The seventeenth century philosopher Rene Descartes established a dualistic concept of mind and body.Western rationalist tradition entails a radical separation of body and mind that accords primacy to the mind. Descartes argued that the mind had the conceptual power of intelligence and hence selfhood. The corporeal body was deemed to be a vehicle which could be directed by the mind. This Cartesian division – the subordination of the body to the mind and the emphasis placed on dualistic thinking – had a profound impact on Western thought. In particular, medical practices established the body as an object that could be measured, mapped, and experimented on.
Geography, as well as other social sciences, has been built on the mind/body dualism which posits the mind and body as separate entities and acting on each other.
Not surprisingly, dualisms have shaped geographers' understandings of place and people. Dualistic thinking in geographical research tends to create distinctions between culture/nature, production/reproduction, public space/private space, work/home, Western/Orient, North/South, and state/home.
The mind/body dualism is gendered with the mind traditionally connected to positive terms such as reason, rationality, subject, culture, public, Self, and masculinity. The body, however, has been associated with negative terms such as passion, irrationality, object, nature, private, Other, and femininity. These dualisms are, however, very mobile. When the dominant subject (white, heterosexual, and masculine) is challenged, discourses shift to accom modate both sides of its constitutive oppositions.
Feminist geographers have argued that rational knowledge has been defined as masculinist which assumes a knower who believes 'he' can separate himself from 'his' body, values, emotions, and past experiences so that 'he' is autonomous, objective, and free of context. This kind of objective rationality – supposedly free of bodily identity and experience – is assumed to be universal and the only form of legitimate knowledge. Ironically, this type of rationality means that certain subjectivities become dominant and normalized – for example, white, bourgeois, heterosexual men become defined as the Self and all other subjectivities become 'his' Other.
This dualistic thinking has played a key role in the construction of geographical knowledge. There is a history of white heterosexual men excluding or marginalizing women as producers of geographical knowledge as well as what are considered 'women's topics'. Topics such as embodiment and sexuality were regarded as inappropriate topics to teach and research. In some places, this is still the case, and the body remains Othered in geography. What constitutes appropriate issues and legitimate topics to teach and research in geography comes to be defined in terms of reason, rationality, and abstraction as though these can be separated out from passion, irrationality, messiness, and embodied sensation.
Many geographers have, however, challenged the privileging of the mind over the body within the discipline which has resulted in an array of new topics (those topics previously considered too 'dirty' or 'risque') being put on the geographical agenda. Geographers themselves are beginning to think about ways of researching which recognize that all knowledges are embodied and situated.
The body has acted as geography's Other in different ways at different times and places. Philosophers from the periods of ancient Greeks and Romans, Judaeo Christian thought, and the Renaissance to the present day have been fascinated with the body. While there is no one consensus on what the body is, it is useful to explore what seems to be a simple question: what is the body?