The Body as Cultural Object/The Body as Pan-Cultural Universal

  • Maxine Sheets-Johnstone
Part of the Contributions to Phenomenology book series (CTPH, volume 16)


In addition to implicitly carrying forward a Cartesian-inspired depreciative assessment of the body, many cultural disciplines (including philosophy) have been heavily influenced by postmodern dogma which basically regards the body as little more than a cultural artifact. Received wisdom and dogma together preclude an appreciation of the body as pan-cultural universal. A consideration of early stone tools in the light of phenomenological corporeal matters of fact shows how the body is the source of fundamental meanings, a semantic template. The analogy between the two major hominid tooth forms—molars and incisors—and the major early stone tools—core tools and flake tools—is in fact obvious once animate form and the tactile-kinesthetic body—the sensorily felt body—is recognized. A consideration of the experience of eyes as windows on two worlds exemplifies a further dimension of the body as pan-cultural universal. The experience of eyes as centers of light and dark is tied to an intercorporeal semantics that is rooted in morphological/visual relationships and attested to by biologist Adolf Portmann’s notion of inwardness. The experience is furthermore shown to be the basis of cultural practices and beliefs related to the creation of circular forms such as the mandala. Phenomenological attention to corporeal matters of fact as exemplified by paleoanthropological artifacts, by the experience of inwardness, and by cultural drawings of circular forms underscores the desirability of a corporeal turn, an acknowledgment of animate form and of the tactile-kinesthetic experiences that consistently undergird hominid life.


Stone Tool Circular Form Cultural Discipline Corporeal Invariant Core Tool 
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    See Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, and Campbell, The Power of Myth, for drawings and graphic incorporations of mandalas. In light of the evidence—the drawings and the graphic incorporations—and of the extraordinary cognate relationships outlined in the present paper, it is puzzling to find analyses of the corporeal origin of the mandala lacking and indeed to find the question of why the mandala is first and foremost a circle rather than a square or a cone, for example, entirely omitted. A pervasive cultural inattention to the body and to bodily experience would seem to explain the omissions. Tucci, for example, casts experience in the role of follower rather than leader in the generation of the concept of a mandala. He speaks of the mandala as a geometric projection of the world, and though he explicitly states that he is not concerned with its origin, he nevertheless emphasizes its “worldly” genesis, i.e., the mandala is a pictorial representation of cosmic processes. In fact, Tucci explicitly states that “experience … suggested certain analogies” with the drawn figure after it was conceived and drawn. The mandala thus appears to be tied to experience only after the fact and only in the most general sense. (Tucci, Theory and Practice of the Mandala, 23–26; quote from p. 25.)Google Scholar
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    The act is dimly prefigured each time we close our eyes to sleep. As an actual journey inward, it is presaged in a psychological sense by the world we find awakened in the darkness of our fantasies and dreams. Like the eye itself, the eye that is the mandala leads to the I, to the self, to the subject; so also it leads to the fullness of myself as person, to my potential for wholeness, to the mandala that is my body. (See Tucci, The Theory and Practice of the Mandala, specifically chapter 5: “The Mandala in the Human Body.”) Note also that Jung’s “self-reflections,” carried out over seven years and forming the basis of his analytic psychology, document the symbolic connections between creative act and inwardness. Through “active imagination,” Jung actively generated and entered into a fantasy world through which he charted the unconscious and its archetypal forms. See, for example, his The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. In this illustrated work, Jung discusses mandalas and their significance.Google Scholar
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    Our common evolutionary heritage binds us primatologically as well as cross-culturally, and in ways strongly suggestive of the theme of inwardness. At least two chimpanzees, when given the experimental opportunity, placed objects in a container, in preference to placing them on something or under something. Moreover, after sniffing and licking a chalk-made circle, both put themselves inside it—the one chimpanzee at one moment sitting in it, and at another moment rolling about in it and making sweeping motions on the floor with her arms. The other chimpanzee “suddenly jump[ed] into the middle of the circle, rubbing all around herself (in a circle) with the back of her hands,” then sat down, then rubbed again. (David Premack, “Symbols Inside and Outside of Language,” in The Role of Speech in Language, edited by James F. Kavanagh and James E. Cutting [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1975], 45–61; see in particular pp. 48–51.) The actions of the chimpanzees strongly recall evidence from developmental psycholinguistics. The first preposition a child learns as both locative state and locative act is the preposition “in” and its derivatives, “inside,” and “being inside.” This linguistic fact is related in substantive ways to an appreciation of the body as a semantic template. Bodily experiences dispose all of us as infants toward a knowledge of “in.” From our first acts of suckling to being put in a crib or other container, from being enclosed inside arms to being inside houses or other shelters, from being put inside wrappings to putting our arms inside sleeves, we all have had (and we continue to have) multiple experiences of in, insides, and being inside. Moreover though we think of ourselves only as being born into the world, we all came from insides, miraculous insides that protected us by shutting out the outside and holding our insides together. In effect, all humans and in fact all gestated creatures were once inside the mandala which is the womb. In a Jungian psychoanalytic sense, that experience, though no longer remembered, may resonate within our collective unconscious as an archetypal experience of in, of being inside, of inwardness.Google Scholar
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    The phrase “persistent wholes” is J. S. Haldane’s. See his The Philosophical Basis of Biology (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Co. 1931), 13.Google Scholar

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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1994

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  • Maxine Sheets-Johnstone

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