A Review of Humanism and Embodiment

Susan Babbitt, Humanism and Embodiment: From Cause and Effect to Secularism, Bloomsbury, 2014


This book came to my attention because its author, a professor of philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario wrote to me to let me know that, in writing it, she had made considerable use of the work of Ivan Illich.  She focuses particularly on The Rivers North of the Future, a book made from my late interviews with Illich that was published in 2005, three years after Illich’s death.  Illich’s work has rarely received serious philosophical attention – Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s engagement with Illich in his preface to The Rivers North of the Future and in his own A Secular Age is exceptional – so I read the book avidly.  I do not really consider myself competent to review it, since it belongs to a series called Bloomsbury Research in Analytical Philosophy, and I have at best a very scant and mostly second-hand knowledge of analytical philosophy; but, since Illich’s work concerns me so closely, I thought I would pass along what I was able to glean of the argument. 


Babbitt’s book is about humanism, a vast word which has been deployed in many different ways over the centuries.  It is interesting to note in passing that when Erich Fromm introduced Celebration of Awareness, a collection of Illich’s essays from the 1960’s, he could find no better characterization of Illich’s stance than “humanist radicalism” which he defined as “radical questioning guided by insight into the dynamics of man’s nature.” Babbitt defines humanism as faith in “the possibility of (approximate) truths about human well-being…that is, about how best to live.”  These truths are to be discovered, Babbitt thinks, in a bodily way, which explains the second half of her title.  Humans, for her, are thinking bodies, not brains in vats, and “dualism” insofar as it separates mind and body is one of her bêtes noires.   Embodiment, she says, is “a philosophical challenge [which] reaches further than feminist philosophy typically ventures,” though the implied critique of feminist philosophy isn’t really developed in the book.  (Her subtitle “From Cause and Effect to Secularism,” I found a bit mystifying, since secularism is not extensively treated and no trajectory towards it from “cause and effect” is identified.)


A philosophy of embodiment, in her view, is “best conceptualized from within one of the core areas of analytic philosophy, the philosophy of science.”  The gist, as I understand it, is that, on the one hand, she wants to retain the idea that the world exists apart from our theories about it and is knowable as such. “However persuasive we may be in describing the world,” she writes, “the causal structures of the world do not change as a result.”  On the other hand she does not accept “positivism” which she defines as the view that all knowledge is justified by appeal to foundational beliefs with a privileged status – an example would be beliefs based on observation.   Positivism, she says, has failed because all beliefs depend on other beliefs, as well as on circumstances and conditions.  But this “context relativity” does not defeat our aspiration to truth because “there is a world with which we engage causally” and this world “acts on us, affecting us bodily.”


Cause, obviously, is a very important word here, and Babbitt says surprisingly little about what the term has meant historically, or even what it means in the context of this book.  The best definition I can offer, if I have read her well, is to say that the word refers to undeniable bodily experience which could guide us, if we would only allow ourselves to trust it.  But our ability to recognize the unchanging “causal structures of the world” is menaced by the fact that truth is only persuasive insofar as it is plausible or “projectible” – a term she borrows from American philosopher Nelson Goodman.  She illustrates by Eugene Ionesco's absurdist theatrical fable Rhinoceros, in which people in a small town gradually turn into rhinoceroses, until only one man is left who is not a rhino.  Now he is the monster.  Human-ness is not projectible in a world where rhinoceritis is the norm.  The same can be said where injustice is so pervasive and normalized that justice is unprojectible – think of the way in which slavery was taken for granted in the ancient Greek culture that we still think of as one of the seedbeds of humanism.  


Projectibility, then, threatens our ability to recognize, name and cultivate what is properly human, but it does not prevent it altogether.  And this ability, Babbitt thinks, is crucial   Early on in her book she gives two examples of writers whom she thinks have failed in this task.  The first is Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis who has written eloquently about saving languages and cultures, but who cannot, she says, tell us how to distinguish what is good in culture from what is reprehensible.  All cultures as such deserve preservation.  Her second example is philosopher/economist Amartya Sen who argues, in her words, “that  development aims for the realization of human capacities” but then fails to explain “how to know which capacities are the essentially human ones.”   Sen assumes, she says, “that human-ness is known.”   In other words, he takes as given what Babbitt thinks must first be discovered.


How human-ness is to be discovered is the main subject of her book.  She draws on three traditions, or streams of thought which she names as historical materialism, eastern philosophy and Christian scripture.  These three have certainly come into contact and even dialogue, but it is still somewhat unusual to find them aligned in the way Babbitt aligns them  – Marx mixing with the ancient Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu and L’Arche founder Jean Vanier rubbing shoulders with the Italian reform Communist Antonio Gramsci, and all being treated as equal, and, in some sense, compatible authorities.  What they have in common, in Babbitt’s view, is their respect for embodied experience.  She begins with Marxist thought and with the dialectical interplay of theory and practice that its exponents have preached.  For example, she quotes, Lenin on the pursuit of self-understanding as a passage through “dark waters” in which the subject must sometimes be transformed in order to understand himself or herself.   And she cites Gramsci who says that “only the man who wills something strongly can identify the elements that are necessary to the realization of his will.”   These ideas, she says, are “resources” for a philosophy of embodiment.  She does not endorse Marxism, or historical Communism;  she says only that historical materialism is right in insisting that we can only act, learn and grow by engaging with the real conditions in which we live.


Her second resource is Eastern philosophy.  The Buddha, she says, understood the role of projectibility in intellectual reasoning, and, for that reason, insisted on close attention to actual experience or what Babbitt calls “cause and effect within the body.”   Feelings count for more than thoughts because they are not subject in the same way to the “constraints of plausibility.”  Meditation, on this view, is ruthless and unsentimental attention to everything that happens to and within the body.  It is not a way of escaping the world but of understandinghow it comes to be. 


Her third resource is Christian scripture.  She finds in the New Testament a strong emphasis on faith grounded in experience, rather than in ideology or “belief system.”  What Jesus calls the Kingdom of God is present in the world, but it can only be found by overcoming the self.  “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” he says, “but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”  (Matthew 16:25)  “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” he says on another occasion, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) This teaching corresponds, for Babbitt, with Buddhism’s recognition of the illusory character of the self and the Marxist insistence that we can change neither ourselves nor the world without submitting to the actual historical conditions in which we live.  The over-arching idea is that we find our humanity in encounter and not in preoccupied subjectivity. 


In connection with Christian scripture, Babbitt also cites French philosopher Alain Badiou’s book on St. Paul.  Badiou says that, for Paul, “it is not the signs of power that count, nor exemplary lives but what a conviction is capable of here, now and forever.”  Paul’s conversion is what Badiou calls an Event – “an utterly original happening which is out of joint with the smooth flow of history and which is unnameable and ungraspable within the context in which it occurs.”  (The quotation is from Terry Eagleton, whose paraphrase of Badiou Babbitt quotes.) The idea, once again, is that what counts is what happens.  Paul’s experience of a universal Christ in whom there is “neither Jew nor Greek” is, in no sense, projectible.  To understand it will be the work of a lifetime for Paul, and, inasmuch as Christianity subsequently remakes the world, it is not wrong to say that we are still absorbing it.  But everything begins, as Paul says repeatedly, “in the flesh.”


At this point readers of Illich will probably begin to see where his reading of the parable of the Samaritan fits in.  Jesus tells the story in response to a question from “a certain lawyer” who asks him, “Who is my neighbor?”  A man was going down to Jericho, he says, and was set upon by robbers and left for dead in a ditch.  Two of his co-religionists, a priest and a Levite, come along but “pass by on the other side” – either because they have more important religious duties to fulfill or because they are avoiding contaminating contact with what may be a corpse.   The next to pass is a Samaritan, someone not of same religion or community as the man in the ditch.  He stops, binds his wounds and takes him to an inn where he can be can recuperate, promising the innkeeper that he will reimburse him for any unforeseen expenses on his return.   This story, Illich says, has for centuries been misunderstood as a teaching about the duty of care.  But its real point, for Illich, is to show that who the neighbor is cannot be known in advance.  The Samaritan turns out to be the neighbor because he responds bodily to the call of the wounded man.  It is not a duty that calls him – according to the ethics of the time his duty would have extended only to his own people, and not to some half-dead foreigner beside the road – it is an urgent bodily response which he feels that he cannot refuse. 


Babbitt drawsattention to several features of Illich’s account.  First the man in the ditch does not “fit” from the point of view of the Samaritan.   No “skein of relations” or “network of concern” exists at the moment of their encounter.  There is no category or a priori understanding which can guide the passer-by.  In acting as he does he reaches beyond all existing horizons.  Second his response is a bodily one – the King James Bible says that he felt compassion but the Greek refers more graphically to what we would call his gut. And, finally, the occurrence depends on chance – the Samaritan happens upon the wounded man.  “Embodiment,” Babbitt says, “implies radical contingency, not just of meanings, but also of meaningfulness.”  She means, I think, not just that various meanings might be assigned to a given event, but that event itself may give birth to the meaning. 


By this point in my reading it had become clearer to me what Babbitt means by saying that we engage “causally” with the world.  As far as I can understand her, she is saying that there is a world that exists beyond the horizons of our theories and beyond what we can reach so long as we remain entrapped in a self that pretends to a certain sovereignty over its own experience – she sometimes adopts Charles Taylor’s term “the buffered self” to describe this modern sovereign stranded in its own subjectivity by its pretension to choice, planning and control.  This world can speak to us and change us but only if we recognize the authority of chance and trust our embodied experience.  (In case this should seem like a truism – who doesn’t trust their embodied experience? -  consider the case of the trained professional who has, in Babbitt’s words “no need to be experientially aware of the person [he or she is] assisting” because the professional, in effect, knows the case in advance.) This trust in embodied experience can potentially lead us towards an understanding of what is properly human. 


I’ve already said that I know little of analytic philosophy, but what little I do know leads me to suppose that Babbitt’s undertaking is both brave and novel.  This is evident in the variety of resources she brings to bear, as well as in the fact that she calls them resources i.e. recognizes that she is intimating andsketching a direction rather than producing a finished philosophy.  A book that yokes together historical materialism and Christian mysticism, Buddhist psychology and analytic philosophy of science must necessarily set aside obvious dissonances and incongruities in order to highlight the common features of these traditions.  I take this not as a fault but as an indication of the direction in which she wants to encourage thought to move.


Looking, finally, with the eye of someone who remains involved with the work of Ivan Illich, I would say two things.  First I am delighted, as I said earlier, to find Illich given such serious and sustained treatment in a work of philosophy.  Second I think he has much more to give.  Babbitt relies mainly on Illich’s interpretation of the story of the Samaritan, though she does refer to other works, and I rejoiced to find an accurate and friendly digest of Gender, a book often vilified by feminists.  A fuller account of Illich’s understanding of embodiment and why he found modern risk society so fatally disembodying remains to be written.   I hope to write this account, and I am happy to have found a sympathetic fellow traveller in Susan Babbitt.