One of the most highly contested issues in feminist theory today is how to go about the theorization of the body. The debate is generally cast in terms of the distinction between essentialist and constructionist readings of the body. In an essentialist reading, the body is posited in naturalistic terms as having some sort of fixed, unchanging essence. Such a reading of the body is useful for feminists in advocating for and justifying political coalition among women. If “woman” is seen as being a natural kind, on the basis of some “natural” or “biological” essence, then it becomes easy to identify women, and easy also to argue why women should join together in political action to resist the oppression of women as a class.
One problem with such a reading is that defining “woman” in this essentialist way effectively masks (racial, ethnic, age, sexual preference…) differences among women. Another problem is that naturalistic readings of women’s biological make-up have often been used in justification of discriminatory practices, for instance when it is argued that women are “naturally” weaker than men, or “naturally” more nurturing than men, so that they “naturally” should be employed as caretakers rather than in positions requiring bodily strength.
In a constructionist reading of the body, on the other hand, women’s bodies are theorized as being the always-changing product of social practices. Such readings take different forms. A materialist constructionist analysis, for instance, would describe the body as resulting from the work it performs within feudal, capitalist, or socialist social relations. A poststructuralist reading would likely be more linguistic in orientation, focusing on how the body can be talked about only in terms of the meanings we assign to it, meanings dependent on our position within discursive fields. The problem with constructionist readings of the body, from a feminist perspective, is that theorizing the body as containing no fixed essence makes it difficult to decide on what basis one is to form political coalition. If “woman” is not defined biologically and essentially, but rather is seen as a constantly shifting category, on what basis are we to organize to oppose the oppression of “women” – or can we even talk about such a thing?
Recently there have been attempts by feminist theorists to come to some sort of middle ground on this issue, in the form of what has been called a “strategic essentialism.” Such a position often draws on Locke’s distinction between real and nominal essence. Feminists advocating a strategic essentialism reject the idea of any real essence defining “woman” as a natural kind, yet do employ nominal essence as an at least provisional ground from which to organize politically. They accept the necessity for having the linguistic category of “woman” as a way of talking about issues important to feminists, but try also to keep in mind the constantly shifting nature of the meaning of this linguistic sign as well as the constantly-shifting (physical and psychological) identities of the individual women whose lived experience is the referent of the sign “woman.” Despite this useful recognition of the necessary tension between essentialism and constructionism with respect to feminist political action, questions around experience and the body remain stumbling blocks.
I have argued elsewhere that the problem is much feminist theorizing about the body is its reliance on Cartesian theoretical frameworks – the discussion never gets out of the mind-body split. I have argued that feminists may be well served by Chinese or African philosophical systems, or – within the tradition of western philosophy – by pragmatists like James and Dewey or phenomenologists such as Merlue-Ponty – in other words, by theorists who are self-conscious in their attempts to theorize outside of the mind-body dualism. What I would like to do in this essay is to illustrate this point by presenting some principles of the philosophy underlying the practice of Chinese medicine, and talking about ways in which these principles may be read in ways useful for feminists attempting a theorization of the body which avoids the dangers both of essentialism and constructionism, as these have to date been defined.
The western post-Descartes spiritual/material dichotomy is not relevant to Chinese medical thought. Chinese medicine does not differentiate between matter and energy. Chinese medicine is synthetic, organismic, holistic. No bodily part is ever abstracted from the whole. Health is defined as balance (between Yin and Yang) – a qualitative rather than quantitative judgment. What in a western framework are labeled as “diseases” are in the Chinese framework seen as “patterns of disharmony” which describe imbalances in the body/mind/spirit of the patient. Yet “disease” and “patterns of disharmony” are not equivalents for, again, patterns of disharmony cannot, as diseases can, be isolated from the individual in which they occur. As such, Chinese medicine rarely looks further than the patient. Theory is necessary only to guide the physician’s perceptions – the “truth” of ideas lies in the way the physician can use them to treat real people with real complaints.
Chinese and western medical systems constitute two completely different medical perceptual systems – two completely different ways of seeing. While the western physician isolates affected body parts, and analyzes them in terms of theory abstracted from any particular individual, the Chinese physician looks at the whole patient. The “four examinations” in Chinese medicine are: (1) looking, (2) listening and smelling, (3) asking, and (4) touching. Again, the idea is to look at the whole patient, as a way of discerning a pattern of disharmony, a pattern unique to the particular patient.
Underlying this system of medical perception and practice are particular philosophical beliefs about the nature of cause, of knowledge, or truth. The Chinese are not interested in causality but rather in the relationships among bodily events occurring at the same time. As such, the practice of Chinese medicine has a very different temporal character than western medicine. Chinese medicine is more rooted in the present, in the here and now. The western preoccupation with causality necessitates a focus on past and future, in determining a sequence of events. And the abstractions of western medical (and philosophical) categories often seem to exist outside of time and space. They are posited as the view from nowhere and from everywhere, as transhistorical categories that can be uniformly applied to any time or place.