Friday, October 06, 2006

Making an Effort

Jan Patočka writes: "A biological organism becomes a real person in the moment when I can do something on my own (i.e. move)."1 In this passage Patočka has moved from Descartes discovery of personhood2 to Maine de Biran's philosophy of effort, which provides the germ of Patočka's own unique contribution to the phenomenology of the body. Do you balk at equating personhood with motility? I do. Ask yourself, are spirochetes persons? In what sense are they or are they not persons? Because there is some sense to Patočka's argument here. Whatever else it is, being a person is a matter of having an orientation, of being embodied, necessarily. Patočka concludes this lecture by looking at how the body is thematicized:

Our body is a moment of a situation in which we are; it is not a thing. Just as a situation is a moment in a sequence of events with a definite structure and field of action, so our body is always a moment in an impersonal situation. Because our body is a situational concept, it has aslo the traits of human situation as such, that is, we cannot speak of it without noting that it places us in a certain reality, which is already present while at the same time lifting us out of it, in a way distancing us from it. Maine de Biran's hyperorganic power actually means that in a certain sense we are entirely body, no more, but in a certain sense also that we elude facticity.3

Here's a game. I can imagine playing a scale on the saxophone, a blues scale in G on an Eb sax. (The same exercise can be performed with a typewriter, basketball, chef's knife, whatever.) It takes some effort. It takes effort to suppress the urge to actually move my fingers. I can become conscious of making the effort to limit the exercise to a mental rehearsal of playing a scale. I can throw in hearing the tones, or breathing exercises. Is this effort the same quality of effort that is required to actually play a scale? I don't believe so.

All animals that play exhibit a quality of acting that goes beyond motility. They can act as if. The field of human interactions has yet another dimension, because only humans have material culture. (I am not ready to concede that Chimps have anything like a genuine material culture, though the evidence for it would be worth considering some time.) For the human being, personhood is largely a function of one's toys. If I know what kind of toys you have, I already know a lot about what kind of person you are.

1 Jan Patočka, Body, Community, Language, World, trans. Erazim Kohák, Open Court, 1998, p. 25.

2"In ancient philosophy," Patočka has told us, "psychê is never understood as a subject (in our sense of "soul" or "mind"), but always in the third person, impersonally, as a vital function." Ibid., p. 8.

3Ibid., p. 27.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 1:29 PM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bains writes:
I don't imagine there are many bloggers writing about Maine de Biran!
He provides one element of the Argentinian school of electroneurobiology's approach. They use the latin term 'semovience' (self-movement). Doesn't Aristotle also have lot's to say about this??
I think my thesis as book is supposed to actually be in print on Friday 13th...

October 10, 2006 3:30 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hi, Paul. Great to hear from you. Are you sure it's not November 13th? Amazon still has it for the 23rd of November.

Anyhow, I haven't even looked into Maine de Biran myself. It doesn't surpise me that the existential neurologists have dug this. They seem to be an equisitely well-read crew. As for my reading, I promised myself I would read Patočka-- you know, crazy Husserlian that I am. Then the Arendt.

So how was Sicily? Drop me a line. (I also do gmail now, username: fidotheyak.)

October 10, 2006 2:25 PM  

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