Conceptualisation of the Body in ‘Disability’


According to a view derived from the philosopher Descartes, persons are composed of separable minds and bodies. It is claimed that modern medicine itself is strongly influenced by this Cartesian picture of the human person, and when it is applied to the phenomenon of disablement, this generates a specific conception of disability. Thus, when applied to physical disabilities, the Cartesian view implies that the internal, mental component of the person is unaffected by these; thus, it may be claimed that the real person is ‘housed’ or ‘imprisoned’ by their disabled body. In addition, when thinking about intellectual disabilities, the Cartesian view implies that although the body is intact, the mental component of the person is unable to ‘instruct’ the body correctly.

Key Concepts

  • Cartesian view of the person: human beings are composed of two distinct substances: a mental substance, or mind, and a physical substance, or body.
  • Cartesian conception of disability: a way of conceiving of disability which derives from the Cartesian view of the person.
  • Merleau‐Pontian view of the person: it is a mistake to think of persons as either wholly physical things or composed of distinct mental and physical parts. Rather, the person is a unity in which mental and physical aspects are inextricably intertwined.
  • Merleau‐Pontian conception of disability: a way of conceiving of disability which derives from the Merleau‐Pontian view of the person.

Keywords: disability; Descartes; mind; body; Merleau‐Ponty


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Further Reading

Bauby J‐D (1997) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. London, UK: Fourth Estate.

Davis LJ (ed) (1997) The Disability Studies Reader. London, UK: Routledge.

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Merleau‐Ponty M (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception, translated by C Smith. London, UK: Routledge.

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Zaner RM (1971) The Problem of Embodiment, Some Contributions to a Phenomenology of the Body, 2nd edn. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

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Edwards, Steven D(Mar 2017) Conceptualisation of the Body in ‘Disability’. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005937.pub2]