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How Can Philosophy Speak to a World in Crisis? The Answer May Lie in Our Bodies.

Pain and vulnerability can isolate us — or be the source of our deepest bonds, says philosopher Drew Leder.

A woman holds the hand of her newborn child at the Doctors Without Borders (MSF)-run maternity hospital in Khost, Afghanistan, on December 8, 2023.

The body is precarious. That is, as embodied people, we are all precarious, interdependent, fragile, vulnerable. As much as neoliberalism would like us to believe otherwise, we are not totally independent and asocial. My body is aging as I write this sentence. Indeed, none of us are impervious to growing old. In doing so, we will need to confront the adverse conditions that come with aging: loss of physical strength, difficulty walking, standing, possible illness, and so on. Because I am not bodily impervious, there are times when I feel a distinct sense of foreboding. Yet, other times, I feel a sense of grace, where there is the recognition that we are all part of this existential (for me deeply mysterious) collective journey, from birth to the grave.

Yet, it isn’t just the passage of time or our finitude that impacts us. There is also something that philosopher Drew Leder insightfully calls embodied injustice. For me, embodied injustice recalls anti-colonial psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s concept of sociogenesis, which points to the various ways in which embodiment is linked to socially deleterious and violent oppressive hierarchical structures. Leder is painfully aware of those who deal with “socially imposed limits and setbacks, which could include poverty, being a refugee, growing old in an ageist country, struggling with racism, sexism and homophobia.” What makes Leder’s work powerfully ethical is the fact that he refuses to look away from embodied injustice. And as a philosopher and a medical doctor, he is also profoundly committed to addressing what it takes to heal under conditions of embodied injustice. That is the gift that Leder gives us.

For this reason, and so much more, I am honored to interview Leder, who is an internationally known philosopher who engages topics ranging across medicine, the criminal legal system, aging and cross-cultural spirituality. The author of seven books, both scholarly and popular, Leder’s most recent book is entitled, The Healing Body: Creative Responses to Illness, Aging, and Affliction (2023). The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

George Yancy: As a philosopher, I find myself struggling to find the words to communicate moments like these, moments when the world is filled with so much violence, suffering, dread and injustice. As philosophers, we are taught to think with clarity, to reason, to be philosophical — that is, to remain calm in the face of great difficulty. I’m not always convinced that the academic study of philosophy has what it takes to tarry with the burden of human suffering, to face it, to describe its horror, and to provide ways of freeing us from our individual and collective nightmares. Those nightmares, by the way, are not in short supply. Think of the horrors that are encircling us: wars, genocide, xenophobia, femicide, anti-Black racism, mass incarceration, the rise of unabashed white nationalism within the U.S. and the spread of far right populism globally, the breakdown of democracy, climate crisis. Add to this the killing of over 1,200 people in Israel and the over 22,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza. Over 5,000 Palestinian children have been wiped from the face of the Earth by Israel’s continued genocidal war. When I write “add to this” the impersonal language is not lost on me. Yet isn’t this what we are witnessing in how many people are reacting to what’s happening in Gaza — not precious lives gone forever, but numbers that continue to increase exponentially and circulate on the news and on social media? That is also part of this terror and dehumanization. Given the bloody wreckage that we are witnessing, I have had to fight against a feeling of cynicism. For me, it is the feeling of needing to scream. My sense is that those in power, which includes leaders in the U.S., don’t really give a damn about the sanctity of human life, the oppressed, the stranger, the colonized.

In your illuminating book, The Healing Body: Creative Responses to Illness, Aging, and Affliction, you write about what you call “embodied injustice.” You argue that such bodies are seen as intrinsically problematic. Indeed, you write, “These deviant bodies — be they Black, Latino, Asian, gay, female, Jewish, disabled, old, transgender, transsexual, and so on — are seen as in need of control and surveillance, and are in many cases subject to scorn or punishment.” I’ve written a great deal about anti-Black racism, and have critically engaged in meaningful dialogues about ableism, anti-Asian racism, misogyny and patriarchy, and antisemitism. What do you think lies at the core of all these horrors we witness within our society and around the world? Does the discipline of philosophy have anything to contribute in this time of need, and how so?

Drew Leder: Well, you’ve not started off with an easy question! I am moved by the openness of your heart to the painful, senseless tragedies unfolding around the world. I think to empathize with others, even those far away or very different from oneself, is to bear a burden of deep sorrow and outrage.

I think your capacities here inspire, but also exceed, my own. I must go on periodic “news fasts” because sometimes I feel too overwhelmed, saddened and angered by what I read in the daily newspaper. I know this can be a form of willful ignorance. On the other hand, I’m not sure the human nervous system has evolved in such a way that it can handle simultaneously all the worst things going on around the planet. If one’s reaction (as is all too often the case for me) is despair, bitterness and anxiety, that does not seem like a platform for personal or world healing.

But what can I, we, do to remain contributory as “public philosophers?” It might be a drop in the bucket, but how else is a bucket filled but by many drops? The philosophic emphasis on reasoning clearly — searching for truth — may never be more needed than at this time. We are surrounded by toxic conspiracy theories and misinformation fed by social media, racists, billionaires and cynical politicians. Socrates was a “gadfly” wandering the marketplace of Athens. He challenged fuzzy thinking, misplaced priorities, injustice — until he was executed for doing so.

There are, of course, many types of philosophy. Political philosophers can clarify the structures of oppression that crush people’s lives — for example, the critique of mass incarceration in the U.S. that is starting to provoke some systemic changes. “Critical race theory” must constitute a threat to the established order or there wouldn’t be so many state initiatives to ban it from the classroom.

My own discipline, and one you share, is that of “phenomenology.” This method seeks to put aside metaphysical theories and look closely, and I think lovingly, at the texture of human experience. (And animal experience — I’ll add the horrors of factory farming and habitat destruction to the many others you mention.) If I had to say what lies at the core of all these horrors, there is an inability to enter into each other’s experience.

To counter this, I also look beyond Western philosophy to the resources of world philosophy — for example, the teachings of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism stresses the “exchange of self and other,” a practice that teaches us to no longer privilege our own interests but to render central the experience and welfare of others. Meditative methods (such as metta meditation and tonglen) are used to foster loving-kindness and send out healing energy. The Buddhist perspective is that the heart needs to be trained to care, just as the mind to think.

At the same time, there is an emphasis in this tradition on the maintenance of one’s joy and equanimity even amidst a sorrow-filled world. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize, just recently died. Practicing the Bodhisattva vow, he was dedicated to the relief of suffering for all sentient creatures. Yet as a socially engaged Buddhist, he also sought and taught equanimity. He advocated “smiling meditation.” As one walks slowly (his most well-known book is Peace Is Every Step), he suggested following the breath, enjoying the beauty of a flower, the taste of a cookie, simply being alive — and while doing all this, maintaining a half-smile, a Buddha-smile. This, too, is philosophy in action. This, too, prepares us to be peacemakers in a distressed world, listening for the particular ways in which we feel called.

What I deeply admire about your work is the scope of its concern for all sites of embodied injustice. I especially like how you understand the overlapping or intersectional reality of embodied injustice. For example, regarding illness, you write, “When the body suffers injury, sickness, incapacity, or disfigurement, this can inaugurate changes in the corporeal schema [ways of experiencing and comporting one’s own body] analogous to those brought about by embodied injustice.” And while you don’t conflate illness with what it means to be Black under conditions of anti-Black racism, you do emphasize how the body that is ill “surfaces as an object, not just a subject; one may feel constrained, fragmented, and marginalized, not relieved, by contact with a depersonalized and disempowering medical system.” It is the sense of being treated like an object and the sense of feeling fragmented and marginalized that interests me here. Anti-Black racism precisely leaves Black people feeling objectified, fragmented and marginalized. Of course, with respect to policing, Black people are also killed with impunity. What happens to the body when constantly placed under racialized surveillance, when subjected to stop-and-frisk, and the school-to-prison pipeline? In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon writes, “All I wanted was to be a man among other men. I wanted to come lithe and young into a world that was ours and to help to build it together.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty would describe Fanon’s desired state as the “I can,” where the world is open and one’s sense of embodiment is experienced as unimpeded. Under anti-Black racism and the oppressive structures and dehumanizing norms of colonialism, Fanon says that he was “sealed into that crushing objecthood,” realizing that as a Black person, one encounters profound difficulties comporting one’s body with ease, where one’s own body appears to oneself as an obstacle. This can be described, following the work of philosopher Sara Ahmed, as the “I cannot,” the sense of being “prohibited” and where one’s bodily comportment is constantly in a process of being placed under erasure. Talk about how the work that you do in philosophy, especially as it is linked to social justice, helps to lay bare the subtleties of embodied injustice vis-à-vis Black embodiment.

I will start, George, by saying that I have been educated and sensitized to the effects of anti-Black racism by reading your excellent work. In your recent book, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America, you illuminate the destructive effects of white supremacy, and how even white “progressives” like myself are participants, albeit often in denial. Knowing the truth of this, I would hesitate as a white man to describe Black experience — except insofar as you are “author-izing” me in this exchange.

To be Black in a racist society, or a woman surrounded by misogyny, or a gay person in a homophobic environment, is to be subject to cascading effects. First, one tends to be associated with the body itself rather than mind or spirit, and a reduced part of the body at that: skin color, gender, sexual orientation. This body part or function is essentialized as one’s identity — you thus become labeled a “Black man,” as if that summarized your personhood. In a racist society, this bodily identity is also systematically devalued, distrusted, demeaned. To have a Black body is to be identified with a variety of pejoratives — “lazy,” or “oversexualized” or “criminal.” Of course, these associations “legitimize” many forms of anti-Black discrimination and violence — for example, the police executions of young Black men that triggered the movement for Black lives.

But on a subtler level, the individual is always already damaged by the racist gaze. One has to bear with a “doubled consciousness” — in Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America, you give the example of getting into an elevator, but ever-aware of the white woman next to you fearfully clutching her purse. You are not free to be an unselfconscious subject acting in the world, but are inhibited by the awareness of yourself as an object, distrusted and surveilled, by this woman and others like her.

Added to this subject/object doubled consciousness, the person discriminated against is placed in double binds. A sexually active woman risks being called a “slut,” but if inactive, perhaps a “tease” or “frigid.” A Black person who speaks up about injustice risks being labeled as “angry,” “irrational” or “a racist” (you have experienced this); however, to remain quiet is to acquiesce to mistreatment. It can feel like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

All of these modes of objectification, dispossession, double consciousness and double binds, can do great psychological and physical damage. It can sink right into one’s viscera, causing the inner constrictions that lead to digestive issues, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. It literally is hard to digest and strikes at the heart of what it is to be human.

The connection that you make between anti-Black racism and health is incredibly important, especially as it acknowledges just how impactful a social and historical phenomenon (like racism) leaves its traces and damages on the body itself. I want to remain focused on the structures and norms that leave the body feeling objectified. In her book, The Politics of Reality, philosopher Marilyn Frye defines oppression like this: “Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce.” For me, this brought to mind the oppressive structure and processes of mass incarceration. In The Healing Body, you share that since the early 1990s, you have served as a volunteer teacher with men at maximum-security prisons. When I think about mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown bodies, I think of barriers that restrict and prevent mobility. To be imprisoned is to inhabit a world that is truncated, where physical space is condensed. From both your philosophical orientation and from your personal pedagogical experiences, discuss how embodied injustice is manifested under such carceral conditions. Indeed, how does incarceration impact embodiment?

In our age of mass incarceration — one of the great scandals of our society — more than a million people, most Black or Latino, do suffer a multidimensional disruption of the embodied self and lifeworld. First, as you say, there is a constriction of lived space. When incarcerated, a human being is deprived of most of their liberty of movement. Taken from home and community, they are confined, potentially for decades, in a small cell, perhaps the size of a bathroom in a large house.

Incarceration also triggers a disruption of lived time. The judge pronounces a temporal sentence — for example, “30 years.” Hereafter, the prisoner will have to “serve time,” or “do time.” They may experience being trapped in a static present, each day like the last. Unable to move purposefully toward the future, they must await its slow approach, that inaccessible day of release as they are likely turned down over and over for parole.

Nonetheless, I should say that many of the men and women I have worked with as a prison volunteer teacher do find ways not only to “pass the time” but to make time work for them as they build new selves and futures. Just recently, I was telling my Loyola University students, “You may feel trapped in this class, part of your required curriculum — but for incarcerated persons, the classroom is a space of freedom.” There I see philosophy come alive.

Along with the disruption of lived time and space, there is the reality of one’s removal from home and community. One is socially exiled. Behind bars one’s ability to communicate with the outer world is drastically reduced, as are civil liberties: materials in and out are censored; family visitations are intermittent, made so unpleasant that they often fall away over time; and solitary confinement is applied in an arbitrary and prolonged way, becoming a form of sanctioned torture.

Then too, come all the forms of reduction and objectification described above as “embodied injustice.” One is a “criminal”: that is, essentially identified with perhaps the worst action one has ever committed (and of course many are wrongfully convicted). No longer a subject with liberty of action, one is now an object under near-constant surveillance. The penitentiary is filled with closed-circuit cameras, and “count-outs” are taken multiple times during the day to keep track of each person’s position and actions.

Along with this subject/object doubled consciousness comes the double binds mentioned earlier. In order not to receive a “ticket” that may prolong one’s sentence or lead to solitary confinement, the incarcerated person must make sure his body is docile, his actions nonthreatening. At the same time, to protect himself from victimization within the prison population, he must project an air of strength, defend his bodily borders against invasion, and perhaps even commit an act of violence to establish his “credentials.” The prison may be considered a “maximum-security” environment for the society at large but certainly not for its inhabitants.

In The Healing Body, I discuss how many of these forms of constriction, objectification, isolation and tension are similar to those experienced when one is suffering from a severe chronic illness. As such, I see long-term incarceration as something like a socially caused disease. Can this be healing for the larger society, or the individual? As mentioned above, the pressures of incarceration, like other forms of embodied injustice, can also saturate the visceral body, causing diseases inadequately treated by the prison health care system: Quite a number of the men I taught have prematurely died.

Happily, others have finally been released and are doing great things, working with prestigious universities and community organizations, completing their degrees, reuniting with families and building careers. But it’s not easy. I am now working with individuals experiencing “reentry,” which can at times be as disorienting and obstacle-filled as that phase of initial imprisonment.

I began this discussion by mentioning nightmares. I would like to end on the theme of healing. There is so much violence and existential suffering that it is hard to imagine what the process of healing looks like across so many sites of heart-wrenching agony. Just when I begin to experience a modicum of hope, cynicism raises its ugly head. The process of healing is necessary at this moment as we exist amid so much catastrophe. You have the distinction of being both a philosopher and a medical doctor. First, how does being a medical doctor inform the fact that you are a philosopher and vice versa? Second, while realizing just how broad this question is, what does the process of healing look like under conditions of embodied injustice? I’m thinking here, as you’ve spoken to, of various forms of control and surveillance (racial or not). Are there shared features of what healing looks like? While not conflating all forms of embodied injustice, is there a form of healing that is necessary for our world at this moment?

I do think my dual background in medicine and philosophy has led me to thematize the importance of embodiment, and the various ways it can be “distressed” by social injustice, and by the existential challenges of illness, aging and mortality. (In fact, my previous book was called The Distressed Body). In The Healing Body, I did want to investigate the many ways in which people creatively find wholeness and reintegration, even when injustice or illness has dis-integrated the body and the world. I have gained a tremendous respect for the resilience of human beings, our ability to rebound and rebuild in the face of severe challenges.

I don’t know that there is a single form of healing to recommend to all. Different strokes for different folks. In The Healing Body, I outline a “chessboard of healing” with some 20 different possible moves that people can and do make in the face of embodied restriction and breakdown. For example, they can choose to “escape” the body, ignoring or refusing limitations, or transcending them through intellect, imagination and spirituality. Conversely, they can choose to “embrace” the body, listening more carefully to its messages and befriending one’s embodied self. Clearly, we also need one another — healing is not accomplished alone. Even prior to birth we are formed from the coupling of bodies, the umbilical connection to the mother, and afterwards we continue to be shaped and nourished by each other. In Merleau-Ponty’s words, we are “intercorporeal” beings. Our sense of pain and vulnerability can isolate us off but can also be the source of the deepest of bonds. We have all experienced this. We reach out and care for one another during hard times.

But my last comment has to do with the redemptive power of beauty. Since 2016, not coincidentally the time of Donald Trump’s election, I have been working with John Keats’ Endymion (1818), which begins:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing

A flowery band to bind us to the earth,

Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth

Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,

Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways

Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,

Some shape of beauty moves away the pall

From our dark spirits.

You and I have been speaking of despondence — of the inhuman dearth of noble natures — gloomy days — unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways. But I think Keats has hit on something. Whether we are ill, depressed, anxious, suffering from injustice, a refugee, incarcerated — having contact with beauty can lift our spirits, rehumanizing us. Thankfully, beauty comes in many forms. A poem like the above. A sacred mandala. Music that touches the soul. A caress from a loved one. A simple act of kindness. Dancing. Watching the clouds float by. A walk in the woods. Birdsong. Then “some shape of beauty moves away the pall/from our dark spirits.” We are consoled and re-souled.

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