Body and Mind Seminar Fall 2020 with Professor Michael Puett, Harvard University | Souls, Spirits, and Other Stuff: Thinking about the Mind and Body from a Comparative Perspective

Written by Alba Curry and Ryan Harte

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the third meeting of the Body and Mind Seminar. We would also like to thank Professor Michael Puett for his talk, titled “Souls, Spirits, and Other Stuff: Thinking about the Mind and Body from a Comparative Perspective.” Puett began by noting that when it comes to entrenched issues like mind-body dualism, thinkers of many stripes have turned to China as a resource. Some treat China as “the Great Other,” suggesting that the lack of clear mind-body dualism is responsible for China’s underdevelopment, compared to the West, on issues from scientific development to democracy. On the other hand, “the Romantic view” sees China’s lack of dualism as a positive, a sign of enlightenment and a resource to heal the cracks of Western modernity. According to Puett, both camps juxtapose China and the West on an issue whose terms and parameters are already set by modern Westerners. His underlying thesis was that a more fruitful and interesting comparative method is to search for comparable problematics or situations in each culture, thus avoiding projecting schemata from one culture onto another. This is especially true in the case of mind-body dualism, which, even when we preserve the Western framing, is present in some early Chinese sources, absent in others, and blurred or complicated by still more sources.

Puett centered his talk around an anthropological discussion of death in early China. The body’s “spirit” (shen 神) is a kind of energy constantly at risk of leaking out into the external world and is preserved through a variety of self-cultivation techniques. Upon death, the shen leaves the body and floats upward, growing more distant from human affairs. Other parts of the person, however, linger and have the name “ghosts” or “demons” (gui 鬼). These gui harbor resentment towards the living and can inflict serious harm on us, especially as they are unrestrained by the norms and entanglements of human society. These “ghosts” can be avoided by properly entombing their bodies with all due respect and regalia from life, binding them inside to keep their distance from the living. “Spirits,” on the other hand, are to be brought close, sometimes even channeled and hosted in the bodies of the living, reworking their roles in the family and society and thus neutralizing harmful and demonic intent.

Interestingly, Puett pointed out that all this talk of spirits, ghosts, and bodies actually disrupts Western mind-body dualism. Neither the shen nor the gui are equivalent to the “mind,” which is instead to be found in the xin 心 or “heart-mind.” In other words, while in most Western accounts the mind is the immaterial part of the person, correlated with the spirit or soul, in Chinese accounts the mind is very much one of the physical organs. The “heart-mind” and the other organs of the body are all used together in the regulation and preservation of “spirit”, such that questions of dualism do not readily apply. Far better, Puett suggested, is to think of the human being as a complex site of interactions and movements of energies both within and without the limits of the physical body. The distinctions modern Westerners might make between mind and body or material and immaterial are categories we superimpose on the Chinese sources, which are not concerned with such categories but rather with figuring out how to live in political-social harmony (e.g., how to properly treat the dead so as to not endanger the living). Such an understanding has comparative implications: for example, how do debates about mind-body dualism in ancient Greece change if we consider things like souls and bodies from a ritualistic perspective? By treating the mind and body as facets of a more complex social problematic (viz., how to live in social harmony) rather than as a conceptually isolated philosophical puzzle, we might radically alter the very terms of the debate even in Western materials.

Puett’s talk elicited several questions with compelling back-and-forths. One question turned on Puett’s use of Descartes as the archetypal mind-body dualist, asking how Descartes’ philosophical commitments to realism and objective truth fit into anthropological practice. Another question followed up on Puett’s mention of the Mohist philosophical tradition, which generally aims at objective knowledge about the world insofar as the world is external to and separate from human beings—an apparent contrast with Puett’s point about the human being existing in a state of constant circulation with the world. Other questions touched on the spirit and mind in relation to non-human animals as well as whether or not the negative, demonic energies of “ghosts” can be cultivated and used against someone.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Body and Mind Seminar Series. Questions of how our bodies relate to our minds and spirits are of central importance to several disciplines and are becoming an important focus of study in several areas of Classics. This fall semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies in conceptualizing perspectives on the body and its relation to the mind, soul, or spirit in the ancient Mediterranean. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, the history of sport, epic, gender medicine, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to for more details about the series schedule.