Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement | Vol. 23 No. 2 / Vol. 24 No. 1 | BRENDA FARNELL: Editorial Introduction

       Printer-friendly format  Article citation        


Editorial Introduction

Brenda Farnell

This special issue of JASHM presents two papers by Charles R. Varela and one coauthored with Brenda Farnell, which collectively provide JASHM readers with a detailed account of precisely why theoretical resources from the philosophy of science are necessary to ground significant developments in an anthropology of human movement.

     The papers collectively articulate the concept of 'dynamic embodiment': a theory of moving personhood for the social sciences. The approach is deeply informed by Rom Harré's contributions to 'causal powers' theory, the core feature of his 'new realist' philosophy of science, and its application to the social sciences. It was Drid Williams who, in the 1970s, first recognized the significance of Harré's work on causal powers for a theory of body movement. In developing 'semasiology,' her Saussurean-inspired semiotic theory for an anthropology of human movement (see Williams 1975, 1982), she showed us how the dynamics of persons using their bodies to engage in signification is a profound manifestation of human agency and, therefore, of our human freedom to act. These papers expand and deepen Williams's important insight.

     Farnell and Varela maintain that causal powers theory is necessary to provide adequate theoretical grounding for the embodiment of the social sciences: a fundamental requirement if the (re)discovery of 'the body' since the 1970s means that active people as dynamically embodied persons are to constitute the heart of social theory.

     We take the position that, "after postmodernism" (Lopez and Potter 2001), it is appropriate to recover some adequate theoretical grounding for the social sciences. Without this, we remain prone to mislocating human agentic powers for reasons similar to those found in a variety of earlier theoretical constructs such as Durkheim's social structure, Bourdieu's habitus, or Freud's unconscious. This matters because, unless we are clear about where and how the power to move and live our complex multileveled human lives is generated, we remain prone to repeat the errors of our predecessors. This special issue of JASHM supports our belief that a full understanding of these issues and their consequences will empower students of the anthropology of human movement to avoid the kinds of errors that stem from the mislocation of human agency (see Farnell 2012).

     For many readers, the term 'cause' will conjure up an image of necessity or determinism. Everyday discourses lead us to think that 'causes' link to 'effects,' so they determine outcomes. This is not the case with the concept of 'causal powers,' however. In our context, 'cause' refers instead to the intrinsic power to generate, which locates agency of all kinds in different levels of physical, chemical, and biological realms, including human beings. The type of agency and power capable of being generated varies given the structural properties of the entities under consideration. Recovering human agency as one of this variety of causally empowered 'natural kinds' in the world, enables us to show how it is our materially grounded, corporeal or physical being that makes possible cultural being, thereby enabling a concept of personhood that is simultaneously bio–psycho–social.

     This metatheoretical move allows us to resolve a long-standing problematic material/nonmaterial dualism in Western (that is, European and derived) thought and radically revise the persistent Platonic–Cartesian notion of person that underlies the metaphysical separation of 'person' into (material) body and (nonmaterial) mind.

     The issue begins with a paper by Farnell and Varela, "The Second Somatic Revolution" an earlier version of which was published in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior (Farnell and Varela 2008). Part 1 presents a general framework for "a paradigm of dynamic embodiment" as an enrichment of theories of embodiment proposed by Michael Jackson (1983) and Thomas Csordas (1990), both of which privilege the phenomenological approach to the body espoused by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Part II applies the paradigm of dynamic embodiment ethnographically to illustrate how it facilitates a robust conception of human multisensory modalities that bring together apparently contrasting concepts such as semiosis (meaning making) and somatics (bodily knowledge).

     The second contribution, "Clarifying the Second Somatic Revolution: From the Freudian Unconscious to Dynamic Embodiment," is a new paper by Charles Varela. It builds on the foundation of "The Second Somatic Revolution" to examine further the scientific presuppositions of the theory of dynamic embodiment. In it, he articulates the relationship between the 'dynamic theory of matter' in physics and the 'dynamic theory of embodiment.' Positioning the Freudian unconscious as a theory of the body surprises us at first, since we are familiar with Freud as a theorist of the mind. However, Varela demonstrates how Freud's scientific commitment to biology meant that he believed his theories of the mind would have a neurological reality and so be part of a broader theory of the body as a whole. Varela spells out in detail how Freud paints himself into a theoretical corner because he then has to rely on some kind of determining mechanism such as instincts, which as Donald Hebb (1958) has shown, is just not plausible for human beings. To hypothesize that the human brain can produce an instinctive function (like spiders building webs) becomes a theoretical self-contradiction because the human brain is simply not structured that way.

     The first two papers thus complement and enrich each other by providing further details of how the theory of dynamic embodiment informs an anthropology of human movement and embodied personhood. The final paper, "Determinism and the Recovery of Human Agency: The Embodying of Persons," also by Charles Varela, provides the reader with additional information about the location of human agency as a problem for embodying the social sciences. Varela compares two conflicting theories: the sociological theory of Bryan S. Turner and the social psychological theory of human ways of being espoused by Rom Harré. These two theories "conflict in their endeavors to accomplish the recovery of human agency through the embodying of persons." We learn that "Turner's thesis is that in the beginning is the body, therefore, the person; thus, we arrive at his recovery of human agency: the effectiveness of persons in sociocultural life resides in the discourse-independent agency of the bodies of persons." In contrast, "Harré's thesis is that in the beginning is the person, therefore the body; thus, we arrive at his recovery of human agency: the effectiveness of persons in sociocultural life resides in the discursive agency of persons embodied." This paper first appeared in the Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior (Varela 1999). We reprint it here in order to compile for our readers a useful series of resources on this central issue in one location.1


1 Farnell and Varela (2008) and Varela (1999) are reprinted with permission from Wiley Online.

References Cited:

Csordas, Thomas
1990. Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology. Ethos 18: 5–47.

Farnell, Brenda
2012. Dynamic Embodiment for Social Theory: 'I Move therefore I am'. New York: Routledge.

Farnell, Brenda and Charles R. Varela
2008. The Second Somatic Revolution. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 38(3): 215–40.

Hebb, Donald
1958. A Textbook of Psychology. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co.

Jackson, Michael
1983. Thinking through the Body: An Essay on Understanding Metaphor. Social Analysis 14: 126–49. Reprinted in Paths toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism in Ethnographic Inquiry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989: 136–55.

Lopez, José and Gary Potter (eds.)
2001. After Postmodernism: An Introduction to Critical Realism. London: Athlone Press.

Varela, Charles R.
1999. Determinism and the Recovery of Human Agency: The Embodying of Persons. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 29(4): 385–402.

Williams, Drid
1975. The Role of Movement in Selected Symbolic Systems. 2 vols. D. Phil, Oxford University.
1982. 'Semasiology': A Semantic Anthropologist's View of Human Movement and Actions. In Semantic Anthropology (ed. D. Parkin). ASA Monograph 22. London: Academic Press: 161–82.


Content in Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement (ISSN 1940-7610) is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the Journal for the Anthropological Study of Human Movement database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.
© 2016 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Terms and Conditions of Use.