Up ]

A feminist critique of Descartes

Susan Bordo’s 1985 article,

“Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as Crystallization of Culture” (1985)


            The body is never simply physical.  The body—both as we experience it, living as embodied subjects (what Merleau-Ponty called the “lived body,” le corps vécu), and also as we observe it outwardly and know it as an object—is permeated with cultural meanings (an insight point developed in the writings of contemporary French philosopher Michel Foucault).

            In addition to the physical causes of a pathological condition such as anorexia nervosa, there are at least three main cultural factors that converge in the disease.

1.  Dualism with contempt for the body, as expressed by Plato, Augustine, and Descartes:

2.  Obsession with control.

3.  The effects of power relations on gender.  (SB is not blaming men for consciously plotting this abusive system.)  Women protest against

·       confining role expectations

·       images of women who are threatening and insatiable in physical and sexual appetites . . . and idealistic images of the feminine

·       their own desires


Questions on the essay

1.  Do the unfortunate manifestations of dualism oblige us to deny the distinction of body and mind altogether?  Distinguish different senses of “dualism.”

2.  Just because a premise is necessary to an argument justifying a bad conclusion doesn’t mean we should reject the premise.  The problem may lie elsewhere.

3.  SB writes that “Greco Christian tradition provides particularly fertile soil for the development of anorexia” (95).  What about exaggerated regimes for controlling the body and women in other cultures?  Does this image of Christianity represent the religion of Jesus?  Does true self-mastery result, rather, from spiritual transformation?  "By the old way you seek to suppress, obey, and conform to the rules of living; by the new way you are first transformed by the Spirit of Truth and thereby strengthened in your inner soul by the constant spiritual renewing of your mind, and so are you endowed with the power of the certain and joyous performance of the gracious, acceptable, and perfect will of God. 

4.  SB notes that people turn away from death and the dying—what some have called a “denial of death.”  But she writes, “What is unique to modernity is that the defeat of death has become a scientific fantasy rather than a philosophical or religious mythology.  We no longer dream of eternal union with the gods; instead, we build devices that can keep us alive indefinitely . . .” (87).  Might there be a denial of life here,  too?

5.  The editorial material added after the close of the essay proposes for our consideration the benefits we would enjoy if we just stop thinking of ourselves as significantly superior to the other “higher animals.”  What is the appeal of such a move?  What does distinguish humans?  What full concept of the human being will promote better living and relating?

6.  “Health, sanity, and happiness are integrations of truth, beauty, and goodness as they are blended in human living.”