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Disease and what a body can do

Oil painting depicting Claude Bernard, the father of modern physiology, with his pupils.
Oil painting depicting Claude Bernard, the father of modern physiology, with his pupils (pulled from Wikipedia).

I’m in the midst of reading Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological, and thus far the book is a fascinating reading of the history of pathology and physiology. Canguilhem cites copiously from the French physiologist René Leriche as he traces the understanding of pathology as informing physiology, rather than physiology determining pathology by way of establishing the normal function of something and thereafter deriving pathology from the lack of normal functioning. Leriche writes: “At every moment there lie within us many more physiological possibilities than physiology tells us about. But it takes disease to reveal them to us” (107).¹

“At every moment there lie within us many more physiological possibilities than physiology tells us about. But it takes disease to reveal them to us.”

Canguilhem, Georges. The Normal and the Pathological

Put another way, the possibilities, or perhaps powers, of organs, bodies, or things only comes into view when disease reveals them. This idea is suggestive of many similar though distinct concepts in philosophy, including Heidegger’s analysis of the broken tool in Being and Time or the logic of contradictions in Hegel and Marx. I have not thought through these comparisons and will not go beyond suggesting them. I am specifically attracted to drawing a comparison to that often-cited paraphrasing of Spinoza: we do not know what a body can do. The more exact citation comes from Part III, Prop. 2., Scholium of The Ethics, from the Shirley translation: “However, nobody as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do, without being determined by mind, solely from the laws of its nature in so far as it is considered as corporeal. For nobody as yet knows the structure of the body so accurately as to explain all its functions[…]”².

“that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do…”

Spinoza, Baruch. The Ethics

Several propositions further into Part III, Spinoza introduces his definition of conatus in Proposition 7, and the triad of will, appetite, and desire in the scholium of Proposition 9. Conatus is that “with which each thing endeavors to persist in its own being.” Appetite is conatus related to mind and body together, and desire is ‘appetite accompanied by the consciousness thereof.’ The distinction between conatus as such and desire is significantly illuminated by a key thesis in Canguilhem’s book: “We, on the other hand, think that the fact that a living man reacts to a lesion, infection, functional anarchy by means of a disease, expresses the fundamental fact that life is not indifferent to the conditions in which it is possible, that life is polarity and thereby even an unconscious position of value; in short, life is in fact a normative activity” (126; my emphasis).³

Taking the above citations as premises, I arrive at the conclusions that:

  1. Desire essentially originates out of disease
  2. Disease reveals the body’s capabilities

Regarding the first conclusion, desire originates from disease in a positive sense: life endeavors to persist always in opposition to its destruction, and desire is naught but life’s consciousness of this endeavor. A physiological example: I may begin to unconsciously favor my right foot over my left, and it is at the end of the day that I realize I’ve had a tiny pebble in my shoe. I would tend to be radical in my reading and argue that my body, as a composite of things like blood cells, neurons, arms, kidneys, and clothes, was definitely conscious insofar as my right foot was favored. That is, while “I” as a conscious mind was unaware of an impediment to my body, something was aware enough to begin favoring my right foot over the other as it supported my body’s endeavor to move around throughout the day.

Desire then, whether you consider it lack or as a positive concept, is constituted by the consciousness of some given disease (with emphasis on disease as dis-ease, or a conceived lack of ease). I interpret disease fairly loosely: my waist may take my too-tight belt as a kind of disease, but my mind and body as a whole consider it a net positive that I look presentable for the day and do not appear as disheveled or loosely-panted.

Regarding the second conclusion, disease reveals because it calls attention to a previously unrecognized capability of the body. I offer another radical example: the loss of the functioning of one of my eyes works to reveal to me that my eyes work in tandem to give depth to the world; the loss of one eye is also the loss of that depth perception that was previously unrecognized. Another example: depression reveals to me a great deal of things previously unrecognized, including the ability to think with focus, to not be preoccupied with negative thoughts, to not reflect overmuch on my lack of accomplishments, and to simply get out of bed in the morning in accordance with my schedule.

I invoke Spinoza along with Canguilhem because I believe the former is radical in his thinking of what constitutes a mind, a body, as well as how good and evil are defined. While Nietzsche is typically thought of as the radical and discomfiting critic of morality, I find his nostalgia and desperation for higher values both reflects his active combat against nihilism and prevents his analysis from going as deep as Spinoza’s. The mysteriousness, if not downright frustration or obtuseness of the last section of the Ethics, might reflect a deeper and more frightening investigation of the arbitrariness of existence and groundless nature of good and evil.

For Spinoza, things endeavor to exist, and from this endeavor other things are named good and bad. As I opined above, what is bad is what constitutes a disease for the thing. The terrain shifts away from good and bad as morality to good and bad as pathology. In my mind, the key issue then becomes analysis of the thing, what it determines to be a disease, and the disease itself. A question that remains: is the endeavor to exist synonymous with the endeavor to live? Two subsequent questions with rich histories: 1) what is life, and 2) do not mountains struggle against erosion, oceans against cliffs? Perhaps only from our modal interpretation, but nevertheless real and revealing.

References

  1. Canguilhem, Georges. The Normal and the Pathological. Translated by Carolyn R. Fawcett. New York, NY: Zone Books, 2007.
  2. Spinoza, Baruch. The Ethics; Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect; Selected Letters. Edited by Seymour Feldman. Translated by Samuel Shirley. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.
  3. Canguilhem, Georges. The Normal and the Pathological. Translated by Carolyn R. Fawcett. New York, NY: Zone Books, 2007.
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