As it is the case with most people reading this paper, as well as most people alive today, our being can be defined as an intellectual creature. This comes in opposition to human beings of the past, withholding conditions of subsistence based mostly on physical labor, conditions civilization has meanwhile erased. Today, the greater part of the world’s population is literate and minimally trained in formal education to be aware of basic scientific knowledge. This complements the solid stratum of religious culture already present, which helps to provide a very rudimentary notion of metaphysics. So today the thought of a purely physical human being, as in the way we consider beasts as mostly physical beings, seems difficult to conceive. Different ethnicities are no longer commonly considered sub-human, and even beasts themselves are increasingly regarded as possessing a mental life similar to our own. Culture and civilization are inseparable from the idea of man and constitute part of its definition, so the concept of a man with a lessened mind, excluding the case of brain injuries, seems to be in contradiction with that definition. The ancient Greek conception of man as a thinking being, developed since post-Homeric times and strongly consolidated by modern Cartesianism and later psychology, forms the basis of our thought about man. In this view, man is mind first and body later, as conscience and the mental life are at the core of the self, of which the body is seen as either a container or an extension. Although this tradition has some modern apostates, namely Nietzsche, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and the entire school of phenomenology, to which we will return to later, it is a solid aprioristic foundation of much of our knowledge. When referring to the self, hardly anyone would think of their own body first, anyone except people engaged in specific activities or professions, such as sports and war, but only during those activities and not outside them. Nevertheless, when paying close attention to the type of creature we become when engaging in those activities, it is possible to devise a different being, a being that is body first and mind later. That can be achieved mostly by the observation of physical activity practiced in a continuous manner. As a thought experiment, it is then possible to extract the being from its mind base and conceive a creature based on the body, a body-creature. Although this creature may resemble an animal, it is human, but human in a very bodily way. It is also similar to a mechanism, but at the same time it differs from it, as it is a creature infused with life force, therefore possessing conscience, cognition, and intentionality. 

This is a theoretical creature, of course, for no human being, nor its body, can be properly placed in a one-dimensional description. So the said creature is but a glimpse we get when watching persons engaged in specific events. Just as one envisions a mental being, a soul, discarded of physical activity and achieving some sort of transcendental permanence, when glancing upon people engaged in meditation, prayer, or simply reading, one can also envision a different type of creature when observing physical activity or disposition towards that activity. It is this creature I propose to single out and to contrast with the mind-creature that we are most of the time. Envisioning such a body-as-being should not be regarded as an anthropological return to the origins, for the monkey-to-human or the savage-to-civilized hypothesis are of no concern here. This exercise does not aim to find primitive substances related to what is like to be a human, but instead to delimit a physical state of being and conceive it as a creature of its own.

To start with, we can establish as an observable fact that there are certain states, namely physical ones, where our behavior changes in such a way we can consider that state of being differentiated from the state we are in most of the time, not only as civilized creatures but as mind-centered creatures. With some fear of being redundant, I should add that to be mind-centered is not only to be conscious of oneself, to be conscious of the existence of a thing we call one’s mind and that is somewhat incorporeal, but also to regard that mental world, independently of a strong conception of self, as the core of being. To catch a glimpse of that body-creature, it is not necessary to observe severely altered states of being, such as trance-like states, but only to pay attention to some very common human activities. When one is engaging in sports, hard physical labor, not to mention war, a picture of such a possible being can be caught simply by observing the way the practitioners walk, move, and behave during their activity, or when engaging in the mental mode required by the activity. An athlete, not only when practicing sport and training, but also during routine activities, never ceases to be an athlete, a person with an increased physique, someone with an abnormally overdeveloped muscular structure, tailored for his specific activity through repetition. Many times one can tell when in the presence of an athlete, as carrying overdeveloped muscular groups makes their walk, and their body movements in general, a bit different, as if harder or heavier. It is even more noticeable when athletes get exhausted, or even hurt, as the swelling of muscular groups increases that feeling. Besides, many, not all, practitioners of sport seem to express themselves in succinct and constrained terms, during or after sports, as if their verbal expression tended to be body-centered. Physical endurance and exhaustion do not seem to go hand in hand with verbal eloquence, and although the “dumb jock” stereotype should not be taken too far, it is only natural that somebody who is focused on bodily energies does not have a very high level of mental activity during that practice. This may seem an excessively Cartesian point of view, but philosophy is not done during physical exhaustion, and likewise reading and writing have little physical activity involved. To observe this general tendency or pull of the body towards a different being, one does not need to go as far as athletics, as even watching a regular person walking on flip-flops, which demand more from the body, provides a glimpse of that body creature, as the walk becomes more loose, dangling, giving an impression of a bodily self-absorbance. In this case, elegance seems to collapse, giving place to crudeness and a self-aggrandizing kind of movement. But the body-creature is neither necessarily closer nor further from elegance, grace and beauty. These are intellectual categories and miss the point of this creature’s telos. Its end-goal comes from the body and lives for the body, for something that we may call the body’s will.

Some fictional counterparts to these real-life body-creatures can be found in automaton characters such as the Golem, or hybrid creatures as Frankenstein. Popularized by modern cinematic representations, the painful yet pragmatic movements of their bodies represent a state of being where function and purpose rule over the cognitive, and suggest a kind of innate inadequacy, as if a human body is not destined to exist without a soul. In this way, they resemble ghosts, which have the inverse problem, as souls that exist without a body. Since the automaton is made to strongly resemble a person, fictional works where mechanized beings are present always involve a conflict between truth and imitation. Outside fiction, automata have also a long history as entertainment devices, real-life constructs known to exist since classical times, such as the pigeon built by Archytas of Tarentum or several moving figures reported to exist in Ancient China. Representation is common to all forms of art, and these automata constructs attempt to exhibit a very close resemblance to the natural object. Thus, as it re-creates not only appearance but animation itself in a life-sized object, the uncanny effect becomes much stronger, differing from painting, sculpture, and, later, cinema. Even today, the thought of a life-sized automaton anatomically and mentally indistinguishable from humans is troubling. In the 18th century, constructs with the size of humans were occasionally built as curiosities, but it is only in fiction that the mental resemblance between the replica and the human is strong enough to raise moral issues. Starting from the 19th century, our modern view of this type of creature is very much influenced by robots, which only appear in fiction later, after 1923, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1816. The 1932 film adaptation of Shelley’s novel strongly shapes our view this character through Boris Karloff’s interpretation, whose stumbling movements, innate physical inadequacy and constrained verbal expression give us a powerful visual sketch of how such a creature’s mind might work.

As for the zombie, which is not to be entirely confused with the philosophical zombie, it becomes popular in fiction only after 1970. Its real-life inspiration is related to African mysticism and drug-induced trance states, where the mental cognitive component is reduced and the chemical automation of the body takes over. However, it differs from the mechanical automaton, as the zombie behaves like a predator and not like a worker, as the robot is represented most times. Another popular humanoid character in contemporary fiction, the vampire, has similar origins but does not fit within the same category. Influenced by Bram Stoker’s Dracula portrait of vampires as aristocracy, they appear most often as fully thinking beings, whose form of cannibalism seems to be more intellectual and less physical. The case of somnambulism could also provide a good illustration for the matter at hand, but it is far too complex to be treated here. Both in fiction and in human activities, these examples of the body-creature are clearly constructs. No human is born just as body, and it takes specific circumstances to enact such a state, as an artificial representation of a point of conflict between the mental and the physical, form and matter, body and soul. Both in the case of the automaton and in the sportsman, their limited verbal expression suggests only a reduced mental activity and can offer little more analysis, so it is in the movements and behavior of the body that such a creature can be better understood. By translating those movements and behavior and approaching an idea of the body’s will, this fictional body-creature might be more clearly conceived.

Static physical activities, such as yoga and meditation, do not give us this impression of physicality and seem to be more mental. The visible life of the body seems to be closely related to movement, not to immobility, and movement, as defined in Aristotelian terms, is the actualization of a potentiality. This is what generally distinguishes a living being from a thing: animated intentional movement, whether immediate, as in the case of animals, or very slow, as in the case of vegetal life. In human practice, mind-oriented static physical activities often attempt to obliterate the body, and after getting rid of the body-as-self, proceed to obliterate the mental. This is aimed at achieving a perfect correspondence between perception and world, or, in typical Buddhist phraseology, to regard things for what they are, denying subject and object. Although such practices are disguised as transcendental disciplines that overcome the mental, it seems they tend to absorb the entire world, including subject and object, into the presiding mental sphere, and ultimately end up denying the mental, though precisely through a mental act. But unlike this practices, animated physical activities, when lived as a totalizing experience, as in sports or war, make the mental world collapse into a very physical world, so far as to the point of the first becoming subject to the second. Even so, in those experiences the self is maintained, as theoretically it should be, since erasing the concept from this argument would leave us with a body without life, and that is clearly not the case with the body-creature. Instead of being a self that survives severe obliteration of the body, as in mental practices, it survives the obliteration of the mind. Still, what is left of the mind, along with the newly established dominant role of the body, still constitutes a self. So if there is a self, there should be something we call the will. But this will is being enacted by a theoretical creature not primarily mental but corporeal, and it does not follow that the concept of the will should then be reduced to electrical muscular signals, no matter if it is composed of them, as the creature here envisioned is autonomous and not mechanical. Attributing agency and volition to something that does not seem to be primarily mental can raise problems, as the creation of representations connecting perception and cognition with the thing-in-itself, typically required by epistemological systems, seem to find no space or little mental space in the body-creature. For us to continue this thought experiment, it is then necessary to modify the concept of will to be seen not only as a mental will but also as a physical will, a materialist agency of the body instead of an idealistic agency of the mind, to put it in blunt classical body and soul terms.

An accessible example of such duality can be found in a very common occurrence when we face the need, or have the will, to perform a physical activity out of duty but not out of desire, whether it is physical work or physical maintenance, so common in urban post-80s culture. When facing those intentions, as mind-creatures, we frequently feel a kind of laziness, as if we don’t really want to do the thing intended, but should. This first and most common reading of the problem blames the body. It is the body that does not want to, as it tends towards apathy, but the mind wants to, either by responding to a higher moral calling, in an idealistic view, or by calculating well being for the future, in a pragmatic view. This may seem like a moral problem at first, as the material disposition of the body does not follow the idealistic ethos of physical exercise. But the question could be put in the reverse way, as we can conceive the body as the entity fundamentally disposed to movement, to the actualization of its potentiality, and the mind as the one tending towards physical immobility, the sort of idealistic existence mind-based disciplines focus on. According to this view, it is the mind that is to blame, as it staggers in the incorporeal realm, relegating the body to a leisure-seeking object and forcing it into passive occupations. The ethos of physical activity is then replaced by sloth, as the mind persuades the body to chill out on the couch or at the beach, instead of fully actualizing its potentiality. In this view, it is the body that wants to move itself, to fully actualize, as if that is its telos and, according to an animistic reading which ascribes intentional states to objects, its will. So a rock, which is a mass of minerals, or a mind, which can be seen as an emergent set of properties coming from a neurological framework, might want to lay still. But a body, which is a set of muscles, articulations, stretchable skin, individual bone elements, does not, as it is clearly built for movement. This assumes, of course, the possibility of a body’s will, which in this case is being equated to the fulfillment of a potentiality.

This monist hypothesis, where agency is dependent not on the idealistic substance of the mind but on a corporeal disposition, is reiterated, albeit unsystematically, by anti-idealist philosophers. Among those, Merleau-Ponty, coming from a phenomenological tradition that takes from Husserl and is slightly related to Heidegger, took the existing philosophy of the body a step further. In  Phenomeonology of Perception (1945), he establishes a middle ground between idealism and materialism, defining the lived body as the primary and pre-cognitive subject. Within this background, it is possible for him to conceive a kind of motor intentionality, a type of will further from the mind and closer to the actual body, thus separating a cognitive intentional sphere and a pre-cognitive intentional sphere. This concept of motor intentionality is a highly speculative one, but it is founded on factual scientific evidence. Merleau-Ponty based it on the medical case of Schneider, a patient suffering from war-related brain injuries and that could not point to his nose if asked to, but could react instinctively if a fly rested on its tip, brushing it off successfully. Although this argument in his philosophy resembles a sort of proto-neurological theory, it does allow Merleau-Ponty to conceive an epistemological model with direct interaction between physical agent and world, without mental representations. Such model is useful for him in order to fight Cartesian dualism, and is part of the general anti-idealistic tendency in some late 19th and 20th century philosophy, re-grounding philosophy on life, the world and the body.

For the matter at hand, it helps us to visualize more clearly the living intentionality of the motor-creature we’re describing, as Schneider’s example somewhat brings the creature out of the theoretical realm. In more recent years, it has been frequent for philosophical studies of the body to be intermingled with studies in Philosophy of Sport, as in Paul Weiss’ Sport: A Philosophical Inquiry, one of the first modern works on the subject. Written in a continental style (and highly vilified by some of its opponents because of it), the book manages, through its lyrical tone, to give a broad glance of the topic from a particular Platonic point of view, where excellence in athletics is viewed as an ascent to the realm of the forms. Some aspects typically described in Philosophy of Sport, such as the role of play, competition, and education, are not of major importance for this paper. The aesthetic side of sports, however, is very much related to the body-as-being, as surely some of the aesthetic pleasure retrieved from playing or watching sports is related to the specific use of body movement towards a goal, where very pristine bodily states are conjured. Of course, the goal in the case of sports is fictional, man-made, artificial, and this allows for a fruitful disposition towards beauty, as athletes have the time to find different ways of achieving the goal, which is different from critical and life-decisive activities involving physical action, such as war. This being so, the fictional world of the sportsman is different from the contingency of the theoretical body-creature, since the first has its world and its rules born from the intellect, while the second is dominated by motor intentionality, where rules are not intellectually generated but innate to its physical constitution. So the body-creature does not base its agency on exterior rules, whether idealistic or materialistic, but on its bodily disposition, towards the fulfillment of its potentiality. Thus we do not have a mind-creature using an inflated version of its body, but a body-creature in itself, where the mind is accessorized by the commanding contingency of the body.

While in modern philosophy the view of the body and soul duality is framed by Cartesianism, in Classical Philosophy the question was put differently, as Plato and Aristotle’s ontologies seem to question whether the soul is in the body or the body is in the soul. In both Plato’s Republic and in Phaedo, a container-like model is laid out in order for the body to contain an immaterial substance known as the soul. But throughout Aristotle’s corpus, the emphasis on the ontological study of potentiality and actuality turns the matter on its head. Given that Aristotle defines the soul as the first actuality of a body, it can be said to be temporarily prior and primary in value in relation to the body, thus making the body’s existence qua body more dependent on the soul, as if it was a container to it.[1] So in Plato’s model the body-creature could be theoretically conceived as an inflation of the container body, which in turn constrains the soul that animates it, turning it into a distorted version. Conversely, in Aristotle’s model, the creature can be seen as an imaginary interrupted state between the potentiality of the body and its full actualization as a soul, which only succeeds in becoming somewhat a half-souled body. In both cases, which are clearly distortions of Plato and Aristotle’s models, the body-creature would inhabit an abject realm, somewhere between the formed and the unformed. But while classical Greek philosophy could establish the problem in these terms, it is pointed out by some scholars that pre-Homeric Greek thought did not conceive of a mind or spirit as an independent agent of volition, instead assigning efficient and final causality to natural principles or forces they called the gods.[2] In this framework, a god of the body could perhaps be vaguely conceived, but it would not fit in with the remaining Pantheon, for the body was regarded as a vehicle and not as a primary force, and less even as a voluntary agent.

This secondary role of the body, ascribed to it in antiquity, reminds us how its view in the modern age came to be, as the creation of the body as a substance in Western thought is indebted to the creation of the self. It is by first recognizing the self as the foundation of the empirical world that Western thought is able to reduce that ontology even further by collapsing the self into the body, as Hume does with his bundle theory of personality, Heidegger with his Dasein, Freud with the reduction of personality into sexual drives, and later, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. In the modern view, the body is therefore not only the being-in-the-world, the lived body of Merleau-Ponty, the Leib and Kirper of Husserl; it is also the only real unmoved mover which causes the first actuality of the soul, and the first subject before the self, the first cogito. In this modern framework, the body-creature can become fully visible, and even primary and prior to the mental creature, as are allowed to extract the body-being from the mental-being and see it in isolation.

The concept of the body creature does not do much to solve the Cartesian dualism problem, nor does it help in the systematization of body and soul, or matter and form concepts, in Aristotle and Plato. In the view proposed here, the body, initially an object of the mind, later becomes subject, as it conquers the power of agency from the mind-self, thus creating a being that is half human and half body, if we can put it in these terms. This is a hypothesis with little philosophical pedigree, as agency in inanimate objects is more often entertained as speculative philosophy or an aesthetic tool used for artistic purposes. But in fact the body is never an inanimate object, nor is it an object as objects are generally considered.[3] When we conceive a body we are in fact conceiving a person. So when we talk about a theoretical body-creature we are still talking about a person, albeit with a different distribution of intellectual and physical capabilities, which are not closed and definite categories but different degrees of attributes that might be considered more mental or more physical. As such, this thought experiment does not serve to prove or disprove some kind of substantial difference between body and mind, as both monistic and dualistic hypotheses can house the concept of the body creature. In a monistic world-view, the creature would exhibit physical properties manifested as phenomena that are more physical than mental, without a substantial difference between the two categories; and in a dualistic background, the mind, which is typically seen as the higher-level substance, would be demoted to being controlled by the body, inverting the traditional hierarchy. In both cases, mental representation would be subsumed by the dictum of the body, which would resemble a system without representations or where representations are considered an epiphenomenon of bodily activity.

As we have seen, Western thought begins by discovering the mind, and later decomposes it to what might be called the several branches of philosophy of the body, whether in the continental tradition, with Phenomenology and Heidegger, or in analytical philosophy, with branches devoted to language or the mind. This does not return philosophy to pre-Homeric thought, where both body and mind are not substantial priorities, as the concept progresses through a triple abstraction of the body. First, by encompassing it in the notion of being, then separating the mind from it, and finally collapsing mind into bodily activities and bodily presence. So Western thought instead returns the body as a body that was not there before and is all of a sudden a stranger or a newcomer, and then attempts to use the eye of that newfound body as a mirror to see itself, through which it necessarily cannot. All that remains from that attempt are products of the imagination, ghosts of half-souled bodies like automata, hybrid monsters, and the body-creature here envisioned. These beings are disguised as non-human, mechanical, purely bodily beings, but are in fact so often terrifying because the concept of a living or animated body always houses a person. Therefore the body-as-being is just a ghost of the imagination, but not a menace or a symptom of a decayed system of thought. It is just peculiar in the sense the separation between body and mind permits the anthropomorphism of what is already part of the human, which is the body. This essay, which is little more than a fantasy, tries to be explicit in placing the body-as-being as a fictional character, but perhaps that character is not different in species to the mind-as-being or to that which we call the personality.

[1] I follow the argument presented by Olshewsky (1976), where he explains how Aristotle’s ontology requires that soul or form precede body or matter, given that actuality is prior to potentiality, as it is put forward in Metaphysics, and the soul is the body’s first actuality, as it is described in De Anima.

[2] Vd. Snell (1954).

[3] Vd. Long (1964).


Olshewsky, Thomas M. «On the relations of soul to body in Plato and Aristotle». Journal of the History of Philosophy 14, n. 4 (1976): 391–404.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.

Dombrowski, Daniel A. «Plato and Athletics». Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 6, n. 1 (Janeiro de 1979): 29–38.

White, John Bentley. «Pursuit of Bodily Excellence: Paul Weiss’s Platonic (Religious) Imagination of Sports». Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 7, n. 4 (Dezembro de 2013): 391–411.

Turner, Bryan S., ed. Routledge Handbook of Body Studies. Routledge International Handbooks. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2012.

McNamee, M. J., e William John Morgan, eds. Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Sport. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge, 2015.

Weiss, Paul. Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press [u.a.], 1971.

Torres, Cesar R. The Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Sport, 2015.

Blakemore, Colin, e Sheila Jennett, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Body. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Long, Douglas C. «The Philosophical Concept of a Human Body». The Philosophical Review 73, n. 3 (Julho de 1964): 321.

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