Performing Arts

With Descartes, against dualism


Moshe Feldenkrais, practicing judo. (Courtesy of the International Feldenkrais Foundation Archives)

Perhaps we can think for a while on the way a dancer could also experience how much there are different levels, between anatomy, words, sensations, gestures, presentations before others’ regard, dealing with skeleton and directions and skin and touch and orientation in the space, and potential and real gestures, and how then can we describe something of the different articulation of those strata, holding onto a non-opposition without falling into an identical totalization?

With descartes, against  dualism By: Marie Bardet And  Florencio Noceti
In: Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices : Volume 4 Issue 2
IQ Overview

In their paper for The Journal of Dance & Somatic Practice, Marie Bardet  and Florencio Noceti investigate somatics through the philosophical notion of dualism—specifically, as it is represented by Descartes in a series of letters between him and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, between 1643 and 1649. The crux of these letters is an attempt to understand a dual nature of body and mind vis a vis a unified, lived experience of them. Descartes held that immaterial consciousness and the materiality of the body are fundamentally different entities, which perspective he formalised in what is known as Cartesian Dualism. Beyond trying to make sense of our unified experience of the mind and body in face of their posited duality, the mind-body problem also attempts to address how these distinct elements are able to interact with and affect each other.

Bardet and Noceti situate such questions with respect to dance and movement practices as a whole, and specifically in terms of Feldenkrais Method. The method was developed by Moshé Feldenkrais (1904–1984), who sought to use correct movement patterns as a means of developing holistic health throughout body and mind. His position would seem to be diametrically opposed to Descartes’. He is quoted:

“I believe that the unity of mind and body is an objective reality. They are not just parts somehow related to each other, but an inseparable whole while functioning. A brain without a body could not think; at least, the continuity of mental functions is assured by corresponding motor functions.”

The authors acknowledge that while the integration of mind and body may be integral to somatics, this does not mean they are ubiquitously treated as a singular entity in practice.

On one hand, rejection of dualism with great enthusiasm at the door does not mean it cannot sneak in through the window with distinctions that suppos- edly have been declared obsolete. Expressions such as ‘my head’/‘my body’ or ‘I didn’t think about what I was doing’/‘It’s my body, spontaneously, that’s moving’ become difficult to analyse without acknowledging a certain dualism. On the other hand, any grand renunciation of dualism may altogether miss somatics’ real power to generate a new model, by simplifying the complexity of the relationship through a binary option. It is necessary to avoid any binary thought to be able to connect with the complexity itself that, because it creates so many problems, might provide the power for further reinvention.

The discussion between Descartes and Princess Elisabeth traverses experiences of unity, and probes the possibility of interaction between mind and body. In this attempt, Descartes cautions against using one quality to try and represent another, i.e., against using the model of how physical things affect other physical things in order to try and understand how the immaterial mind would affect the physical body. Temporality is introduced, which in conjunction with notions of extension reveals movement (extension through time) to be fundamental to an attempt at understanding the  mind-body problem. Bardet and Noceti separate their understanding of the correspondences into three sections: Distinction and union paradox through Descartes and Princess Elisabeth’s correspondence; The proof within experience; Going beyond dualism through weight and extension.

The Distinction and union paradox sets out the underpinnings of the dialectic, namely:

Princess Elisabeth exposes a particularly nuanced difficulty to Descartes: how can we think that the soul keeps within the relationship to the body ‘the capacity to move a body and to be moved by it’ (‘la capacité de mouvoir un corps et d’en être ému’5) (Descartes 1989: 72) when, according to the distinction between extended and unextended substances that Descartes proposes in his Meditations (published in 1641 in Latin; see Descartes 1976: 76),6 it cannot utilize impulse or touch because it is unextended.

In Proof within experience, ‘experience’ is explicitly positioned as something that exists in everyday, lived time, as opposed to metaphysical meditations. This demonstrates, for the authors, that considerations of temporality are necessary to thinking about how we experience unity. They cite Descartes:

“For to conceive the union between two things, is to conceive them as one thing. […] and finally, it is by using only life and ordinary conversations, and by staying away from meditating and studying things that exercise the imagination, that one learns to conceive the union between the soul and body.”
(Descartes 1989: 73–74)   

Going beyond dualism through weight and extension establishes that Descartes makes a crucial distinction between thinking of the mind in terms of ‘weight’ as opposed to ‘extension’—the latter being the correct method. It is in this question of extension that concept of movement arises.

Extension is less a fact (such as extended matter) than an activity, an ‘in the process of extending’. This is exactly what the gerund form clarifies. The process of extension would be in this sense a shared movement between soul and body, within which the soul is never extended; rather, it tends in the direction of the body’s extension. If the body, in extending, gets extended at certain limits of its boundaries, then the soul takes to the road and shares the tendency, the vector and the force of that direction, without ever being the result or being defined (defined within the borders of its extended matter) by the limits of an extended matter. The union with the body, this togetherness that says ‘at the same time’ the soul and the body, does not then make the soul extended matter, but rather a process of extension in a co-presence of movements of the soul and body.

In order to bring these notions closer to the lived experience of contemporary somatics, the authors layer on concepts from Henri Bergsons’ Matter and Memory, in which he adds the quality of ‘tension’ to that of ‘extension’. This insertion radically multiplies related ideas of movement.

Indeed, the problem of extended matter that, for Descartes and Elisabeth, was essentially a problem of locating matter doubles with Bergson as the divisibility belonging to dimensional matter when we project it into a homogeneous, and therefore divisible and measurable, space….

“Between sensible qualities, as regarded in our representation of them, and these same qualities treated as calculable changes there is therefore only a difference in rhythm of duration, a difference of internal tension. Thus, by the idea of tension we have striven to overcome the opposition between quality and quantity, as by the idea of extension that is between the unextended and the extended.”
(Bergson 1911: 330, original emphasis)

By the double fold of tension and extension, Bergson goes beyond both the simple opposition between quantity and quality, and the more complicated one between what is unextended and what is extended. Philosophy’s concern is no longer to understand the animation of an inert, extended matter (how the soul moves the body), but to comprehend the different directions of a same movement, extension and contraction, of matter in movement and consciousness perceiving it.

In setting this complexity directly in relation to somatics they propose:

Perhaps we can think for a while on the way a dancer could also experience how much there are different levels, between anatomy, words, sensations, gestures, presentations before others’ regard, dealing with skeleton and directions and skin and touch and orientation in the space, and potential and real gestures, and how then can we describe something of the different articulation of those strata, holding onto a non-opposition without falling into an identical totalization?

And in returning to Fendenkrais they quote him once more:

“We have then, from birth till death, a closed loop of four elements: skel- eton, muscles, nervous system, and environment. These elements are, in fact, very complex systems interacting with numerous feedbacks and feedforwards all along the loop. The loop can be drawn as a quadrangle with four sides and four summits. In my own work I deal mostly with the summits rather than with the sides. I deal with the linkage at the summits where the elements interact with one another and where the learned use of self is more apparent.”

Ultimately, in their paper Bardet and Noceti are calling for, “A dynamic relation where philosophy and somatics—insofar as they ceased to be opposed as theory, on the one hand, and practice, on the other hand—can invent themselves at a limit’s edge which escape at the same time to unique opposition and total unification.” They are occupying a fluctuating space somewhere between Descartes and Feldenkrais, one that is intentionally moving rather than attempting to become firmly fixed.


The original article is available on IngentaConnect

Marie Bardet, Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Paris 8 and University of Buenos Aires, has a postdoctoral grant from CONICET/UBA in Argentina. She is a member of the Soma&Po – Somatics, Esthetics and Politics research group directed by Isabelle Ginot in the Dance Department at University of Paris 8. Her investigation links theory and practice of movements in seminars, creations and writings. In 2011, she published Penser et Mouvoir. Une rencontre entre danse et philosophie (Paris: L’Harmattan).

Florencio Noceti studied philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina), where he is now Professor of Philosophy. He teaches psychologists and psychiatrists in the Faculty of Medicine. He also works with visual and conceptual artists.

Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices  journal focuses on the relationship between dance and somatic practices, and the influence of this body of practice on the wider performing arts. The journal will be aimed at scholars and artists, providing a space for practitioners and theorists to debate the work, to consider the impact and influence of the work on performance, the interventions that somatic practices can have on other disciplines and the implications for research and teaching.

Principal Editor
Sarah Whatley
Coventry University

Associate Editors
Kirsty Alexander
University of Stirling

Natalie Garrett
Coventry University