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Musing: Spinoza and Feminism Question the Structures of Domination… Is the Mind-Body Problem a Gender Problem?

Eva Perez de Vega
The New School for Social Research


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Traditional theory on the mind-body problem has been mostly conceptualized by men. The historical debate found its most heated moment in the seventeenth century between René Descartes and Benedict de Spinoza, the first advocating for the superiority of the mind over body and the latter with his characteristically monist view framing the mind and body as one same substance. While it seemed that Descartes had won the debate, developments in neuroscience have been weighing towards the Spinozistic conception, and the feminine perspective had been largely ignored until Simone de Beauvoir published her seminal book in 1949. Feminists since then have had a conflicting relationship with the earlier debates, yet Spinoza’s work, with its materialist framework, seems to be holding steady ground within the contemporary feminist movement. Spinoza’s ontology is, for instance, used as framework to discuss feminism (anarcha-feminism) in Chiara Bottici’s text, “Bodies in Plural: Towards an anarcha-feminist manifesto.” But this reliance on ‘the dead white man’ as a means of passing through feminist issues poses some interesting questions, chief among them whether a white male from the seventeenth century can provide any openings to thinking about women’s issues in the twenty-first century.

In The Second Sex, de Beauvoir writes explicitly about the female body, about the physical cycles it undergoes: menstruation, pain, blood, etc. De Beauvoir’s body is intentionally physical. Her depiction exacerbates the materiality of female bodies, and in so doing brings into relief the dualistic conceptions of men and women. The intensity of the writing illustrates her view that women have been thought of as the non-male—the other—associated with the body, nature and instinct, as opposed to men who were deemed rational, intellectual beings of culture and mind: the creators from which woman is made as a sub-entity. Spinoza’s body challenges this dualism. His is not the same body, or rather, it is not solely a body; it is a body in a broader materialist conception. It is an “eccentric materialism” that exceeds but nonetheless encompasses the physical body (see the work of neuroscientist Antonio Demasio, on Spinoza and on Descartes). For Spinoza, the body and the mind are the same thing, a single substance, looked at from different points of view—extension and thought. As he writes in his Ethics, “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body.” (more…)

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