The “body” has two immediate meanings at first thought. The first is the “organized physical substance” of an organism.1 I use this definition simply because it represents my perception of the body best. Second, the body can mean a grouping of people or other objects. While there are many more nuanced meanings that the word “body” can represent, these are the two that I will focus on, because they have the most relevance to Humanities and because I find them to be the most used. This does not mean that the other definitions are not equally significant.
The Physical & Living Body
This first meaning of the body is what we encounter the most. As children we learn that legs, arms, the head, etc. all connect to create what we call the body. It’s something we can touch and see, and it’s universal. What is the function of this body? One might say that it holds one’s internal organs, nerves, and muscles, that allow one to survive and perform daily functions such as breathing, walking, and making decisions. None of these essential tasks could be performed without a body to house them. The physical body exists to keep a living being alive. But when an organism dies, does it not still have a body? Therefore, a body must have some function other than keeping an organism alive, as it exists past life, if only for a little bit. Perhaps the body serves simply as a concept that represents the coming together of multiple parts- in this case “body parts” that are all parts of an individual being. The body is simply the word to describe the physical substance of a being.
A final function of the physical body which I have not yet discussed is that the body may also be a vessel for our souls. This function is much more prescriptive, as there is no scientific way to truly prove if a soul exists.2 Despite being solely a subjective concept, many people believe the soul resides somewhere in the body. If the soul truly exists, then it would be a very important thing-it is a source of life’s fulfillment, that perhaps encapsulates what cannot be measured in a person-mentality, empathy, feelings, and so on. However, if we include the soul in the definition of the body, we must also ask which bodies have souls. Are souls only present in human bodies, or do non-human organisms also have souls? If souls are only in human bodies, for example, then holding the soul is not a function of all bodies. In addition, many disagree on whether the soul remains in the body after death, and there is also disagreement on whether the soul ceases to exist after death. Therefore, housing the soul is not necessarily a universal condition for the body.
The Body as a Grouping
The second definition of the body, when the word “body” is used to describe a group of people or objects, is a more figurative perception of the body. This definition could include any gathering or grouping of people. The function of this type of body could simply be community (Merriam Webster defines community as a unified body of individuals).3 It could also be argued that the soul can be found in a group of people- in this form of body, an additional feeling of life can be felt, and a communal body can give meaning to life. Is the soul simply a conceptual scheme? Or does the soul connect to the mind, which we know to be real and certain?4
Personally, when I think of a body of people, I think of religious, specifically Chrisitian references. Christians participate in Communion, which “shares the latin root of communionem, meaning fellowship, mutual participation, or sharing.”5 The focus of this holy Communion, therefore, is community, where a body of people come together to participate in a religious ritual. Furthermore, in Communion bread is consumed, representing the Body of Christ. It must be noted that some Christians believe this bread is the Body of Christ, while others believe it is simply a representation. Due to my personal interest in religion and Christianity, I find it particularly fascinating that a group of people, united in their belief, come together to form a body, and in this process consume what they believe to be/represent the body of the man they worship. I would love to further explore this topic to learn whether/how this connection contributes to modern definitions of the body.
The body is much more difficult to define than one might think at first, especially if we define it based on its function. Perhaps we should instead focus on the body simply as the result of things coming together-whether that be a group of people together, or parts of a car, or parts of an individual organism.
In Sapere Aude, we read a Buddhist text.6 One part of this text that stuck out to me was that many parts of, for example, a tree, do not truly create a tree. This can be applied to the definition of a body, which I have defined as being parts of a whole. Through the lens of this Buddhist text, one might come to the conclusion that there is no body either: It is simply a concept and a representation of parts of a whole.
Humanities and the Body
The physical body is typically the body we discuss in Humanities. Many of our discussions involving the body are about how the body conveys pain. (Could this be another function of the body?) We have also learned about how the body, especially bodies of Black women, are exploited by others, and how there is a fine line between using someone else’s body learning and using someone’s body for personal gain. We focused on these topics mainly in Dr. Fache and Prof. Tamura’s sections. In Prof. Green’s section, we learned about how the body can be used to promote discussion of important issues through the arts, such as in theater). The body is a crucial and central part of all of these units, and using the body as a lens through which to examine pain and race has been deeply engaging and enlightening. In addition, the second definition of the body, in which the body is a grouping of people or things, also applies to Humanities, as the class itself is a group of people coming together with a common interest, to do a common thing. Humanities is a body itself.
- Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “Body,” accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/body
- Prof. Robb, On Definitions.
- Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “Community,” accessed December 14, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community
- These Concepts are present in Prof. Robb’s section through our reading of Appiah and Prof. Robb’s lecture on Conceptual Schemes.
- “Communion – Dictionary Definition.” Vocabulary.com. Accessed December 14, 2020. https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/communion
- Buddhagosa, “No-Self and Rebirth,” in A Sourcebook in Asian Philosophy, ed. John M. and Patricia Koller (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, Inc, 1991), 225.