Mind-body dualism

Mind-body dualism is a critical influencer of feminist theories of the body. Dualism is the metaphysical belief that the ‘mind’ is separate from the ‘body’. In Phaedo, Plato ([1885] 2019) states that true substances are not physical bodies, but eternal Forms of which bodies are imperfect copies. One problem with Plato’s dualism is the lack of explanation for what binds a particular soul to a particular body. Aristotle, on the other hand, did not believe in Platonic Forms. In Politics ([1905] 2020), Aristotle explained the adherence of the body to the soul by saying that the soul is the form of the body. As Plato described the body in Phaedo, the body is “fastened and glued” to the human. Compare this to Descartes (1596-1650), who distinguishes mind from the soul, reserving ‘soul’ for that which animates the body. Therefore, what Descartes ([1641] 2010) posits in Meditations is that man is made of body, which is a machine, and the mind, which is designed to think and imagine, but not animate any corporeal system.


As an extension of Plato’s philosophy on mind-body dualism, in Unbearable Weight, Susan Bordo (2013) analyzes the mind-body dualism that informs Western culture, calling attention to the ideology that men have historically been associated with the mind while women have been linked to the body. Given that women are associated with the body and the body is a negative term, women are therefore associated with the negative.





Like Bordo, Elizabeth Grosz (2018), author of Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, argues that there is a mind/body opposition in regards to distinction between the sexes. Grosz states, “Most relevant here is the correlation and association of the mind/body opposition with the opposition between male and female, where man and mind, (woman and body, become representationally aligned. Such a correlation is not contingent or accidental but is central to the ways in which philosophy has historically developed and still sees itself even today” (4). What Grosz is saying here is that the female body is ‘more’ connected to ‘objects’ than men given that men are associated with the ‘mind’ and women are more connected to the ‘body’.


Carol Mattingly (2002) builds upon Grosz’s suggestion that the body has been “a conceptual blind spot in both mainstream Western philosophical thought and contemporary feminist theory” (3) by positing that the same is true in rhetoric. In Appropriate(Ing) Dress: Womens Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America she posits that women’s bodies have been pushed to the peripheral of the study of rhetoric because rhetoric has been seen in terms of men. Mattingly makes the point that “Dress evoked immediate images of gender, an essential consideration for women speakers because of its strong association with place, locating women in the domestic sphere and creating a primary image that women speakers would work with – and against – throughout the century” (6).

Kim Chernin (1997) also builds upon Grosz’s ideas in The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness by arguing that the “tyranny of slenderness” is a product of the mind/body dichotomy fundamental to Western culture in which men hold power and are identified with the mind while women are relegated to the body. In Bulimarexia: The Binge/Purge Cycle Boskin-White and White (1983) leverage Bordo’s mind-body dualism and argue that women’s troubled relationship to their bodies has a direct relationship to the mind and body being spilt into two. Millman (1986) supports this claim in Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, but takes it further arguing that the mind-body dualism contributes to women being disembodied.


Whereas Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) primarily speaks to the universalized gender-neutral, therefore male, body in that the body is disrupted by radical changes, feminist scholars have pointed out that the female body is subject to life-long change through menstruation, pregnancy, lactation and menopause. These are naturally occurring life events rather than radical disruptions of the body. Luce Iirgaray (1985) builds upon Merleau-Ponty’s ([1964] 1992) analysis (The Visible and the Invisible) of the relationship between the self and the other in This Sex Which Is Not One and points out that the long-standing masculinist denial of the maternal body is a component of male privilege. Irigaray proposes that there are a range of fundamental gender differences between men and women, which Merleau-Ponty failed to consider.

Ros Diprose (1994) extends Iirgaray’s scholarship on the self and are concerned with the process of embodied subjectivity in The Bodies of Women. Ethics, Embodiment and Sexual Difference. In this work, she places an emphasis on the mediating force of embodied selves.