Monism – coming together, from Descartes to Maiese

Monism – coming together, from Descartes to Maiese

Physical literacy is based in the premise that we are a whole. In other words a human is not a mind in a body, but rather an embodied, minded whole.

This blog will chart, very briefly, how we, in the Western World are having to review the dualist presumption of our being comprised of a distinct mind and a separate body and accept that there is not, and cannot be, any separation of this nature. This explanation has to be prefaced by a recognition that cultures in the East, such as those in India, have always considered the human condition from a holistic perspective.

Roots of dualism

While the roots of dualism in European thinking go back to Plato (400 BC) in Ancient Greece with his explicit reference to the intellect and the body, it was Descartes in the seventeenth century who was the most influential in establishing the Western European view that man was comprised of two distinct parts – the mind and the body. He dismissed the body as subsidiary to the mind and claimed that ‘I think, therefore I am’.

Challenges to earlier views.

This view went virtually un-challenged until French philosophers Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, in their different ways, began to express doubt about this rigid schism. Sartre (1962) recognised the close relationship between thinking and doing and asserted that ‘for human reality, to be is to act’. Merleau-Ponty (1962) went a step further and wrote that existence was ‘perpetual incarnation’. In UK scepticism was voiced by Ryle, Strawson and Gibson. Ryle (1949) argued tirelessly to challenge what he described as the notion of ‘the ghost in the machine’, while Strawson (1959) argued that the person was logically prior to any consideration of constituent aspects of being. From a slightly different perspective Gibson (1979) championed the relationship between perception and action, claiming that they operate in concert.

The beginnings of a more analytical stance

The next developments evidence the way that scholars began to interrogate the way humans function and reason that there is a necessary interdependence between the intellect and human embodiment. Key scholars in this area are Burkitt, Gallagher, Bresler, Lakoff and Johnson and Clark. Burkitt (1999) picks up Sartre’s views and attributes the earliest form self-awareness to the ability to move. He  writes:- ‘The original sense of ‘I’ is the ‘I can’, a practical sense of the body’s possibilities, and therefore the sense of identity possessed by humans is not based on disembodied thought, nor on early visual representation of the self.’ For Burkitt individuals are first and foremost moving beings.

Gallagher (2005) goes further and suggests that our motile embodiment is the ‘very thing that constitutes the self’. Indeed, he proposes that it is only via movement, via our embodiment, that individuals can begin to develop any sense of self. Bresler (2004) describes the intimate relationship between our intellect and our embodiment in proposing that ‘the body is in the mind’ and ‘the mind is in the body’. Similarly Lakoff and Johnson (1999) explain that ‘The mind is inherently embodied’. Clark (2001) argues that cognition should be considered as permeating the human organism as a whole.

The dependency of the intellect on human embodiment

Further study by a range of thinkers goes beyond interdependence towards a situation in which there would seem to be a reliance by our cognitive functions on our embodied dimension. Significant thinkers here are Gibbs, Sheets-Johnstone, Burkitt and Lakoff and Johnson.

Gibbs (2006) flags this view in writing that embodied activities shape human cognition while Sheets-Johnstone (1992) asserts that ‘A human intelligence bereft of a body would be an intellectual cripple’. Burkitt (1999) elaborates this position in writing  ‘…what we call ‘mind’ only exists because we have bodies that give us the potential to be active and animate within the world.’ He goes on to suggest that ‘meaning is, therefore, not created as a result of applying the rules of cognition or the rules of grammatical correctness but arises through our embodied interaction with the world’. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) develop this notion and discuss the role of movement in the formation of concepts and in language development. They develop this line of thought further and show how a grasp of basic concepts forms the ground for rationality and reasoning. Typical of their assertions is that ‘Reason is not disembodied….but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience.’

Enactivism and Essentially Embodied Existence

The current debate about dualism and monism is becoming ever more centred on scientific research and revolves around the notion of embodied cognition. Both Claxton 2010 and Gibbs (2006) refer to this concept with Claxton explaining that ‘Embodied cognition refers to the essential role that embodiment plays in shaping the mind.’

Among authors who are championing embodied cognition are Varela and Maiese. Alongside the notion of embodied cognition Varela (1993) refers to ‘enactivism’ which he  explains has its roots in  ‘the growing conviction that cognition  is not the representation of a pre-given world by a pre-given mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs’.  Maiese (2016) on her part describes humans as having an ‘essentially embodied existence.’ She writes that the ‘self is nothing more and nothing less than a dynamic, minded, living, essentially embodied process – in effect a life form or a form of life’.

 This last is a useful quotation as it draws together many of the ideas encompassed in the new thinking. These developments are thought provoking and signal a radical change in the way human embodiment is conceived by many of those working in this field. This view turns on its head the notion that our ‘mental’ faculties are separate from, independent of, and somehow far superior to our embodied dimension.

It is interesting to note that Modell (2006) writes that ‘there are practically no neurobiologists who believe in a Cartesian dualism – the separation of matter from mind’ and Claxton (1997) asserts that dualism is philosophically bankrupt and scientifically discredited.


Bresler, L. (2004) Knowing Bodies. Moving Minds. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Burkitt, I. (1999) Bodies of Thought.  Embodiment, Identity and Modernity. Sage London

Clark, A. (1997) Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again. London: MIT Press

Claxton (1997) Hair Brain, Tortoise Mind. Fourth Estate Ltd

Claxton, G. et al (2010) Bodies of Knowledge. Edge Foundation

Descartes , R. (1970) Philosophical Letters (trans A. Kenny) Clarendon Press Oxford

Gallagher, S. (2005) how the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Gibbs, R.W. Jr. (2006) Embodiment and Cognitive Science. Cambridge University Press

Gibson, J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh. The embodied mind and its challenge to           western thought. Basic Books. Perseus Book Group. Routledge

Leder, D. (1990) The Absent Body. Chicago University Press

Maiese, M. (2016) embodied selves and divided minds. Oxford UP

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception (trans by C. Smith). New York, NY: Routledge

Modell, A. (2006) Imagination and the Meaningful Brain. MIT Press

Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind. Hutchinson

Sartre (1957) Being and Nothingness (Trans H Barnes) London: Methuen

Sheets Johnson, M.  (1992) Giving the Body its Due. New York: SUNY Press

Strawson, P. F. (1959) Individuals. Methuen

Varela,F.J.,  Thompson, E. & Rosch, E.  (1993) The Embodied Mind. MIT Pres


Also useful

Whitehead, M.E. (2010) (ed) Physical Literacy: Throughout the lifecourse. London: Routledge (Chapters 3, 4 and 6)

Whitehead, M.E. (2019) (ed) Physical Literacy across the World. London: Routledge  (Chapters 4 and 19)