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2 Graven Images 159 (1995)
Meditations on Embodied Autonomy

handle is hein.journals/gravim2 and id is 161 raw text is: Meditations on Embodied Autonomy
Jennifer Nedelsky'
In describing Greek philosophy, Hannah Arendt says, death, being the separation of body
and soul, is welcome to [the philosopher]; he is somehow in love with death, because the body,
with all its demands, constantly interrupts the soul's pursuits. In other words, the true philosopher
does not accept the conditions under which life has been given to man.2 My purpose here is to
explore how accepting those conditions, accepting our embodied nature, invites us to rethink
core values such as autonomy. And I want to ensure that the acceptance is complete and realistic.
Susan Wendell reminds us that the feminist embrace of the body, the rejection of the mind-body
split with its denigration of the female as body, has served an important function; but it has
glorified the body as a site of pleasure and connection, without taking seriously the ways in
which the body is a source of pain and incapacity.3 When we see the body in all its dimensions-
as a source of joy and of intimacy, as a part of the interdependency of all living beings, as that
which links us to the cycles of death and decay and rebirth, as a source of suffering and limitation-
the body offers an ideal focus for exploring the puzzle of the meaning of autonomy. In particular,
the complexity, paradoxes and tensions of the mind/body relationship reveal and illuminate
analogous difficulties in conceptualizing human autonomy. Finally, when we see the body as
ensouled, as well as the soul embodied, we can honor the body in a new way as we focus on the
limitations that inhere in it.
I have often objected to political and legal theory that simply presupposes human autonomy.
In my view, the proper subject of inquiry is how autonomy is fostered, what relationships are
required for it to thrive and what institutions and laws will foster those relationships.' When I
raised this objection in a workshop given by Neil MacCormick, he replied that one must assume
autonomy if there is to be responsibility. I realized that I had not tried to integrate my approach
to autonomy with this basic issue in the tradition of legal and moral philosophy: we cannot hold
someone responsible for an action unless we believe the action was genuinely theirs, unless it
was the result of their agency, their autonomous agency.' To pose the problem differently: in a
relational approach, where the starting point is interdependence and interconnection, in what
sense or under what conditions do we think a person's actions are hers? Given the complex
network of interaction that led up to the moment of action, when (or why) would we attribute
such ownership of action so that we could then attribute responsibility?
I think the core of the answer is a belief in the genuinely creative capacity in human beings
to bring forth something new, something not determined by all that went before. We live in a
web of relationships that shape us, that are necessary for our very capacity for autonomy; but
there remains (or is created out of the web that brings us into being) an irreducible capacity to
initiate, to be ourselves a shaping force, to interact in ways that create. Our conception of autonomy
must, then, capture this capacity for creation at the same time that it is built upon the
interdependence that makes autonomy possible. The autonomy that is linked to this capacity for
creation is not to be confused with control, just as it must not be seen to have independence as its
essence.' The body provides an ideal focus for working through such a conception of autonomy.
We did not create and cannot ultimately control our bodies, just as we did not create and cannot
control the world we live in. But we are responsible for our bodies (and our world), and the
complex nature of that responsibility can help us think through the more general problem of
reconceptualizing autonomy and responsibility.
Let us begin with the problem of what it means to think of ourselves as autonomous within
our bodies. In law we have an example of the opposite of the autonomy we require for
responsibility: the automaton, who, as sleep-walking or drugged, is seen not to control the actions

Graven Images 2 (1995), 159-170

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