Alex Honnold’s free solo of Half Dome in Yosemite – Nobody knows what a body can do.

Deleuze writes of Spinoza’s epochal realization that we do not know what a body can do:

Spinoza will engender all the passions, in their details, on the basis of these two fundamental affects: joy as an increase in the power of acting, sadness as a diminution or destruction of the power of acting. This comes down to saying that each thing, body or soul, is defined by a certain characteristic, complex relation, but I would also say that each thing, body or soul, is defined by a certain power [pouvoir] of being affected. Everything happens as if each one of us had a certain power of being affected. If you consider beasts, Spinoza will be firm in telling us that what counts among animals is not at all the genera or species; genera and species are absolutely confused notions, abstract ideas. What counts is the question, of what is a body capable? And thereby he sets out one of the most fundamental questions in his whole philosophy (before him there had been Hobbes and others) by saying that the only question is that we don’t even know [savons] what a body is capable of, we prattle on about the soul and the mind and we don’t know what a body can do. But a body must be defined by the ensemble of relations which compose it, or, what amounts to exactly the same thing, by its power of being affected. As long as you don’t know what power a body has to be affected, as long as you learn like that, in chance encounters, you will not have the wise life, you will not have wisdom.
Knowing what you are capable of. This is not at all a moral question, but above all a physical question, as a question to the body and to the soul. A body has something fundamentally hidden: we could speak of the human species, the human genera, but this won’t tell us what is capable of affecting our body, what is capable of destroying it. The only question is the power of being affected. What distinguishes a frog from an ape? It’s not the specific or generic characteristics, Spinoza says, rather it’s the fact that they are not capable of the same affections. Thus it will be necessary to make, for each animal, veritable charts of affects, the affects of which a beast is capable. And likewise for men: the affects of which man is capable. We should notice at this moment that, depending on the culture, depending on the society, men are not all capable of the same affects.

Thinking While Naked

Here is an intriguing article in Wired magazine by Jonah Lehrer. He reflects upon the implications of an experiment attempting to gauge the cognitive significance of nakedness. It looked at how our attribution of agency to others is effected by what they wear and how attractive they are. The results: Pictures of the faces of men were more likely than those of women to be thought of by others (male or female) as rational agents, while those pictures which included bodies of attractive men, and especially of attractive women, were usually judged less capable of agency, but more capable of feeling.

Lehrer introduces the concept of the “redistribution of mind,” the leakage of our theory of cognition out of the head and into the feelings of the whole body. This is especially interesting to me. It suggests that mind is not a disembodied rational agency located at some vanishing point behind or before the material world, or pulsing around in a bundle of very special neurons in the pre-frontal cortex somewhere, but rather it is that which emerges between erotically charged bodies in living/experiential spaces and times. Mind is erotic, a relationship, a process of co-determination and mutual transformation of one with another.

Such an embodiment account of mind still makes agency a bit of a mystery in a world of creatures otherwise swimming in and so conditioned by their experience of other creatures and the outside world. We have to reach into the realm of the spiritual if we hope to find a way out of the dilemma of agency.

Lehrer closes the article by referencing Plato:

“the psychologists propose that humans are actually Platonic dualists, following Plato’s belief that there are two distinct types of mind: a mind for thinking and reasoning and a mind for emotions and passions.”

In the Republic, Plato actually offers a trinitarian and not a dualistic anatomy of the soul. There were the rational and the erotic organs, and a spiritual organ to harmonize the two. In other words, there was a rational soul to tell our bodies “no,” making us skeptical of appearances we don’t trust; there was an erotic or appetitive soul to tell our bodies “yes!” to appearances (other sexy bodies); and there was a spiritual soul to judge between the two in any given case. The spiritual soul is the agent, the one who decides, if all goes according to plan, whether to step back and think (rational soul) or step forward and act (appetitive soul).

Rudolf Steiner spoke often of the relationship of thinking, feeling, and willing to the physiology of the body. It is helpful, I think, to read Steiner’s esoteric perspective right alongside the secular materialism of Wired magazine. It makes the shock of disbelief in the one over the other even more intense, though I can’t say for sure which approach makes more sense to you.