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Clarifying the Second Somatic Revolution: From the Freudian Unconscious to Dynamic Embodiment

Charles R. Varela


This paper originated in a presentation to a graduate seminar in the anthropology of human movement at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the spring of 2016. The students had already read "The Second Somatic Revolution" (Farnell and Varela 2008), which has two themes: Part I summarizes the paradigm of "dynamic embodiment," and Part II presents a theory of semiosis as multisensory. This paper builds on that foundation to examine further the scientific presuppositions of the theory of dynamic embodiment.

     The term 'dynamic' is a technical term in the philosophy of science, specifically, the science of physics. Dynamics is the science of the causes of motion. Alternatively, for this paper especially, it is the analysis of the causal powers of interacting physical bodies (Harré 1993: 24). The key principle of such interaction is as follows: independent of the other body in the interaction, the power of each body drives the body in the work being done. And the power driving each body is the power of the body itself: agency belongs to a body as a whole. I have deliberately taken the term 'dynamic' from Rom Harré's work in the history of physics termed 'the dynamic theory of matter,' which interprets the debate over the nature of matter in terms of material particles or causal powers (see Varela 2009: 267–92). In the context of that debate, 'dynamic' refers strictly to the key property of matter—agency. 'Agency' itself refers to 'causal powers' or, alternatively, 'powerful particulars' (in ordinary discourse: "the forces of nature"). For Harré and me as social scientists, 'dynamic' is a reference to 'agency' as the causal power of matter and of human beings. This expressly indicates that the traditional notion of 'free will,' with its otherworldly references in religion, philosophy, and common sense, has been replaced. This material grounding for human agency is of cardinal importance for its special relationship to the role of the human 'body' in the process of living a meaningful social way of life. However, as we shall see, the message of this paper is that agency is to be strictly assigned only to the human being, the whole person, and never to the body or any of its parts. Generally, the scientific presuppositions to be examined here will be the causal forces of interacting human physical bodies.

     Our central question involves the relationship between the aforementioned 'dynamic theory of matter' and the 'dynamic theory of embodiment' articulated by Farnell and me. I begin with the point already alluded to in the opening paragraph, but with a difference: the dynamic theory of embodiment necessarily presupposes the dynamic theory of matter. The suggestion is that, as material beings, human beings are one kind of 'powerful particular' and that being human is the deployment of human agency. Again, but with a difference: dynamic embodiment theory presumes that human agency is properly assigned to the person but never to parts of the body, for example, not the brain (neuroscience), not the unconscious (structural theory in psychology and anthropology, as in Freud, Jung, Lacan, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss), not the cognitive (cognitive science), and not evolutionary cognitive structures (evolutionary psychology).

The Second Somatic Revolution: Two Parts, Four Theses

Thesis One

     Part I of "The Second Somatic Revolution" (hereafter SSR) examines Suzanne K. Langer's (1957) observations of human movement (Farnell and Varela 2008: 217). Our focus is on Williams's and Farnell's understanding that 1. human action is the causal activity of human beings; 2. human action is, therefore, human agency at work; and 3. the work of agency is a material act. In view of this fact that human agency is a material act, we can state 4. human material action is the causal activity of human movement, and not simply any kind of 'matter in motion,' nor even 'organisms moving.'

Thesis Two

     The materiality of human agency and the level of structural complexity of human beings are, therefore, more than just physical being. This critical understanding prevents us leaving human being at a level of immaturity, that is, as a presocialized/preenculturated organism. The special significance of the theory of dynamic embodiment is that physical being is moving being, that is, the movements of human beings at maturity, as socialized and enculturated persons. Personhood is social.

Thesis Three

     Dynamic embodiment theory stresses the special importance of the bodily movements of persons (including manual and vocal gestures as 'talk'). As the primary act of meaning making and communication, human movement is 1. linguistically tied (Williams 1975) and an interactive discursive process (Farnell 2012); 2. as such, it is the mechanism(s) for signification (semiosis). Personal agency is, therefore, manifest in the human movement of the signifying person, and 3. human movement is human freedom (a dynamically embodied version of Kant's idea that 'freedom is a kind of free motion' [Varela 2009: 294]).

Thesis Four

     In Part II of SSR, we proceeded to a theory of semiosis as a multisensory process. Building upon Thesis Three, it follows theoretically that the somatic (that is, physical being) must also be capable of being semantic (that is, making meaning), and its corollary, that the semantic must be capable of being located in the somatic.

Science and the Dynamic Theory of Embodiment: The Question

The specific question for this paper arose from the students' reading of SSR and from my classroom presentation to explicate it: Why does the theory of dynamic embodiment require a conception of causal powers? Taking Theses One, Two, and Three together, we can see three interrelated reasons: 1. human movement is natural; 2. human freedom is natural. To explicate the third reason requires refining the question; however, the gist can be given in the example of Freud's theory of the unconscious, which makes a theory of dynamic embodiment impossible, of which more later.

     The premise that 'the freedom of human movement is natural' intensifies the question as to why the theory of causal powers is necessary. In arguing that causal power is agency, the theory also argues that the natural world is a world of different kinds of agency, and human freedom is one kind. This view of nature and the varieties of causal agency at work allows us to override the point of view of naturalistic social science, whose adherence to determinism prevented the emergence of a dynamic theory of embodiment. First, that view regards deterministic laws to be uniform across different kinds of entities or objects at different levels of complexity making up the natural world. Second, the laws themselves are taken to refer to the real nature of entities or objects, their essence; ultimately, that essence or nature of all and any entities or objects comes down to being the physical world of matter. This position promotes the principle that scientific laws are reductionist. In other words, all simple-to-complex forms of natural material agency in the world are to be explained according to the reductionist rule of simplification. For theory to run from the simple explaining the complex, there must be a reduction of the complex to the simple—for example, the cultural to the social to the psychological to the biological to the physical.

     The concept of law and this principle of simplification/reductionism can be traced to the central idea, inherited from the eighteenth century, that nature is a machine, composed of material bodies governed by deterministic laws. The laws are deterministic because they are exceptionless—if there is a cause, there will be an effect, so, for example, dynamite will explode, if detonated (ceteris paribus: as long as other causes don't interfere).

     This view of science grounded, informed, and directed the emergence and development of what became naturalistic social science starting in the late eighteenth century. Within a social science such as psychology, for instance, behaviorism and, most importantly, psychoanalysis presumed that human beings are natural beings; that is, the logic of the form and function of human beings is that of the logic of the form and function of machines. However, there is a critical difference between the two: in behaviorism, science entails a positivist explanation in terms of laws of correlated events; in Freud's psychoanalytic theory, science requires a realist explanation in terms of causal powers. For the purposes of this paper, we can, therefore, omit behaviorism from the discussion. On the one hand, although deterministic in its theories of behavioral conditioning, as a positivist science, behaviorism denied causation and agency. (Farnell and Varela 2008: 219–20). On the other hand, it has been argued by certain psychoanalytic theorists that behaviorism and Freudian psychoanalysis ultimately converge on a conception of a mechanical body. The human body is constituted by a nervous system that is a machine. In the Freudian case, then, although his central theory is that of the unconscious mind, the unconscious is ultimately a theory of the human body. For Freud, that is, in the beginning is the body.

     However, the crucial point about the Freudian body is that what is actually referenced by the theory is not the human body (as embodied person) but the human organism. In neither Descartes's dualistic theory of a free mind and a deterministic body nor Freud's version of that dualism is there any understanding of the distinction between the organism and the body (Thesis Two). If the body is reduced to the organism, then the organism as a machine determines the mind of a person. Alternatively, if the body is not reduced to the organism, it is not a machine but a systemic resource for action, and the person resorts to the organism's resources in using the body to signify and thus communicate.

     It is of major importance, then, to understand that Freud's theory of the unconscious body in terms of a system in which 'the organism causes the mind' is the model that grounds and informs the heirs to psychoanalysis that began appearing in the 1950s—cognitive science, sociobiology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology. In its function as the original model of science as the deterministic/reductionistic theorizing of the unconscious mind as the organic body, Freud's scientific realist theory of organism/mind became the paradigm theory for naturalistic social science.

     From this consideration of the significance of Freud's theory of the unconscious, and especially its paradigmatic significance for the naturalistic social sciences of yesterday and today (Freud's heirs), we now have a basis for addressing the third reason as to why the dynamic theory of embodiment requires a conception of causal powers. We have seen that the gist of the third reason is that, given Freudian theory, a dynamic theory is impossible. Now we can identify the substance of the impossibility: the Freudian thesis of the determinism of human movement when aligned with Farnell's thesis of the freedom of human movement is conceptually a strict self-contradiction. "Strict" is the operative word: you can have a conception of a circle or a square, but what you cannot have is a conception of a square circle. And, as we well know from experience, a self-contradictory conception self-destructs: for example, a young man is convicted in a court of law for the murder of an adult man and woman; he shocks the jury with his plea for mercy in virtue of the fact that he is an orphan; however, the adults he murdered were his parents! Likewise, the conception of human movement as the freedom of personal agency self-destructs in Freud's schema. Consider the following: if movement is both free and causal in Freud's theory, it is, therefore, somehow free but determined. Alternatively put, freedom is forced choice. This is not any given 'choice' that may be forced and some other choice that may not; this is a case of any choice that is made will always be a choice that appears to be free (of being forced) but, in reality, is always determined by some 'hidden' force (that is, the unconscious mind). This self-contradiction when it comes to human movement follows directly from Freud's theory of the unconscious/"body" reduced to the organism.

     From the entire discussion thus far, it should be clear that to defeat a claim that dynamic embodiment necessarily self-destructs in this way requires a causal powers theory that will be relevant to human beings, that is, the person, and not to human organisms. And such a theory is well in hand. Further analysis from the perspective of Harré's philosophy of science reveals that Freud's theory of embodiment (unconscious/body) is a failure in two ways: it fails both as a theory of mind as causal power and as a theory of the body as a causal power. For the purposes of this paper, we will examine only the second failure.

     Keeping in mind the idea that a scientific law describes the power by which, as a force, a body does its work of persistence (physical objects), survival (biological organisms), and existence (human beings), we can ask what kind of a power Freud was specifically thinking with in his theory of an unconscious mind determined by the machinery of the human organism. As we shall see, for Freud, the human organism was a nervous system structured to function as a reflex/instinctive machine.

Freudian Embodiment: Evolution of Instinct to Intelligence

In being a theory of the body in disguise, the Freudian theory of the unconscious entails, first of all, a Newtonian body and then a Darwinian organism. We will consider each of these influences in turn.

     The significance of Newton's sovereign law of matter (inertia) is that it defines the essential nature of all material things—bodies at all levels of complexity, from subatomic particles to human beings. In Freudian theorizing, however, the energy of physical bodies becomes the instinct of organisms, which becomes the motives of mind, which becomes the meanings of the conscious person in his/her dreams, symptoms, and slips of the tongue. The idea threading through all these conceptual levels is power becoming force as drive. The power by which a body works is the force of the energy that drives the body. It becomes imperative to understand that, until recently, the standard view of the concept of 'drive' in philosophy and the social sciences has been that matter is both mindless and inert. That is, matter is intelligible, not intelligent; inertia is inanimate matter, dead not alive. Hence, inertia has meant inertness.1

     From this misreading of Newton's principle that inertia is inertness comes the conception that any kind of body is necessarily passive due to its nature as an inertial body, so it must be made to display activity—driven—by the force of other bodies. And what happens in psychological science? Just as bodies are forced to move, human beings are forced to choose. The very principle of inertia as inertness and the fact that the mind is the body (as a neural physiological system) provide the means for the idea of an unconscious. For Freudian theory, then, human free choice is a conscious appearance behind which is the unconscious reality of forced choice. Freud understood this perfectly in his classic realist argument for the existence of 'the unconscious' in which he presumed the appearance/reality format and the cause/effect law in the structure of the argument as follows: if you want to understand the fact of light, a theory of photons is required; the fact of electricity, a theory of electrons; the fact of phenotype, a theory of the genotype; likewise, to explain consciousness, a theory of the unconscious will be necessary.

     Here are two classic statements of the profound importance of the traditional view of Newton's first law for the social sciences:

Hence, no sooner was the conception of inert bodies passively following the dictates of blind forces seen to be applicable [by Newton] to the motion of mass-points, than it was immediately generalized into a world-philosophy. (Singer 1959: 294, cited in Holt 1989; the second emphasis is added).


It was commonly assumed that science decisively triumphed . . . and that a complete materialistic account of the external world was nearly at hand. But how was man to conceptualize that other pole of experience—the self. There seemed no place in the material world, with its endless antecedent causes for . . . the agency of the self. The paradox was apparent to all. There was no agreed upon way of resolving it. (Kerr 1993: 6, emphasis provided).

However, in fact, there has been an important mistake in the reading of Newton's law of inertia. The truth of the matter is that inertia references the powers and, hence, the agency of matter. We can see this from examining the following statements by Kant, Newton, and Harré on inertia, as they clearly present that essential truth of matter, which "occupies a commanding position among the laws of nature" (Harré 1993: 24).

The moving forces of matter are powers, either purely dynamic or mechanical. The latter are based on the former. (Kant 1985: 58, emphasis provided)


All bodies are movable, and endowed with certain powers (which we call the inertia) of preserving in their motion. (Newton cited in Cohen and Westfall 1995: 117)


Vis insita [innate force] is the power to persevere in a present state . . . and it is exerted only when another body tries to change its condition [of motion or rest]. So in the absence of that other body, that power drives the body forward or maintains it at rest. . . . The point of the First Law is that in the case of inertial motion, nothing is moving the mover [if other forces are not]. (Harré 1993: 23–24)

Let us consider the significant difference between physical and biological bodies, that is, bodies in motion moving here and there because other bodies have to force them to so move, and bodies which, in moving here and there, are moving about by themselves, so that no other bodies have to force them to so move. Observe that the difference between the two ways of stating the "motion" or "movement" of bodies parallels the contrast between the mistaken reading that 'inertia' in Newton's first law means 'inertness' and the correct reading that 'inertia' means agency. Although, in the first case, it is true that the bodies in motion are physical and not the organic bodies of the second case, in both cases we have the physical and the biological particulars of agents, although at radically different levels of complexity (especially if we decide that the organisms in the second case are not amoeba but Homo sapiens sapiens!) How are we to clarify this difference satisfactorily? Perhaps we can do so by considering the most far-reaching instructive example of the truth of Newton's first law of inertia—Harré's brilliant image of a man on horseback at full gallop throwing up a spear out in front of him and catching it on the dead run. The point of the example is that the power of the natural driving force of objects, independent of the complexity level of any driving object, is a general statement that leaves open the material object and its constituting structure and dynamics that will specify the kind of movement that the object can perform along its rectilinear line of motion. It may be a pebble being itself, an amoeba on the move, a chimp jumping further out on a limb, or, indeed, a man on horseback catching . . . whatever.

     When Harré asserts, "If a thing . . . cannot move about then perhaps it is not a person" (1993: 216), it should be clear that the word "cannot" in the sentence implies the words, "by itself," and also, since "a thing" implies "as a human being," "by itself" must mean that such a being deploys power as its own agency. The twin properties of human agency are the authorship of power and, therefore, the authority of personhood. The authority of the person is the authorship by which you perform the work of your life with others. In short, the feeling of confidence in your authorship flows from the achievement of competence.

     Freud's Newtonian body is deterministic: in other words, the power of causation in physical bodies is deterministic. Freud then looks to Darwinian theory for a complementary determinism for biological organisms. He has the example of biological determinism in lower animal forms such as ants but acknowledges that this cannot apply to human beings. As Heinz Hartmann (1959: chapter 1) has pointed out, Freud transforms the 'instinct' of lower animals into human 'drives' (trieb). To retain the determinism involved, Freud uses the term "instinctive drive." Freud, therefore, sought to discover the nature of human instincts and was, in fact, searching for a theory of instinct throughout his entire career. This has, to my knowledge, not been properly understood as the deep logic of Freud's monumental scientific ambition. His concept of "instinctive drive" is certainly universally acknowledged, but it is the second part of the concept that is often emphasized, not the first.2 So, we have the problematic proposition that trieb is either a noninstinctive deterministic drive, or it is an instinctive deterministic drive! However, there is an unnoticed alternative: Freud's new concept, 'instinctive drive' as an innate drive. It is deterministic because it is a new kind of instinct whose mechanism is yet to be discovered. In other words, very much like Edward O. Wilson, Freud seems to believe that, as human beings, we are as instinctively driven as ants but on our own biological terms. But what could this mechanism be as a new biological function on the level of Homo sapiens sapiens?

     Having correctly rejected the standard examples of instinct in biology as inapplicable to human beings (for example, in terms of Donald O. Hebb's robust theory of instinctive behavior, for ants, termites, and wasps [see Varela 2003]) Freud, nevertheless, accepted the property of biological determinism belonging to the instinctive behavior of these exemplifying species of insects. Trieb is thus a deterministic drive in need of a human theory of instinct. Freud was forever trying to formulate a human analogue to that property. We can imagine that he did so beginning with the standard biological concept of an organic need as the source of biological drive, and here Freud merely assumed that biological organisms are Cartesian biological machines whose machinery was an evolutionary continuation of the Newtonian idea that the energy of physical objects are the drivers of physical objects, and, therefore, 'energy' simply is a deterministic force. So, for Freud, given organisms as the new form of objects and needs/drives as their new source of generating energy and force, needs/drives must be instincts.

     Freud, in effect, detaches the term 'instinct' and takes it to mean the Newtonian unit for energy, now upgraded to the level of biological organisms. Thus, we have a seamless transition in material being from physical objects to biological objects. Organisms are still objects, but the subtle and truly profound shift in the kind of agency involved is ignored. That is, the shift from physical things that are 'forced into this or that different motion' to an organism's 'movement this way or that by itself' is absent. The deeper reality from which Freud is working here is the 'deterministic energy' of a physical 'object'—the fundamental concept that retains its real sovereign agency against what is taken to be the mere appearance of the qualitative illusion of a new kind of agency, that of an organism. And all this emerges in the guise of Freud's well-known concept of 'instinctive drive.'

     We can proceed to challenge this concept of instinctive drive using Donald O. Hebb's concept of instinctive behavior (see Varela 2003). Hebb's theory distinguishes between concepts of instinctive behavior and symbolic intelligence. The neurophysiological fact of the radically different organization of the brains of ants and humans over relevant evolutionary time provides the explanation of their radically different kinds of behavior. The fact of the matter is that symbolic intelligence has replaced instinctive intelligence, the significance of which is that to expect the structure of the human brain to function instinctively is a theoretical self-contradiction (ibid., 105–15). Hebb's theory of instinct and intelligence allows us to see that Freud mistakenly conflated 'instinct' and 'drive.' Nevertheless, the conflation served to preserve Freud's commitment to Newtonian determinism and its continuation in Darwin's theory of natural selection.

     The concept of the unconscious turns out to be continuous with Darwin's concept of natural selection. Indeed, I submit that Freud's "the unconscious" is his theory of natural selection for the social sciences: it is a deterministic mechanism that makes selections of judgment and behavior that furthers the adaptation of the organism to an environment of stress and conflict. However, the true point of this submission is that Freud had only the ghost of an idea for the fact of a human instinct that merely promoted his endless search for a proper way to theorize it. We certainly see this in the three principle candidates for Freud's concept of instinctive drive; namely, infantile sexuality, the Oedipal complex, and the unconscious. In a nutshell, we now have the upshot of Freud's instinct "theory" in relation to Farnell's dynamic embodiment theory: the human agency of Freudian bodies is not freedom, whereas the human agency of Farnell's bodies is freedom. The evolutionary neurological reason is that 'it just ain't human nature to be instinctive.'

     In sum, the deterministic thread that connects Newton, Darwin, and Freud is the transformation of physical energy into a biological instinct/reflex machine that generates needs/drives, thence into the psychological logistics of motive/meaning making that shows up in such human acts as slips of the tongue, dreams, and symptoms. When human movement is subject to the language of Freudian theory, dancing bodies such as Langer describes are Newtonian bodies in motion and reductively not even Darwinian organisms moving (for example, amoeba going after planted items in a petri dish). We can see this by comparing a statement by Freud and a statement by Harré that reveals the expected theoretical incompatibility between their two descriptions of human social relations:


It is a remarkable fact that the unconscious of one human being can react upon that of another, without the conscious [of either] being implicated at all. (Cited in Varela 1995: 376)



The conversational world [of embodied persons] like the physical world evolves under the influence of real powers and forces, dispositional properties of the utterances that are the real substrate of all interchanges. (Mühlhäusler and Harré 1990: 24)

     Freud improperly locates human agency: human bodies are merely the vehicle for the deterministic interaction of the unconscious agency of each body. In contrast, Harré properly locates human agency: embodied persons are the agents of their interactional worlds of conversation. This judgment of the improper and proper assignments of human agency is principled: it is grounded in Hebb's evolutionary theory of the neurological replacement of instinctive behavior by the intelligence of Homo sapiens sapiens, wherein human movement for the creation of conversational discourses (semiosis) is the mechanism of freedom. Is it any wonder, then, that Harré once remarked that human conversation is the mockery of the very idea of determinism? Thanks to Hebb, his understanding of that fact is perhaps deeper than he realized.


1 Sociologist Auguste Comte's first stage of the evolution of mind is a clear influence here. For him, gods, soul, spirit, and will as "the phantoms of metaphysics" define the scientific enemy, animism. It has, of course, been said that, when, in the nineteenth century, psychology denied its long history as philosophy and began its short history as science, psychology lost its soul.

2 Nevertheless, Hartmann, among other prominent psychoanalytic theorists, has maintained that Freud was an unregenerate determinist. At the same time, other students, (for example, Yankelovich and Barrett 1970) have counterargued that Freud was an instinct theorist, not a drive (without instinct) theorist, and praised him for it.

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