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The Life of the Body

A woman suspends herself in air on red aerial silks, bent over to one side with one leg elegantly extended.

When I started my PhD program six years ago, I was told that the philosophy department prized living the life of the mind—spending hours in contemplation and thinking about the deep problems in the world.

I still value the life of the mind, but since then I've slowly discovered that there was another kind of life that I was neglecting: the life of the body.

The Life of the Mind

The mind is often seen as immaterial and eternal, tied closely to the notion of a soul. Some philosophers have thought that in an ideal world, we'd just sit around and contemplate beautiful ideas or engage in reflection.

On some level, this picture is appealing. I love thinking deeply about the world and my place in it (otherwise I wouldn't have gone to grad school for philosophy!). Reflection is a necessary part of the good life, and it helps us to discover the things that we really value and care about.

On the other hand, this immaterial and eternal view of the mind can link up in unproductive ways with the excessive demands of an academic job and the idea that you should always be writing.

One of my good friends (and fellow PhD student) often talks about how he has to "start the machine" in the morning with a cup of coffee and how he has difficulty "turning the machine off." In the academic world of publish or perish, the mind is eternally "on" and functioning.

But what if you're sick? What if you're tired? What if you've burnt yourself out from trying to meet too many demands? The flexible schedules of grad school can help make up for some fluctuations in health and energy, but the demands of a 60+ hour academic work week in a publish or perish world don't readily accommodate being human.

The Life of the Body

Rational cognition isn't the only thing that is valuable: rest matters, feeling matters, activity matters, joy matters.

When I started the PhD, I had little time for activity. When the pandemic hit, I realized that it was absolutely necessary for me to build movement into my daily routine. As the pandemic ended, I started taking dance and circus classes, enjoying the challenge of learning choreographies and climbing up into the air on colorful silks, hoops, and ropes.

I've learned more about the mind through this exploration of the body than I expected. My fellow circus students and instructors have been deeply encouraging. They recognize that some days are good, strong days and other days are tired, weak days. A regular rhythm of rest and activity is the communal norm, with the expectation that you will listen to and take care of your body.

I still sometimes think that writing and doing philosophy requires that I be perfectly "on" and at the height of my cognitive powers, but I'm slowly learning that, like circus, there are some good writing days and some less good writing days. The important things are to keep writing and to remember to rest.

Perfection isn't the goal, it's living a life that honors who we are as finite, fragile beings who can develop our abilities with time and practice. It's living in supportive, constructive community with others.

The Life of Body-Minds

In some ways the mind/body distinction falls apart under closer inspection. Our emotions are felt in our bodies, but they are also part of our minds and our representations of value. We also aren't clearly identified with our minds or our bodies: our bodies can betray us, but our minds can also betray us. We can also betray them.

In academic philosophy circles, the body is also sometimes wrongfully taken to be a symbol of the mind. Kate Manne writes about how "we praise arguments for being muscular and compact and criticize prose for being flabby, flowery and, implicitly, feminine. When it comes to our metaphysics — our pictures of the world — we pride ourselves on a taste for austerity, or as W.V.O. Quine put it, 'desert landscapes.' And what is the fat body in the popular imagination but excess, lavishness, redundancy?" Lean physiques become a symbol of rigorous argumentation, and we often fail to respect the bodies and the work of philosophers who don't cleanly fit a specific mold.

I am still processing the ideas and values that I've internalized throughout my graduate career. Some have been healing, others have compounded the perfectionism (about both my mind and body) that I am continually fighting.

Slowly, I am finding ways to shape my academic work to align my own values. In the dissertation, I'm adding short interludes before each chapter to, through storytelling, explain which life experiences inform the philosophical directions I'm taking. In my work patterns, I'm learning to be more charitable to myself, take breaks when I need to, and keep writing even on non-optimal days. When I'm not writing, I'm finding ways to move my body that bring me joy and paying close attention to when I need to rest.

I don't know that I will ever fully understand what it is to be human, but I am slowly learning what it looks like to live a more flourishing and integrated life, both in body and in mind.

Photo Credit: Robin Battison

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