Friday, 24 August 2018

dead bodies

What is a dead body?

I walk into the lounge at the nursing home. Oh my goodness! There's a dead body in the corner chair. Or on the floor. Is the dead body sitting in the chair; is it lying on the floor? It is surely only in a metaphorical sense that dead bodies perform actions. (Compare: a teddy bear is sitting on the edge of the shelf.)

What for that matter is a living body?

I walk into the preparation room in the morgue. Oh my goodness! There on the trestle is a living body. It rises and waves at me. Why did I just write 'it'? Why would it be wrong to write 'he' or 'she'?

When is 'body' substitutable for 'person', and when not? 

It seems that bodies have genitals but not genders. But is that right? Well, if someone asks about a dead body 'is it male or female?', we know how to respond. Yet rather than saying 'it is male' it is more natural to say 'it is a man's body', 'it is the body of a man'. And we don't say, of the corpse, 'he is [naked/obese/ugly]'; we say 'it is the corpse of a [naked/obese/ugly] man'. It is also true that bodies don't die; only people die.

I am walking down the street. There are lots of living bodies there. Are these living bodies walking about? Or is it just the people whose bodies they are who are walking about? 

Well, are there lots of living bodies in the street? Or are there just lots of people there?

(The locution might have a point in a war zone.)

I am in the graveyard, and I walk past four new tombs. Each has a single occupant. (Or should that be: each has a single 'occupant'?) So, beneath the grass are four dead bodies. Are there four dead people beneath the grass?

Back in the nursing home, Gordon takes his last few breaths. And then he dies. Does his body die? Or is it only people (and animals etc) which die?

I think the final question warrants an affirmative answer. It is people who die, not their bodies. And when they die they become but a dead body. So a body can be dead, but it can't die. Only a person or animal has such a privilege.

Usually the body is distinguished from the soul. But there is a (admittedly archaic) use of each which is synonymous. There were five bodies in the room; there were five souls in the room. In both cases: there were five people in the room.

There are three survivors from a war. Two of them have lost an arm. One still has both her arms. One person's body still has two arms attached. Two people's bodies have one arm detached. The person who still has both her arms, whose body has two arms attached: does she have two arms attached?

If there are three living, and two dead, bodies in the room, then how many people are there in the room? There were five people in the room, but two of them died.

You can damage someone's reputation, even when he has died. So you can still injure him. Fine, ok: in a sense. But does this mean that when this person dies he becomes a dead person? Or is it that he becomes a dead body? But if now he's dead there is no person, how can he be injured? You can't injure the reputation of a body. (The reputation outlives the body.)

When someone dies, in what sense are their belongings their property? Or do the dead not have property? This seems right: the dead no longer have property. They might though have an estate; they might have a will. Well, they made a will. Geoffrey did, or didn't, have a will; not: Geoffrey, who has died, has a will.

Can you survive your own death? Well, hang on a minute, what on earth are you talking about? Doesn't 'survival' imply precisely, and exactly, the absence of death? What else do we mean by it? Geoffrey was hit by a bus but he survived. (It is not that you can or can't survive your own death, but that the idea is incoherent, at least until some very specific context of use for 'survive' is offered. But, you know, you really can't just go around asking questions like the first of this paragraph! So very presumptions about one's own utterances' meaningfulness!)

Well, speaking of specific contexts, we have in fact just recently encountered one: your reputation may survive your death. And, your reputation being yours, and not in the sense of a possession but in the sense of an attribute, here we have you surviving your death. And at this point we may start to talk about the survival of bodily death even though bodies don't die. For now that we have given/found a - one - sense for talk of 'personal survival', now we look for a descriptor for what does not survive - the person in her bodily being. (Note: bodily death is still death of the person, not the death of the body.)

Isn't it curious that it is grammatical to say that we have, but not that we are, bodies? You might be forgiven for thinking that the reverse ought to be the case! (Why is it that 'have' and 'possess' are ambiguous between qualities and possessions; why do we use the word 'property' to mean both that which we own and (in philosophy) our qualities?)

Perhaps it is tempting to think that we can 'survive death' because we have bodies, and so we assimilate this having to ownership, to that sense of 'possession' which relates to objects rather than qualities, and then take it that since we can survive the loss of our possessions then...

But there are only certain very specific contexts in which it makes sense to say that one possesses one's own body. A slave becoming emancipated is the main example. Today if a woman says that she owns her body we ought to hear in this only that nobody else has the right to say what shall happen with it. (Well, we hear that unless she's giving expression to a narcissistic or delusional strain of thought.) We should not hear in it that, it being her property, she can do what she likes with it in just the same way that we can do whatever we like with our property! (It's hardly a convincing argument against an anti-abortionist, but it is, all the same, something that sometimes needs to be said!)

We have bodies in the same way that triangles have three sides. The triangle is not the proud owner of three sides. 

Come back to the gender of the body: 'It is the body of a woman' / 'It is a woman's body', and not: 'The body is female; the body is a woman'. 'It is the side of a triangle' / 'It is a triangle's edge'.  

We also naturally imagine death as a journey. We ask: 'but where has he gone?' Or someone is unconscious but wakes up. 'He's back!' we say. Yet we might also say that presence and absence are not always helpfully understood in locational terms!

Can my soul survive my death? Well, if I die at one with God then, He still being alive and well (as it were!), how could it not? (This but a grammatical remark.)