0 0 Colin McGinn Colin McGinn2020-12-30 15:17:212020-12-30 15:17:21Physiological Investigations
- It would be wrong to think that all the organs of the body are pumps. The heart is a pump and it features prominently in our picture of the body, but not every organ resembles the heart. We might be tempted to think that the lungs, stomach, and kidneys are pump-like, but what about the bones, skin, and blood? The organs are like tools in a toolbox: they may look similar but they do very different things. Do they all modify something? That too can be made to fit many cases, but does the skin modify anything, or the eyes? The organs are united by family resemblance not by any shared feature. There are many organs with many functions and modes of operation; we should not try to force them into a single mold. Any more than words should all be assimilated to names.
- We can call the activities of bodily organs “organ games”. They resemble each other much as games do, and they are active like games. They are part of our “form of life”. Organs can also be compared to chess pieces. In the beginning was the deed. Organs have a use, a function: they are like language in this respect. Both are part of our “natural history”. The variety of organs is like the variety of words. Organs are the words of the body, its active components.
- The relationship between organs and their function is not easy to discern or describe. This is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of perception (the organs all look alike and have similar-sounding names). The function is not reducible to the structure, as the author of Tractatus Logico-Physiologicus wrongly supposed. Is the function “contained” in the structure? We can say this, but it is not contained in a “queer” way. What would we say if a heart suddenly stopped beating in its regular manner and instead started beating in a quite different pattern? Would we say it was malfunctioning, or that it always had this function? The case would be like someone unexpectedly giving 5 as the answer to the question “What is the sum of 13 and 278?” The heart simply finds it natural to go on in a certain way without consulting any “interpretation”. Is the function of the heart the same as its possible movements? This is like asking whether the meaning of a word is the same as its possible uses. There is a way the heart is supposed to behave and the way it does behave (normative versus descriptive), but we find it difficult to locate this difference in any discoverable fact. The heart does not beat as it does by following the example of a second invisible heart inside it (a homunculus heart): that would lead to regress and paradox. The function of the heart is “exhibited” in what it does—in its “practice”. A heart could not have the function of beating thus and so if it beat only once.
- There is nothing hidden or queer about the organs of the body. There are no private organs or beetle-like organs concealed inside boxes. Everything is open to view (though the body may need to be literally opened in order to see the organs). There is no elan vital (a “queer process”). We can provide a “perspicuous representation” of the body’s organs. There are no profound physiological problems about the organs, though there may be puzzles (Harvey’s blood circulation theory of the heart was a paradigm of physiology, comparable to Russell’s theory of descriptions). It is a mistake to intellectualize the body, or to view it solely through the lens of geometry (as D’Arcy Thompson did). The organs are parts of the living human creature; and they have ordinary criteria of ascription. We must not “sublime” them, or take them to be part of another layer of human reality. They are no more remarkable than language, which is public, functional, and heterogeneous. There is no “general form of the bodily organ” any more than there is a “general form of the proposition”. The body is like a city built over millennia: here a very old structure (four limbs), there a newer adaptation (a bipedal gait), and here something quite recent (the human larynx). Organs no more perform a unitary function than speech acts do. Nor is there any deeper level of analysis according to which the body is fundamentally uniform. It would be wrong to try to reduce the organs to simple elements (“cells”).
- Physiology can never interfere with the workings of the body—the body is perfectly in order as it is—it can only describe it. Physiology does not operate with an ideal bodily form to which actual bodily forms only approximate; that is a myth resulting from taking the body on holiday. The myth is no more plausible than the myth of an ideal logical language. The distinction between organs can be vague (where does the digestive system begin and end?), but this vagueness does not impede the body’s functioning. A tribe might carve the body up quite differently (literally in some instances), according to their “customs”, “practices” and “form of life”, and it would be pointless to argue with them about it. All organs are equally important: it isn’t that some are vital and perfectly formed while others are dispensable and poorly formed. No one would think that language divides into the superior and the inferior (mathematics versus animal husbandry, say), and it is equally misguided to think the heart and brain are superior to the kidneys and the gall bladder. Each plays its own “organ game” with its own purposes and rules. Physiology can never result in a perfect type of body shorn of all defects: that is a chimera, as mistaken as the idea that language could be replaced by a symbolic calculus. We must resist the urge to think this way by conducting a patient examination of the way the body actually works. Don’t think, look! In the end all we can do is perspicuously describe the way the organs are used. There can be no physiological theory of them, contrary to the author of the Tractatus (the body as a totality of hidden platonic forms). Above all, we must steer between a desiccated machine-like picture of the body and a queer spirit-like picture of the body, viewing the body rather as a family resemblance, form of life, natural history, deed involving, criteria oriented, public, game playing, toolbox type of thing. Back to the rough ground! We must abolish the myth of the “queer physiological process”. We must attend to the body’s “grammar”. We may need “therapy”. Then physiology will finally be able to find peace and let the fly out of the fly-bottle.
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