Entry #0 15.09.2021

Editorial - Spirit is a Bone?

Mathieu Buchler

Illustration by Lynn Klemmer

“When being as such, or thinghood, is predicated of Spirit, the true expression of this is that Spirit is, therefore, the same kind of being that a bone is. It must therefore be regarded as extremely important that the true expression has been found for the bare statement about Spirit–that it is. When in other respects it is said of Spirit that it is, that it has being, is a Thing, a single, separate reality, this is not intended to mean that it is something we can see or take in our hands or touch, and so on, but that is what is said; and what really is said is expressed by saying that the being of Spirit is a bone.” [1]

When Hegel writes this passage in his Phenomenology of Spirit on the subject of phrenological theories emerging in the late 18th and early 19th century, he intends to mark an intimate link between the abstract dimension of the human mind, i.e. of our capacity to indulge in conceptual reasoning, and the fact that all thinking is necessarily embedded, in some shape or form, in a material reality. And this not just in the sense that all thinking is always in some sense about a material world, but rather in the sense that thinking itself has a material dimension. Thinking is, it exists, it has a form, and this in two senses: it is as a plastic process taking place in a spatial world of things which it actively shapes and modulates, and it is ossified, situated in a particular objective location: the human skull. 

The genius of Hegel’s analysis lies in the fact that he does not simply reduce the mind to its material grounds, that is, to state, as phrenology does, that the shape, density and topography of the skull predetermines or accurately represents the rational capacity of a given human body, but rather to identify within the link between mind and matter, spirit and bone, the echo of a more complex logic. Spirit is not a bone, it is not definable in merely physiological terms, but rather it is as a bone, its being is a bone. The difference is subtle but all the more important: it is through its physical and finite limitation, through its dull, lifeless and solid skeletal being that spirit gains its status of an abstract, infinite, dynamic and free reason. To put it differently: it is because thinking takes place within a corpo-reality, with all its mechanical, biological, material and physical attributes, that it can lift itself beyond the merely corpo-real.

The paradox here plays a constitutive role, the physical limitation itself is that which opens up a dimension of an unbridled rationality. What Hegel teaches us is to think the finite world not as a boundary, the body not as mere actor, nor as the cage of reason, but precisely as the threshold which opens up a dimension beyond this very limit: it is because we think within a body that we can think beyond the body. It is in and through the body that we are as thinking beings.


Yet, Hegel’s proposition also raises a number of questions. Is it only the skull that can serve as the seat of reason? Does reason not penetrate into the twist of an ankle, the thrust or sway of a pelvis, or the evolutionary waste that is our tailbone? If the skull is privileged philosophically, how do we think the role of the spine and its flexible vertebrae, giving support, adjustable height and therefore the capacity to shift the perspective of the brain? What about our flesh, the tearing of muscle fibres, the lubrication of the colon, or the spittle propelling from a speaking tongue? How do ailments, illnesses, disorders, physical disabilities and conditions, for example affecting bone structure or motor functions, play a role in our definition of the body and reason? Or, to continue, is it only the human bone which can harbour reason? Does spirit not reside in the claws of a cat, the wing of a bird or in the sharp edges of a fish bone? Is it only in skeletal systems that thinking can emerge? Writing in the 21st century, would it not also be fitting to write the following: “the being of Spirit is a wired up motherboard”, “the being of Spirit is a unicellular organism”?

As reality’s ontological spectrum widens, reaching from the most minuscule anatomies to the infinitely looping and expanding systems of algorithmic intelligence, the position of the human body becomes more and more contested. More complex than a single cell, yet less apt for mathematical reasoning than a computer and physically inferior to an industrial machine, the human body is torn between intricacy and ineptitude. Caught in its own fragile contradictions, it is the touched and touching point of difference with and through which we interact with objects, private, public, sexual, racialised, aesthetic and political bodies, prostheses, tools, and computers, and through which these interact with us, as if engaged in an act of mutual metamorphosis.

Corpo-realities, or, the body to come

For its inaugural season MNEMOZINE will share articles, artist profiles, interviews, audiovisual content and other contributions that, singularly and collectively, seek to open up an interdisciplinary space to think and incessantly rethink the category of the body in relation to both itself and the following bottomless questions: What constitutes a body? How does it express itself and how is it lived, experienced, em-bodied? What place does the human body take up in our thinking, both within a philosophical tradition and in our daily acts of contemplation? What place is there for bodies other than the human? How do bodies and machines interact? How do we cope with our own limitations in the light of hyper-evolving machines? How has the digital transformed our bodily reality?...

These questions, twisting and rotating like a spine, internally linked like a braid of cables and connectors, shall help us figure out not how the body might fall, become lost or forgotten in a swirling technological vortex, but rather what new forms of corporeality will, perhaps, emerge as a consequence of these tensions. ︎

Mathieu Buchler, co-founder of Mnemozine, studied philosophy at University College Dublin and at Freie Universität Berlin. He has published scholarly articles and works as a translator, editor, photographer and teacher.

[1] Hegel, G.W.F. (1977) Phenomenology of Spirit. Miller, A.V. (Transl.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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