a white and black picture of an body-mind illustration, two women looking at each other like mirror images, the lines are drawn from the eys

Body-Mind Concept in Cartesian Dualism and the African World

Have you ever thought about how you interact with the world or how you perceive or feel others? How do I hold the knowledge of “I” and live within the body? In particular, what does it mean when we say body-mind?

Cultures give birth to the notion of self and shape it in their cultural contexts. Then, self develops an attitude to interact with the exterior world. To do so, it has two mediums: body and mind. The concept of body-mind has been an intriguing topic for many philosophers from different ages since antiquity. In the Western concept, while the body and mind are two different substances, in Africa, there is a different conceptual scheme in regard to body-mind. According to African thinking, body and mind are interdependent.

To gain more insight into this debate, in this article, I will discuss the concept of self and self’s relation to the Other and to the world, both from the perspectives of West and African cultures such as the Anlo-Ewe and Igbo people. I will share some of the research done by anthropologists and provide some examples of African Indigenous proverbs, dance performances, religion and rituals. Though the tone of the article at the very beginning is a bit philosophic, later, it will develop into a more anthropological one.

In the following, I start to discuss Cartesian Dualism as an example of the Western concept of body-mind, then move on with a reference to an anthropologist, Thomas Csardes, whose works dwell upon embodiment and sensory imagery. Later, I will talk about how the Anlo-Ewe and Igbo people feel about the world as examples from the African context.

a colored picture of Rene Descartes at the right and the diagrams which show body-mind concept.
Credit: thereader.mitpress.mit.edu

Cartesian Dualism

“ I think, therefore I am.”
Rene Descartes

The 16th century philosopher Rene Descartes conceived the body and mind as two separate substances. The body was more like a machine and a material existence, obeying the laws of physics, while the mind was the spiritual substance, which was a reference to God. Thus, in Cartesian-dualism, theology occupied a large role connected to the spirit.

Known for his “Cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes Medidations on First Philosophy is his major work where he discusses his concept of body, mind and God. Most importantly, his writings show a tendency toward solipsism, a view that there is nothing except one’s own mind or mental states, and the external world might not exist at all. In the nutshell, this thinking-method is very self-oriented.

a colored picture of anthropology professor Thomas Csardes, holding his jacket and standing against a black background
Credit: anthropology.ucsd.edu

Anthropologist Thomas Csardes and “Somatic Modes of Attention”

“Asserting that there is a subject of culture is a way of adding the dimension of experience to anthropological thinking, and avoiding a two-dimensional treatment of culture in which people and actors are incidental. This was the problem with Clifford Geertz’ understanding of culture as a ‘system of symbols’ that exists abstractly in the public domain, and to which embodiment presented itself as a conceptual basis for formulating an alternative approach.” Thomas Csardes

In his article “Somatic Modes of Attention“, Csardes highlights the act of paying attention to one’s body as the key element for building intersubjectivity. Being present doesn’t only mean that we have a body and live, it also requires attending to our surroundings and to other bodies.

In different words, cultures have different expressive means, such as tattoos, dance movements, and rituals performed on the body or through the body. Thus, the body is the medium which translates our spirit to the world, and the spirit of the world to our soul, especially in African contexts. As Csardes emphasizes, looking at corporeal engagements with the world in reference to the spiritual realm and cultural rituals is important. Additionally, how language expresses feelings via body-mind concepts is another dimension to this topic. The Anlo-Ewe people have various answers to such questions.

a colored picture of the Anlo- Ewe people dancing and drumming in the streets
Credit: Pinterest.com

Who are the Anlo-Ewe people?

Anlo-Ewe is a subgroup of Ewe people. They live in the Volta region, situated in the south-western part of Ghana. While the other groups of Ewe people are scattered throughout Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, some also live in the diaspora.

Particularly known for their Wu, dancing and drumming, the Anlo-Ewe people feel the world through an embodied consciousness, which emphasizes intersubjectivity and the unity of body-mind. In Csardes’ words, their life is the sum of “culturally elaborated ways of attending to and with one’s body in surroundings that include the embodied presence of others” (1993: 138).

There have been different studies done on the concept of self and body-mind concept in relation to the Anlo-Ewe people which I will be sharing right below. The first research applies the notion of lived experience and embodied consciousness in the matrix of body-mind, which foregrounds some linguistic studies. That one belongs to Professor Kathyrn Linn Geurts.

a colored picture of Anlo-Ewe people drumming outside. It is a close up to the hands of the musicians.
Credit: talkingwithdrums.ch

The Anlo-Ewe culture in the words of Kathyrn Linn Geurts

Anthropology professor Geurts is particularly interested in Ghana, embodied consciousness and sensory ethnography. Her research focuses on the concept of lived experience in African culture. In her article “Consciousness as Feeling in the Body”, she explores the concept of seselame, a word that encompasses the various inner states.

To take a closer look at seselame, se is a verb, meaning to perceive. Accordingly, the literal translation for seselame would be perceive-perceive-at-flesh-inside. The most important point about this concept is that it doesn’t distinguish cognition and emotion. To put it differently, seselame encompasses both sensory experience and consciousness, which embeds an anti-cartesian approach.

More, Geurts shares a dialogue she had with Anlo-people and finds out that they don’t perceive the exterior world through their five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing). Instead, they use seselame to refer to all these senses, which are summed up in one word: seselame.

Sidzedze and Gomesese

Geurts also talks about two more important concepts: sidzedze and gomesese. They respectively mean “recognition” and “understanding”. Seselame and these two words are closely related to one another.

How do these concepts work together?

                                                                                                                                 “I feel, therefore I know.”                                                                                                                                     Antonio Damasio

To start with, in Anlo-Ewe culture, feelings arise intersubjectively. If something good or bad happens to someone, then you feel it through seselamese. With gomedze and sidzedzu, those feelings are brought to the consciousness. For instance, Ne enyona fieku la eya wonya na adzikula translates into “if it goes on left well with the tigernut harvester, then it will be well with the groundnut harvester.” This proverb suggests the union, harmony and oneness among people achieved through seselamese and gomesese. Without saying a word, which is an arbitrary and abstract human construct, they feel each other through seselamese. For example, when an old lady is too tired to get some water, someone else feels her need and brings it for her.

As Geurts states, the other bodily experiences associated with seselame include: Nusese- aurality, agbagbadodo- balance, equilibrium; azolizozo azolinu- walking kinesthesia; nulele-tactility-contact; nukpokpo- visuality; nudodokokpo, tasting; nuveves smelling and nufofo vocality. Even if different words exist in their language for different senses, they are not attributed to specific locations on the body.  For instance, eyes aren’t for seeing or ears for hearing. Rather, it is the body as a whole that performs these sensory processes.

Newborns in Anlo-Ewe culture 

Anlo-Ewe people try to don their new-born with an ability for adaptability by baptizing them. They perform the ritualized birth bath to make the new-born have more flexible bodies and gain a character trait of adaptability.

Additionally, Geurt had come to notice that midwives talk to the child in the womb as if they were on the stool (zikpui). In other words, she found a metaphorical link between stools and placenta, which indicated Anlo-Ewe people’s concern about posture and balance.

The highlighted ability for adaptability also finds embodiment in their proverbs. One example is “Ne Neyi akpokplowo fe dume eye wotsyo ako la, wo ha natsyo ako”. This proverb translates into “if you visit the village of the toads and you find them squatting, you must squat too.” This implies the importance of altering one’s body posture in accordance with the environment and also the importance given to adaptability. This sort of adaptation brings harmonized feelings with others and the surrounding world.

The Anlo-Ewe people’s cultural dance and body-mind concept

“The Ewes were among the multitude of African people who witnessed the great fall of the ancient Ghana Empire in the 13th century. It was very crucial for them to store all their experiences for their younger generations. In the absence of Western documentation in those ancient times, they were compelled to store their experiences, also known as their significant knowledge of dance, which includes movements, gestures, songs, stories, re-enactments/festivals, rituals, religious and political ceremonies, philosophical concepts, and names.” (Kumodzie, 2011).

Dance brings together different cultural elements: music, poetry, the socio-political structure of society. To understand the body in a cultural context, one can look at the traditional dance performances of society. For instance, Anlo-Ewe culture represents a good example. First of all, dance is a shared experience and integrates every single body into the community for the Anlo-Ewe. In other words, it is an epitome of collective identity and feeling. Also, it is more like energy circulating among the people through the dance.

Secondly, the dancing body is more than a biological machine. It is a means of somatic communication among members of society. It inhabits certain social codes in its holistic nature. Especially for an oral tradition-based culture such as the Anlo-Ewes, the Indigenous dances embody the body-mind concept. These dance performances replace the words and tell the stories of warriors. In a way, the Anlo-Ewe rewrite history with their body. Also, these dances serve as uniting events in weddings and religious ceremonies. In sum, dancing is a cultural exhibition of the Anlo-Ewe’s mind-set through lived experience and a way to circulate uniting feelings.

a colored picture of three Igbo men dancing in the streets in their traditional dance costumes

Credit: wordatlas.com

Who are the Igbo people?

As one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa, the Igbo people live in the south-eastern part of Nigeria. Their language is a part of the Niger-Congo language family. They are believed to be the descendants of the Nri, Nzam and Anam immigrants. Their religious beliefs consist of mythological deities and Christianism, which shape their body-mind concept.

Igbo Culture and body-mind concept

“The epistemological attitude of the modern European assumes that something can be known by focusing attention on the particular or by limiting the field of inquiry to a particular issue and then by detaching self from the object to be known. But the lgbo epistemological attitude rejects this mode of knowing as unrealistic because the self is inseparable from the object to be known.” (Anyanwu 94)

For the Igbo people, the body-mind is a cultural product that also defines their perspective on reality. To understand Igbo culture and their reality better, we need to look at their traditional religious culture and cosmology. To start with, they believe in vital energy or cosmic force which has an ontological status. This energy exists in both animate and inanimate things, which unify their world via dynamic energy-circulation. Also, this vital force helps Igbo people build a relationship with their body-mind and others.

In addition, the Igbo people organize their culture through their belief system. Some important elements of this belief system are Chi/Chukwu (Great Creator), Chi (personal spirit), Ala (Earth goddess), and Ndebunze (spirits of ancestors). All these life-forces have a certain hierarchy and unity at the same time. Igbo people see the words of ancestors as part of their inheritage. They live in accordance with these inherited social codes.  As for Ala, it is a symbol of motherhood, which connects women to the community. In short, everyone exists for community and joins cultural practises to maintain unity.

Chi/Chuckwu and body-mind concept

Chi is one of the most important elements to understand the Igbo-self. It both symbolizes the Great Creator and denotes a personal spirit. K. Chukwulozie Anyanwu writes that “It is believed that every lgbo has his or her own personal chi… Chi may be regarded as the principle of individualization, and it is definitely created by Chukwu”(96). Even though Igbo culture accepts individual forces, they are only part of a bigger life chain. No Igbo man exists in isolation. Rather, his life gains meaning through his relations with others in a cultural context. Therefore, there is no isolated ego. They base their values on their cultural activities and shared traditions.

Most importantly, for Igbo culture, there is no clear distinction between spirit and body, and self and world. God, mind, body, space and time are all parts of the united reality. Igbo people experience this reality through their cultural exercises and religion.

a picture of Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruan man, a man with his open arms drawn in rectangular and an intersecting circle
Credit: thetimes.co.uk

Body-mind Concept and its Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Unlike the Western philosophers who separated body and mind, African culture brings a different perspective to the centuries-old body-mind inquiry. As in the examples of Anlo-Ewe and Igbo culture, all the binary oppositions, such as man-nature, nature-culture, body-mind, and lastly, self-world, commingle as a whole. Therefore, everything is interdependent on one another. They attend to other bodies and listen to their surroundings to feel intersubjectivity. They come to realize themselves as part of a total cosmic journey.

Last but not least, non-western cultures offer distinct perspectives on the perception of reality.Therefore, it is important to see how other cultures form their own realities as experienced cultural events rather than solipsistic mental states. Ethno-psychology, sensory ethnography, dance ethnography and linguistic anthropology  are some of the (sub)fields that can investigate the concept of body-mind in different contexts as a lived experience.

Suggestions for further inquiries:

Geurts, Kathryn Linn. Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. California: University of California Press, 2002.

Pink, Sarah. The Future of Sensory Anthropology.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart  ( especially for literature enthusiasts)

Recent Anthropology Articles on Yoair Blog:

Masterminds: The Anthropology of the Human Brain and Strong Minds
Anthropology: An Overview of Cyberstalking and the Various Ways Used by Cyberstalkers

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