes that Foucault implicitly criticises. Drawing on ideas from Reich and Merleau-Ponty it suggests that, in addition to concerns with coercion and subordination, the automatised behaviour that may result from discipline is at odds with a somatic analogue for the ideal of autonomy. The body does not inherently limit human autonomy, but is itself something whose autonomy may be limited.


The Body as Subject 1991
This extract from Understanding Phenomenology presents a detailed analysis of Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the human body in Phenomenology of Perception, and its relationship to Husserl’s critique of dualism in The Crisis of European Sciences. The grounds for Merleau-Ponty’s attribution of (practical) knowledge and intentionality to the body, and the significance he accords to its habituated (yet non-reflectively intelligent) routines are examined, together with the methodological rationale for his use of case-studies of the effects of brain-damage on bodily motility.


Contact Russell at: russell.keat@ed.ac.uk