Body as the Unity of Action


Unity of action

David L. Thompson



Christine Korsgaard, Self Constitution: Agency, Identity and Integrity, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.

MUN e-book:

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge: Taylor and Francis e-Library, 2005.

MUN e-book:

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behaviour, London: Methuen 1965.

1“In this book I will be dealing with three topics that I take to be intimately related. The topics are the nature of action, the constitution of personal or practical identity, and the normativity of the principles of practical reason.” Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, 7. All further references to Korsgaard are to this book.

2“I am ready to try to state my view. I believe that it is essential to the concept of action that the action is performed by an agent.”Korsgaard, 18.

3Korsgaard, Chapter 7.

4Korsgaard, 103-104.

5“The way to establish these imperatives is by showing how they constitute a unified will.” Korsgaard, 58.

6“I am going to argue that in the relevant sense there is no you prior to your choices and actions, because your identity is in a quite literal way constituted by your choices and actions.” Korsgaard, 19.

7For example: “... the principles of practical reason serve to unify and constitute us as agents ... According to this account, normative principles are in general principles of the unification of manifolds, multiplicities, or, in Aristotle's wonderful phrase, mere heaps, into objects of particular kinds (M 8.6 1045a10). ...The form of the house is that the arrangement of those parts that enables it to serve as a habitable shelter ... The walls are joined at the corners, the insulation goes in the walls, the roof is placed on the top, and so on, so that the weather is kept out ... That is the form of a house.” Korsgaard, 27. Compare this with, “The Constitutional Model, I have proposed, can be used to explain the nature of action. This is because it can be used to explain how we can attribute a movement to an agent as the agent's own. At the same time, it shows us why certain formal principles -- the categorical imperative, and Plato's principle of justice -- are constitutive principles of action: because they bring the constitutional unity that makes action possible to the soul. If that is so, then agents must act justly and on the categorical imperative, if they are to act at all.” Korsgaard, 158.

8“given the primacy of form as substance, it is unsurprising to find Aristotle identifying the soul, which he introduces as a principle or source (archê) of all life, as the form of a living compound. For Aristotle, in fact, all living things, and not only human beings, have souls: ‘what is ensouled is distinguished from what it unensouled by living (DA 431a20–22; cf. DA 412a13, 423a20–6; De Part. An. 687a24–690a10; Met. 1075a16–25). It is appropriate, then, to treat all ensouled bodies in hylomorphic terms:   The soul is the cause and source of the living body. But cause and source are meant in many ways [or are homonymous]. Similarly, the soul is a cause in accordance with the ways delineated, which are three: it is (i) the cause as the source of motion [=the efficient cause], (ii) that for the sake of which [=the final cause], and (iii) as the substance of ensouled bodies. That it is a cause as substance is clear, for substance is the cause of being for all things, and for living things, being is life, and the soul is also the cause and source of life. (DA 415b8–14; cf. PN 467b12–25, Phys. 255A56–10)” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Aristotle.

9"The antelope perceives the approaching lion, and runs away. The antelope is tackled by the lion, and falls over. Running away is something an antelope does while falling over is something that happens to him. But if both are equally cases of the antelope's movements being determined by alien causes, where does the difference lie?" Korsgaard, 91.

10"When an animal acts, he is determined by his form, by his instincts, to produce a change in the world, guided by his conception or representation of the world. But an animal’s form is what give him his identity, what makes him the animal he is. So to say that an animal's form determines him to cause a certain effect is to say that the animal determines himself to be the cause of that effect.  Action is self-determination, and, to that extent, it is autonomous.  ... Autonomy and efficacy are the properties of agents -- all agents, not just human agents." Korsgaard, 107.

11“ In other words: to look at an object is to inhabit it, and from this habitation to grasp all things in terms of the aspect which they present to it. But in so far as I see those things too, they remain abodes open to my gaze, and, being potentially lodged in them, I already perceive from various angles the central object of my present vision. Thus every object is the mirror of all others. When I look at the lamp on my table, I attribute to it not only the qualities visible from where I am, but also those which the chimney, the walls, the table can ‘see’; but back of my lamp is nothing but the face which it ‘shows’ to the chimney. I can therefore see an object in so far as objects form a system or a world, and in so far as each one treats the others round it as spectators of its hidden aspects and as guarantee of the permanence of those aspects.” Korsgaard, 79.

12“The thing, and the world, are given to me along with the parts of my body ... in a living connection comparable, or rather identical, with that existing between the parts of my body itself. External perception and the perception of one’s own body vary in conjunction because they are the two facets of one and the same act.” (237) “ ... it is literally the same thing to perceive one single marble, and to use two fingers as one single organ.” Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 238. All further references for Merleau-Ponty refer to this book.

13“... every perceptual habit is still a motor habit and here equally the process of grasping a meaning is performed by the body.” Merleau-Ponty, 176-177.

14“Movement, understood not as objective movement and transference in space, but as a project towards movement or ‘potential movement’ forms the basis for the unity of the senses.” Merleau-Ponty, 272.

15“The natural world is the horizon of all horizons, the style of all possible styles, which guarantees for my experiences a given, not a willed, unity underlying all the disruptions of my personal and historical life. Its counterpart within me is the given, general and pre-personal existence of my sensory functions in which we have discovered the definition of the body.” Merleau-Ponty, 238.

16“In short, what is living the unity of the object or the subject, if it is not making it?” Merleau-Ponty, 278.

17“It is because it is a preobjective view that being-in-the-world can be distinguished from every third person process, from every modality of the res extensa, as from every cogitatio, from every first person form of knowledge—and that it can effect the union of the ‘psychic’ and the ‘physiological’.” Merleau-Ponty, 92.

18“If then we want reflection to maintain, in the object on which it bears, its descriptive characteristics, and thoroughly to understand that object, we must not consider it as a mere return to a universal reason and see it as anticipated in unreflective experience, we must regard it as a creative operation which itself participates in the facticity of that experience. That is why phenomenology, alone of all philosophies, talks about a transcendental field. This word indicates that reflection never holds, arrayed and objectified before its gaze, the whole world and the plurality of monads, and that its view is never other than partial and of limited power. It is also why phenomenology is phenomenology, that is, a study of the advent of being to consciousness, instead of presuming its possibility as given in advance.” Merleau-Ponty, 71.

19Although he refers to intellectualism hundreds of times, I can find nowhere that Merleau-Ponty gives an explicit definition of the term. A passage from The Stanford Encyclopedia may help:

“In The Phenomenology of Perception, he claims that the idea of sensation plays an analogous role in both objectivist and intellectualist conceptions of perception." If atomic sensation, elsewhere he refers to them as "a wondering troupe of sensations," is accepted as the basic given of perception, then in order to move from it to the perception of things, we need to employ either ‘the laws of association’, or a ‘theory of attention or of judgment’, in order to give those sensations a unity. Such an initial starting point is by no means given to us by experience, since there is no experience of a lone sensation. Rather this view is imposed on us by the assumption that the body is a mechanical system, affected by the "external" world of which it is a part. Merleau-Ponty contests the idea that perception is a process by which the "external world" is somehow imprinted on the subject. According to him, perception is a behavior effected not by consciousness but by the body, but not by the body as a piece of the physical world, rather by the body as lived, a living body. He refers us to both the experience of our body considered in relationship to scientific knowledge, that is, the objective body, and the "other knowledge which we have of it, in virtue of its always being with us. And of the fact that we are our body" (PP, 206). For this "other knowledge," the world is not a spectacle with the body as an observer; rather the world is given as a system of possibilities, not as an "I think" but as an "I can." The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Merleau-Ponty.

20“But—to say nothing at this stage about external objects—our own body acquaints us with a species of unity which is not a matter of subsumption under a law.” Merleau-Ponty, 173.

21The ideas in the next few pages are brief summaries of approaches I have developed in more length in previous papers. On the relation of an organism to its world, for instance see my “What, if Anything, is Represented? Objects in their Worlds” 1992

22For further elaboration, see my “A Brief History of Mind“ 2006

23See my What Makes Us Essentially Different? 2007

24On the relationship of selfhood to responsibility, see my Constructing Responsibility 2009