Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.3, 179-182
Published Online August 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/ojpp) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojpp.2012.23027
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 179
My Body: Is It Me?
Thomas W. Smythe
Department of English , North Carolina Central University, Durham, USA
Email: thomaswsm ythe @yahoo.com
Received October 28th, 2011; revised December 10th, 2011; accepted December 20th, 2011
In this paper I will take the term “my” in the phrase “my body” to be typically used to refer to the self or
person whose body it is. This raises a problem for materialism over how a body can own or have itself. I
will articulate some ways in which we are and are not related to our bodies, and try to undo the linquistic
knot of a body owning itself.
Keywords: Mind; Body; Ownership
When we use the phrase “my body” the “my” can seem to
refer to something distinct from the body; something that has a
body. This can purportedly raise a problem for materialism.
This is because it seems that “my ” refers to what possesses the
body; and does not seem to be identical with the brain or body.
By materialism I mean the view that a human being is just a
brain and a body, and that psychological characteristics are
realized or instantiated in the brain.
I will begin by making a couple of preliminary points about
the phrase “my body”. The phrase “my body” is such that the
“my” does not obviously refer to anything. It is not obviously a
referring expression, or an expression that is used to refer to
what has a body. Now eit her the “my” in “my body” is a sepa -
rate referring expression or it is not such a referring expression.
Suppose that it is not used to refer to anything. If that is the case,
then I think that its role in the language can be construed as being
like a demonstrative. It is like the case in which I point bli ndly in
front of me and say “I wonder what that is”. In this case I may
have no substantive idea of what I am pointing to other than
something or other in front of me occupying space. “My” func-
tions something like “that” in such a case. My body’s being
“mine” has no cognitive substance (Levine, 2003).
However, I shall not take this line of thought. I am assuming
that the “my” of “my body” is a first-person pronominal adjec-
tive that is used as a referring term. It refers to me (whatever I
am). “My” picks out a subject in a referential way. It is used to
refer to the self or person that has a body. Anyone who does not
agree with this assumption, will not agree with the rest of the
paper. Second, I am directing my attention to the phrase “my
body”, and not to the much discussed phrase “I have a body”. I
am not discussing whe ther the “I” in “I have a body ” is a refer-
ring expression, since I have nothing to add to the extant litera-
ture on that topic (Anscombe, 1974; Malcolm, 1995). Now for
a statement of the problem.
It seems that I cannot consider my brain to be the subject of
experience and perception because it seems that I am a de-
tached observer from my brain and body. The brain is some-
thing that I possess, and so it does not seem that we can capture
the subject of experience by identifying it with anything physi-
cal like the brain. This argument can also be applied to dualism,
or to any philosophical view that the subject of consciousness is
a mental substance, a pure ego, or an immaterial substance. I
can speak of my mind, and take it as another object to be talked
about and scrutinized in relation to a subject. One might con-
clude that this type of argument will, therefore, provide us with
equally strong (or weak) reason to reject any view that con-
strues the subject of psychological states as a substance where
the psychological states are attributes of the substance.
I think that what we should say is that this line of argument,
even if it is an intelligible objection at all to picking out some-
thing as being the subject of psychological states, will result in
the absurd consequence that there is no subject of experiences,
that there is nothing which thinks, wills, perceives, has ideas,
has a body and has a mind. This is exactly what the materialist
Daniel Dennett has concluded in a recent article. Dennett says
that when we think about a self as a single source of experience
… try to posit a unified agent… what I call the center of nar-
rative gravity. This is yet another abstraction, not a thing in the
brain, but still a remarkably robust and almost tangible attrac-
tor of properties… Who owns your car? You do. Who owns
your clothes? You do. Who owns your body? You do! When you
say “This is my body”, you certainly aren’t taken as saying
“This body owns itself” (Dennett, 1989: p. 104).
For Dennett, what is at issue in such ways of speaking is
whether possessive pronouns such as “my” and “mine” always
indicate ownership or possession of something by something
else (an owner or possessor). If to say this is “my body” means
that a particular human body is related to me the way my car is
related to me (as some thing distinct from me which I own), t he
surely one will be stopped short by the view that I am my brain
and body, for owners do not own themselves. If I am that which
possesses or owns my brain and body, then surely I cannot be
my brain and body. For whatever I am I cannot own or possess
Elsewhere Dennett e xpresses the same worry. He says
Who owns your car? You do. Who owns your clothes? You do.
Then who owns your body? You do! When we say this is my
body, you certainly are not taken as saying, this body owns
T. W. SMYTHE
But what can you be saying then? If what you say is neither a
bizarre and pointless tautology (this body is its own owner, or
something like that) nor the claim that you are an immaterial
soul or ghost puppeteer who owns and operates this body the
way you own and operate your car, what else could you mean?
(Dennett, 1991: p . 418).
I shall argue that the relation between me and my body can
be specified in several ways, most of which do not refute mate-
rialism. Some of them are ontologically neutral in the sense that
they do not imply either that some form of dualism is true, or
that some form of materialism is true. Therefore, they do not
present a difficulty or threat to materialism. I will also present
some ways that I seem to be related to my body that are not
But first I will briefly discuss Dennett’s solution to this puz-
zle. Dennett, if I am interpreting him correctly, says that I do
not own my body because there is nothing to own the body.
The “self” is an abstraction or fiction (Dennett, 1991: pp. 420,
428). It is like the equator or lines of latitude or longitude. It is
not a concrete existing thing that has a body. However, I think
that his view has some shortcomings. I will briefly state why I
think that this is a mistake.
First, in common sense we think of the self (myself) as being
a causal agent that is responsible for its actions. An abstraction
cannot fill that role. Second, we think of the self as a mental
thing that has mental states. Third, we think of the self as uni-
fied both synchronically and diachronically. Fourth, we ordi-
narily think of the self as being a subject of experience, and as
occupying a point of view. None of these deeper-lying aspects
of the self can be happily construed as an abstraction (Strawson,
I only wanted to mention these difficulties with Dennett’s
positive view of the self to indicate that this is not the path I
think a materialist should take on the supposed owner of one’s
body. Before I return to the main topic of the paper, I need to
make some further clarifications.
In this paper I talk a lot about the self. This is not a paper
about the metaphysics of the self. By “self” I just mean “per-
son” although the exact nature of each is the subject of some
controversy. My main concern is with the implications of the
way I am related to my body for the mind-body problem. I talk
about the self when discussing substance dualism, because for
the dualist the self or person is a mind or soul that is capable of
existing in a disembodied state. For the materialist, the self or
person is just a material thing. I also bring in points about per-
sonal identity in order to trash one of the putative ways that I
seem to be related to my body. This paper is not about personal
identity, however. I am concerned to defend materialism vis-à-
vis possible dualistic conclusions that can be drawn from con-
siderations about my relation to my body. I now turn to some
ways in which we seem to be related to our bodies, but are not
so related when examined critically.
One way it might be thought that I can be related to my body
can be stated in terms of exclusivity and uniqueness. There is a
sense in which this body that I trundle around in is exclusively
and uniquely mine. It is my body and no one else’s. Ed Fink
has suggested to me that this may seem to be a legitimate way
that I am related to my body. But the notion that this body is
uniquely and exclusively mine needs further explanation. First,
William P. Alston has told me that I need to distinguish be-
tween necessary and contingent exclusivity. I will discuss the
former. What does it mean to say my body is exclusively mine?
One thing it can mean is that no one else can share my body
with me. No one else can have my body. I cannot think of any-
thing else that can be meant by saying my body is uniquely and
If this is what it means to say I am related to my body, it is
clear from the philosophical literature on personal identity that I
am not related to my body in this way. Dualists are fond of
imagining cases where people change bodies by having their
soul move to another body. Materialists do not think that such
an exchange of bodies is possible as a matter of fact, although it
may be logically possible. Some materialists even deny that
such an exchange of bodies is even logically possible or intelli-
Materialists and dualists both think that brain transplants are
logically possible where one acquires a completely new body
while remaining the same person. In fission cases, where two
brain hemispheres are allotted to different persons, two people
seem to occupy one body. Then there are cases of multiple
personality disorders where several selves are manifested in one
body. As a result, there does not seem to be a case of ownership
where this body of mine is unshareable with anyone else. I
conclude that this alleged way of being related to my body is
bogus. We will have to look elsewhere to find a way in which I
am genuinely related to my body.
A second way we are not related to our bodies is one in
which I can be said to be related to my mental states as their
subject. As a subject of experience I possess or own my
thoughts and sensations. This is my pain and it is had by me.
Similarly, I can be said to have a body.
Owning my mental states as their subject does not make me
the owner of my body. So there is no relation in that sense. But
there might be an analogy between my owning my mental
states and my owning my body. The difficulty is one of speci-
fying what “own” means in this comparison. In what sense, if
any, do I “own” my mental states? This has to be specified, and
I do not see how to do it.
A third way that I seem to be related to my body but am not
comes from the fact that my body has a causal relation to the
subject of my mental states. In other words, my body is a causal
factor, it causes my mental states and my being the subject of
those mental states.
According to William Alston in correspondence this way of
being related to my body is bogus. Light waves in my envi-
ronment are causal factors for my consciously seeing things.
Yet I don’t have them in any way. The same goes for the ob-
jects I see. They cause my seeing them, but I don’t have them. I
now turn to ways that we are genuinely related to our bodie s .
The first way in which I am related to my body is that my
brain and body are related to me, as subject, as parts to a whole,
as when we say that the chair possesses a seat and legs. Here
one might think that if my having a body involves a part-whole
relationship, yet it does not follow that I am something different
from my brain and body, any more than it foll ows from the fact
that a chair has a seat and frame that the chair is something
different from the sum of its parts.
However, this would be too facile. We can say things about a
chair, such that it is a portable seat for one, which we cannot
say about the legs or other parts. The chair has a function as a
whole that is not shared by the sum of its parts. Similarly, it is
because people acknowledge real wholes that they come the
think of an “I” that is separate from one’s body and mental
states. I will argue that this does not impugn materialism, which
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
T. W. SMYTHE
I am concerned to help out of these difficulties.
The self could be a real whole without being nonphysical or
immaterial. Functionalism accounts for the mind in functional
terms that are compatible with counting the self as more than
the sum of one’s bodily parts. The mind is realized in material
phenomena in spite of the fact that you can say things about the
whole person and his mental states that you cannot say about
his bodily parts. So this relation to my body does not raise a
problem for materialism. I think that most all of the versions of
functionalism in the literature will allow for the minimal claim
that mental states can be realized in the brain. Thus I can avoid
saying what version of functionalism I have in mind.
One can object here that I cannot be related to my whole
body in the relation of having a body, and at the same time be
my body. That would be the body having itself. Similarly, I
cannot say the self is the brain and that I have a brain, for Wil-
liam P. Alston pointed out to me that this would be tantamount
to saying the brain has itself. What can a materialist say in reply
to this point? This objection is central to the difficulties I have
raised about my relation to my body. For a person’s having a
body would be impossible on a materialist view. I will wait
until the end of the paper to deal with this difficulty.
A second way that I am related to my body besides the above
is the legal sense of ownership, as in owning a piece of property.
A person can be said to be related to her body in a legal sense.
Suppose a woman claims “My body!” in a rights-asserting
sense. What, if anything, does this imply about the ownership
of the body? She can be said to have control over her body in
both a moral and legal sense. She has a legal control of her
body. However, this may not convince us that she “owns” her
body in a legal sense. Other cases can be cited that make legal
ownership of the body more plausible. A prostitute can be said
to sell her body as though it were a piece of property. Others
can be said to use her body as an object or a piece of property.
There is the further case of buying and selling organs of the
body to people who need heart, liver, or kidney transplants.
Here the donor can be said to have a legal ownership of his or
her body whose parts they are selling. Finally, there is the pos-
sibility of brain transplants. A person with a diseased brain may
donate their body to someone who needs a new body for their
intact brain. In this example the donor can clearly be said to
own his or her body that they are donating to the person with
the healthy brain. So there are examples where bodily owner-
ship in a legal sense is perfectly natural ways of speaking.
It is important for the defense of materialism to point out that
this legal sense of owning my body does not impact on the
controversy between dualism and materialism. I can own my
body legally and be essentially an immaterial mind, or own my
body legally and yet I may be nothing more than my brain and
body. So the materialist has nothing to fear from the legal sense
of bodily ownership. We turn now to another sense in which I
may be said to own or possess my body.
The final sense in which something is my body is probably
the most obvious and important. What makes this body my
body is that it is the one that I perceive things through and act
through. I act through this body when certain parts of my body
are subject to my will. I can move certain parts of my body at
will. I cannot move any part of a body that is not mine just by
an act of will. Of course, someone could be paralyzed and not
be able to move their body at will. I perceive the physical envi-
ronment through my body. It can be pointed out that I perceive
my own body differently than I perceive other bodies. When I
feel my tummy ache, I can locate the feeling in my tummy, but
when I feel your tummy I do not locate that feeling in your
tummy. Is this way of being related to my body obviously in-
compatible with materialism in any way?
Perception of the physical environment is an old bugbear for
materialists. There is no space in this paper for such a discus-
sion. Suffice to say that materialists are not without their re-
sources. As for the will, this is also somewhat controversial.
Materialists have given accounts of the will. A rehashing of
such accounts of perception and the will here would not add
anything of significance to the primary topic of the paper. Be-
sides an adequate treatment of these concepts would require
another paper. The main point is that this relation between me
and my body is not an obviously fatal defect in materialism.
Someone may argue that there is a difference between the
locutions “myself” and “my body”. “Myself” refers to the one
who is identical with I, but the “my” in “my body” refers to a
distinct self or soul that is separate from the body. One could
talk that way if one were a dualist. However, this is not an ar-
gument for dualism. I am considering what one would say if
they were already committed to some form of materialism.
This completes my canvass of the ways in which I am not
related to my body, but only seem to be, and the ways I am
genuinely related to my body. We have found that only one of
them raises a problem for materialism. The difficulty arose in
the part-whole relation I have to my body. A materialist cannot
say that I have a whole body and at the same time say that I am
my body. For, as pointed out before, that would be tantamount
to saying that the body has itself. The materialist will have to
say that I don’t have a body. I am my brain and body.
William Alston in correspondence has suggested a possible
way around this difficulty for the materialist. What we need is
some way to escape the inescapable thesis that one cannot own
one’s self, that there has to be a distinction between owner and
owned. Alston’s suggestion is to treat identity as a limiting case
of ownership where the owner-owned relationship is at the limit
of a continuum of increasingly more intimate relations between
owner and owned. Moving freely between differences between
owning and having, the continuum of thing had might range
from pencil to automobile to headache. Many more items could
be inserted. But on the assumption that I am even more inti-
mately related to myself than to my headache, then my relation
to myself (viz., identity) is the limit of a series of earlier mem-
bers that do not give rise to the same objection. This might
make it at least coherent or intelligible to think of my having
I will adopt Alston’s suggestion as possible way of me own-
ing myself or my having myself. It may well be that, i n the end,
the materialist will have no way of making sense of this. But it
was worth a try.
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Dennett, D. C. (1989) The origin of selves. Cogito, 3, 163-173.
Levine, J. (2001). Purple haze: The puzzle of consciousness. Oxford:
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T. W. SMYTHE
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