Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.02.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.02.24

Justin E. H. Smith (ed.), Embodiment: A History. Oxford philosophical concepts.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xv, 365.  ISBN 9780190490454.  $35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Thomas Miller (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Two volumes in the new Oxford Philosophical Concepts series, inaugurated in 2015, have already been reviewed in this journal: on self-knowledge (BMCR 2017.10.21) and moral motivation (BMCR 2017.10.42). According to the Foreword by series editor Christia Mercer, the volumes seek to be “innovative,” aiming “not to offer a broad overview,” but rather to “rethink a central concept” from a historical perspective by “reexamining standard narratives” and “look[ing] beyond the canon” (xi). The book under review follows the general format of the series, featuring an introduction by the volume editor Justin E. H. Smith, eleven chapters by different scholars addressing the theme of “embodiment” in thinkers or groups of thinkers from the ancient world to the present, and finally five “reflections.” The latter are supposed to be shorter, more informal pieces offering perspectives from outside of the discipline of philosophy. I will focus here on the first four chapters, which deal with Greco-Roman thinkers.

The first chapter, “The Body of Western Embodiment: Classical Antiquity and the Early History of a Problem” by Brooke Holmes, provides a jumping-off point for the whole volume by treating the emergence of the notion of σώμα in Homer, the Hippocratic corpus, and Plato. Much of what Holmes has to say will be familiar to Classicists from her 2010 monograph The Symptom and the Subject. For newcomers, the ambitious chapter could be dense reading, but will certainly introduce all the key texts and raise many provocative problems. The way that Holmes highlights the contributions of the medical writers and questions received notions about Plato does seem like a good model for how one might use history to “rethink” a philosophical concept.

The second chapter, “Embodied or Ensouled: Aristotle on the Relation of Soul and Body,” is by Helen Lang (1947-2016), to whose memory the volume is dedicated. Unfortunately, this piece does not seem like it was ready for publication.1 It is essentially an explanatory summary of On the Soul that does not attempt to situate itself with respect to other scholarship or the volume’s theme (the only mention of “embodiment” I noticed was in the title). It might work as an introduction to Aristotle’s psychology, although I was puzzled by Lang’s concluding suggestion that, since On the Soul is a work of natural science rather than metaphysics, Aristotle there “fails to reach any activity that is ‘proper’ to soul; he fails to reach a sense in which the soul can be or act independently of body” (64). The difficulty for this claim is accommodating Aristotle’s remarks about νοῦς, but Lang skirts this issue, devoting only a single sentence to On the Soul 3.5 and making no mention of controversy around its interpretation (63).

The third chapter, “Beautiful Bodies and Shameful Embodiment in Plotinus’s Enneads” by Lesley-Anne Dyer Williams, attempts to reconcile Plotinus’s “clear aesthetic appreciation of beautiful bodies and unsentimental art” with Porphyry’s portrayal of his teacher in his Life of Plotinus as “ashamed to be in a body” (70-71). The tension between an appreciation for beauty and a disdain for embodiment is of course a major issue throughout the Platonic tradition, and Williams is not wrong to conclude that “the idea that Plotinus hates the body and embodiment appears much too simplistic” (86)—but that will also not be news to anyone studying Plotinus today. Readers trained in philosophy may be frustrated by how Williams tends to make general statements supported by gestures to secondary literature, as opposed to interpreting actual texts.2 Taking the piece as just a basic survey, one misses any reference to the two treatises that are prima facie most relevant to the chapter’s theme: “On Beauty” (1.6) and “On the Descent of the Soul into Bodies” (4.8). The Life of Plotinus is treated as a simple source of historical facts that can be used as straightforward evidence for Plotinus’s commitments, which then have to be reconciled with the Enneads. I would have preferred to see it read as a biographical (or quasi-hagiographic) text shaped by generic considerations and by Porphyry’s own agenda.

The fourth chapter, “Augustinian Puzzles about Body, Soul, Flesh, and Death” by Sarah Catherine Byers, sets out to “piece together a coherent Augustinian account of embodiment” and show how it is “informed by the Aristotelian commentary tradition” (87), thus joining a welcome movement to recognize the non-Platonist influences on Augustine’s thought. The main text under examination is the thirteenth book of the City of God, but Byers also draws on anti-Manichaean works from the 390s, which involves her in arguing that views expressed there are the same as Augustine’s two or three decades later. Given the generalist slant of the volume and the shortness of the chapters, it might have been better to focus on just the City of God.

Byers’s main claim is that in the City of God Augustine is not a “substance dualist” along Platonist lines, but rather views the human being as an Aristotelian “single-substance body-soul compound” (89). Although her argument was complex and intriguing, it did not seem to me to squarely confront how Augustine in City of God 13 describes the soul as departing from the body and surviving on its own after death until receiving a new resurrection body—which sounds like Platonism plus Christianity. Byers’s position seems to be that for Augustine the soul or at least the mind is capable of independent existence but, since the body has no substantial existence of its own when its soul-form is absent, he is still not a substance dualist. To my mind, however, the real contrast between Platonist and Peripatetic views has less to do with the ontological robustness of the body than with whether the soul or the soul-body compound is valorized as the “true” human being. In an attempt to put Augustine on the latter side, Byers cites what she calls his “formal definition of ‘human being’ in City of God 15.7: a human being is ‘a [single] rational substance consisting of body and soul’” (96). The quoted words are really from On the Trinity 15.7, where the full sentence reads: “But even if we were to define (si etiam sic definiamus) a human being by saying ‘A human being is a rational substance consisting of body and soul,’ there is no doubt that a human being has a soul that is not a body, and a body that is not a soul.” That does not sound like a ringing rejection of dualism (depending on what that Protean term is taken to mean), but the passage should not be pressed either way anyway, since what Augustine is doing there is not endorsing a “formal definition” but looking for traces of the Trinity in the human being (and finding one in the trio of body, soul, and compound). One speculative suggestion: it seems to me that in City of God 13 Augustine in fact alludes to two very different theories of embodiment, a Platonist one valid for this life that ends with the separation of soul and body, and a different (possibly more Aristotelian?) one that comes into play after the resurrection, cum anima corpori sic fuerit copulata, ut nulla diremptione separentur (City of God 13.2).

Among the chapters dealing with medieval and modern thinkers, my favorites were Geoffrey Gorham’s “Hobbes’s Embodied God,” which discusses Hobbes’s debt to Stoicism, and Alison Peterman’s “Descartes and Spinoza: Two Approaches to Embodiment.” The “Reflections” are a strange bunch, printed without full-justified text—to emphasize their edginess?—and, at just four to seven pages long, too short to my mind to fully develop their ideas in dialogue with the main chapters. I did enjoy learning, in “Embodied Geometry in Early Modern Theatre” by Yelda Nasifoglu, about Blame Not Our Author, an anonymous early seventeenth-century comedy whose protagonist Quadro is “a melancholic square who wants to become a circle.”

How well does this volume live up to the mission of the series? Some of the pieces seemed to me to fall in an uneasy middle ground, being neither “broad overviews” suitable for beginners nor rigorous pieces of scholarship interesting for specialists. A glance at the table of contents also makes one doubt how well the volume meets its stated goal of “looking beyond the canon.” The philosophers considered are mostly the usual suspects: all male (Anne Conway, mentioned in passing in Smith’s introduction, would have been an obvious choice for a contribution) and all Western (or almost all: the final chapter, “The Embodiment of Virtue: Towards a Cross-Cultural Cognitive Science,” by Jake H. Davis, does include some comparative discussion of Confucianism and Buddhism). Obviously it is a challenge to include non-Western thinkers in a way that is not superficial or tokenizing, but one might have hoped that Smith, an exceptionally thoughtful and balanced critic of philosophy’s disciplinary boundaries, would be the one to pull it off. (His 2016 book The Philosopher: A History in Six Types should be required reading, by the way, for all scholars of Greco-Roman philosophy.) Given the ideological uses to which “embodiment” has been put, more specific thematic attention to questions of gender, race, or sexuality could have been valuable. Overall, this volume was a missed opportunity.

Authors and titles

Introduction, Justin E.H. Smith
1. The Body of Western Embodiment: Classical Antiquity and the Early History of a Problem, Brooke Holmes
2. Embodied or Ensouled: Aristotle on the Relation of Soul and Body, Helen Lang
3. Beautiful Bodies and Shameful Embodiment in Plotinus’s Enneads, Lesley-Anne Dyer Williams
4. Augustinian Puzzles about Body, Soul, Flesh, and Death, Sarah Byers
5. Medieval Jewish Philosophers and the Human Body, Yoav Meyrav
6. Scholastic Philosophers on the Role of the Body in Knowledge, Rafael Nájera
7. Hobbes's Embodied God, Geoffrey Gorham
8. Leibniz's View of Individuals: Nested or Embodied Individuals, Ohad Nachtomy
9. Descartes and Spinoza: Two Approaches to Embodiment, Alison Peterman
10. Man-Machines and Embodiment: From Cartesian Physiology to Claude Bernard’s ‘Living Machine,’ Philippe Huneman and Charles T. Wolfe
11. The Embodiment of Virtue: Towards a Cross-Cultural Cognitive Science, Jake H. Davis

1. The Devil in the Flesh: On Witchcraft and Possession, Véronique Decaix
2. Phantom Limbs, Stephen Gaukroger
3. Embodied Geometry in Early Modern Theatre, Yelda Nasifoglu
4. Ghosts in the Celestial Machine: Embodiment in the Late Renaissance, Jonathan Regier
5. The Genotype/Phenotype Distinction, Emily Herring


1.   There are a distracting number of typos in the chapter: “posseses” (58); “definiton” (59); “posses)es,” “πράμα” (63); and “couclusions” (64). The full citation to Hamlyn at 56n28 should come earlier, at 54 n. 14. On p. 66, the Greek for “intellect” should be νοῦς, not ἔννοια.
2.   Here is one example. Williams writes: “Universal Soul is not, however, the ultimate cause of things. Rather, the Universal Soul emanates from the Intellect, which emanates from the Life surrounding the One.” These claims are accompanied by no reference to the Enneads (no particular text seems to be under discussion), but a footnote assures us that “[t]he theory of the three hypostases can be read about in more detail in the following handbooks,” then citing, without page or chapter references, the Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, the Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, and Alcinous: The Handbook of Platonism (76 n. 22). The third work is John Dillon’s translation of the second-century work usually known as the Didaskalikos. This text, representative of Middle Platonism, does not discuss the later theory of the three hypostases.

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