Publication details [#6666]

Kirmayer, Laurence J. 1988. Mind and body as metaphors: Hidden values in biomedicine. In Lock, Margaret and Deborah Gordon. Biomedicine Examined (Culture, Illness and Healing 13). Dordrecht: Kluwer. pp. 57–94. 38 pp.
Publication type
Article in book  
Publication language
Place, Publisher
Dordrecht: Kluwer


Although Western medicine has often been characterized, and criticized, as dualistic and reductionistic, contemporary biomedical physicians are largely unconcerned with the metaphysical “world-knot” of the mind-body problem. Science seems to be slowly untangling this knot, offering a multitude of empirical correspondances between physiology and behaviour that constrain philosophical speculation. Modern biology explains mindful action as an emergent property of the hierarchical organization of the nervous system. A more sophisticated version of this materialism recognizes that mind and consciousness are not simply functions of the isolated nervous system but can be better understood as emergent properties of social systems, that is, of interactions between many individual organisms (Bateson 1979; Harré 1984). However, biology leaves unexplored an aspect of the mind-body problem that is essentially ethical. This residual mind-body problem occurs because mind and body symbolize contrasting poles in human experience: the voluntary or intentional and the involuntary or accidental. It is because the contrast between willful action and impersonal accident is central to both the private sense of self and the public concept of the person that mind-body dualism persists in Western thinking about morally significant events like sickness and disability.