Social Research, Spring, 2000 

Introduction: Exploring the Seam

The body has an obstructive effect on the soul. We are aware of this phenomenon in ourselves, when we prick ourselves with a needle or some sharp instrument: the effect is such that we cannot think of anything else … The body is always a hindrance to the mind in its thinking.

— Conversations with Burman, Desecartes (see Cottingham, 1976, p.8)

As Drew Leder discusses, Descartes was well aware of the limiting effects of illness, pain, and fatigue on thought. “The soul can only detach itself from a certain sort of body, one calm, healthy and awake” (Leder, 1990, p. 132). This intellectual, disembodied, self is one which philosophers have continued to explore and refine (for recent discussions see Galen Strawson’s target article in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (Strawson, 1997, 4, pp. 405-428, and the subsequent volumes)). Even for “anti-Cartesian,” phenomenological philosophers concerned with the exploration of our embodiment within a living body, a striking fact is that often, in everyday life, the body is characterized by its absence from one’s awareness. So much so that Leder writes of “The Absent Body” (op cit.).

I would not seek to deny either the absence of the body from our consciousness during normal life, nor that the body can and does limit intellectual functioning when we are ill. I would suggest, however and perhaps paradoxically, that it is exactly in those with some problem in their bodily functioning, and whose body therefore forces its way into their attention, that we can explore the way in which the body is never really absent, but rather defines our sense of self in subtle and often unrecognized ways. This has been described in a remarkable way by Kay Toombs, who has been forced to such an exploration by her own multiple sclerosis (Toombs, 1993), and of course in the writings of Oliver Sacks. From these, and other writings, we can gain understanding both of what it is like to experience a given illness, and how this lived experience alters our perceptions of what it is to be human.

If most commentators have considered the human body as a whole, I would like to focus on the face, since it is a special and privileged part of the body. If asked to think of a friend or loved one, we picture a face. It is the unique visible identifier, it shows our gender, age (to an extent), something of our health and how tired we are, and often our underlying mood. It is the principal site for the visible expression of emotion, so much so that facial expressions may often be thought of as being part of the emotion itself. Wittgenstein suggested, “The content of an emotion–here one imagines something like a picture. The human face might be called such a picture” (1980, p. 148). It is visible to others and yet often not to ourselves, and so may reveal more than we know to those around us. The face, then, has evolved to display. We all consider ourselves face experts, looking at others at home and in the street as we go about our lives. We might think that we know about its function from observation of friends, family, and even from strangers and politicians. I hope to show, however, that this may not be so, and to suggest that in order to fully understand how the face defines our selves, and how it enables our interpersonal interactions to calibrate our social success, we have to understand and enter into the experience of those with facial problems. Because these people, either with unusual faces or with difficulties in the observation of others’ faces and facial expressions, have been forced to explore such matters deeply, there is much we can learn from them.

Entire article is here.