That Gut Feeling: Wisdom and the body (Wisdom #4)

Going with the gut

How do we know what is the wise thing to do? What makes for a wise action? In the heat of the moment, how do we decide? If you talk to some philosophers, they might tell you that we simply have to reason things out. But experience suggests that things don’t work like this. More often than not, we don’t have time to sit down and theorise our way to an answer. As we saw in the article on Aristotle, practical wisdom is not simply the application of theory to specific circumstances, but instead it is a different kind of thing.

But what kind of thing? When we don’t have the luxury of sufficient time to reason things out, how do we make decisions? Often, we go with our feelings, or with our gut instincts. So in this piece, we’re going to be talking about these feelings and gut instincts. Because if this is how we often make decisions, we need to ask what role the guts (and the rest of our bodies) play in the pursuit of wisdom.

Socrates against the flesh

There is a tradition of philosophy going back to Ancient Greece that sees the body as little more than a burden or an impediment, something that gets in the way of the life of the mind. Our body might be useful for getting us from A to B, but essentially, if we care about philosophy, it is a trouble-maker.

This view can be traced back to Plato’s account of Socrates’s final hours in the Phaedo. At the time the dialogue is set, Socrates is seventy years old. The court in Athens has just sentenced him to death for corrupting the minds of the young. His sentence is that he should drink poison made of hemlock. Now Socrates in prison, surrounded by his grieving friends. And to comfort them, Socrates talks about the body and the soul, and why death is nothing to be feared because it is simply the severing of the soul and the body. Socrates asks his friends:

Do we believe that death is this, namely, that the body comes to be separated by itself apart from the soul, and the soul comes to be separated by itself apart from the body? Is death anything else than that? **** [1]

Socrates goes on to argue that for the lover of wisdom, the body just one great inconvenience. It is the source of the soul’s confusion. It “keeps us busy in a thousand ways.” It gets in the way of contemplation. And it is the cradle of the desires that lead to war, conflict and strife.

This means, Socrates argues, that if we are serious about wisdom we need to train ourselves in leaving our bodily needs behind, so we can attend instead to the needs of the soul. What is the philosopher, he asks, other than one who “frees the soul from association with the body as much as possible”? [2]

This is a view that recurs elsewhere in Plato’s work. In the Cratylus, Plato has Socrates speculate about the etymology of sōma, the Greek word for body, playing on the closeness of the words for “body” (sōma) and “tomb” (sēma):

Thus some people say that the body (sōma) is the tomb (sēma) of the soul, on the grounds that it is entombed in its present life, while others say that it is correctly called ‘a sign’ (‘sēma) because the soul signifies whatever it wants to signify by means of the body. [3]

Philosophical indigestion

Ever since Plato, this tendency to see the body as an impediment to wisdom—even as a prison for the soul—has reappeared again and again throughout the history of European philosophy. It is a theme that is often found in Christian thought: our mortal bodies are contrasted unfavourably with our immortal souls. And even now, there is a tendency to separate off the life of the mind and the life of the body, and to elevate the former at the expense of the latter.

But this separation and hierarchy seem increasingly hard to sustain in the light of contemporary science. As the neuroscientist Sarah Garfinkel has argued, when coming to understand the world, our bodies and our minds talk to each other. And this was an insight shared, in the 19th century, by Nietzsche. In his Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche protested against the way philosophy has overlooked the body. Railing against the “despisers of the body”, he wrote:

The body is a great reason, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, one herd and one shepherd. Your small reason, what you call “spirit” is also a tool of your body, my brother, a small work — and plaything of your great reason. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. [4]

For Nietzsche, the great reason of the body trumps the wisdom of the mind. For most of his life, Nietzsche was afflicted by both physical and mental illness. He knew well how our minds depend upon the condition of our bodies. This is why, in one famous passage in his book Ecce Homo, Nietzsche blamed the indigestibility of German philosophy on the stodginess of the German diet.

But German cooking in general — what doesn’t it have on its conscience? Soup before the meal… overcooked meats, vegetables cooked with fat and flour; the degeneration of starchy foods into paperweights! Just add to this the almost brutal post-prandial drinking habits of the ancient — but by no means only the ancient — Germans, and you will also understand the origin of the German spirit — from its depressive intestines… the German spirit is indigestion, it is never through with anything. [5]

You are what you eat, Nietzsche is saying; and if you eat heavy food, you will inevitably produce heavy thoughts.

Tending to the body

Nietzsche’s condemnation of German cuisine may go too far, but it is a useful corrective to the view that we can only attain wisdom by unshackling ourselves from the body. If wisdom is anything at all, it surely should involve our whole organism, and not just our minds (as Socrates seems to suggest in the Phaedo).

But in Socrates’s defence, it is not at all clear that he did adhere to the views that Plato ascribed to him. In his Memoirs, another of Socrates’s students and friends, Xenophon, gives a strikingly different account of Socrates’s views on the relationship between the body and the mind. According to Xenophon, far from arguing we should be forgetful of the body and its needs, Socrates believed that without care of the body, our hopes for wisdom risk coming to nothing.

The body is valuable for all human activities, and in all its uses it is very important that it should be as fit as possible. Even in the act of thinking, which is supposed to require least assistance from the body, everyone knows that serious mistakes often happen through physical ill-health. Many people’s minds are often so invaded by forgetfulness, despondency, irritability and insanity because of their poor physical condition that their knowledge is actually driven out of them. [6]

The difference from the Socrates of the Phaedo is striking. According to Xenophon, Socrates saw bodily well-being is a prerequisite for wisdom. If you want to make wiser decisions and have wiser thoughts, Xenophon’s Socrates argues, the best place to start is to look after yourself: get a proper night’s sleep, eat good food, or take some exercise.

Here Xenophon is in line with contemporary science, which increasingly shows how states of mind, emotional states, and bodily states are tangled up together.

Bodily practices

Buddhism is a good example of bodily practices that support the cultivation of wisdom. The Kāyagatāsati Sutta, an early Buddhist text in the Pāli language, argues that cultivating awareness of the body is foundational for the attainment of wisdom. In the text, the Buddha says that a monk who seeks to attain wisdom,

acts in full awareness when eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting; who acts in full awareness when defecating or urinating; who acts in full awareness when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent. [7]

In this view, wisdom begins with bodily attention. And the fulfilment of wisdom is not the separation of the mind from the body, but is itself both bodily and embodied. This idea that wisdom is something embodied appears also in the Confucian philosopher Mencius (also called Mengzi). Mencius writes: “The body is part of our Heaven-given nature. But only a sage can fulfil this body.” [8]

Also in China, the Zhuangzi focuses on the use of the body as a means of cultivation. As we saw in the previous piece in this series, the Zhuangzi is preoccupied with the limits of wisdom. One particularly striking passage says that “you have learned the wisdom of being wise, but not yet the wisdom of being free of wisdom.” But if we want to wisely free ourselves from wisdom, we need to engage in bodily practices. The Zhuangzi talks about “mind-fasting” (xinzhai in Chinese), and “sitting and forgetting” (zuowang), bodily practices of meditation that lead to this freedom.

Good fortune comes to roost in stillness. To lack this stillness is called scurrying around even when sitting down. Allow your ears and eyes to open inward and thereby place yourself beyond your mind’s understanding consciousness [9]


In the late 20th century, the philosopher Richard Shusterman took up this idea that wisdom involves not just thinking, but also making use of our bodies in particular ways. Shusterman coined the term “somaesthetics,” which comes from the Greek for “body”, sōma, and aesthetics, from a Greek root meaning “to perceive” or “to feel”. Shusterman defines somaesthetics as follows:

Somaesthetics can be provisionally defined as the critical meliorative study of one’s experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aesthesis) and creative self-fashioning. [10]

The indigestible nature of this may make you wonder whether Shusterman has himself indulging in stodgy snacks. But let’s pick it apart a bit. Somaesthetics is about both the experience and the use of the body. It is meliorative, meaning that it aims to help us find ways of living better, richer and fuller lives. And it is not just about exploring and appreciating what it is to be a living being, but also about exploring how we can fashion ourselves through attending to the body and bodily experience.

Since Shusterman proposed the term, somaesthetics has grown to a huge area of contemporary study. It isn’t so much a single set of theories or practices as it is a broad approach to rethinking what it means to be embodied, and as embodied beings to live better, wiser lives. It puts our bodies centre stage, asking us to attend more closely to the feeling of what it means to be alive. And it asks about how, on this basis, we can reshape our lives.

What all these traditions—from Buddhism, from Chinese thought, and from contemporary somaesthetics—suggest is that we cannot separate our search for wisdom from the question of what it means to be a living body. And instead of separating out the body and mind, as Plato has Socrates arguing, perhaps the true philosopher, or the true lover of wisdom, needs to pay attention to both.

Discussion questions

  1. Socrates in the Phaedo claims that the body is an impediment to wisdom. In this piece, we’ve seen some arguments against this claim. But is there any respect in which he is correct?
  2. How often, in your experience, are “gut feelings” reliable (if they are reliable)? Are they more, or less, reliable than reasoning things out? Have you ever had a gut feeling that has turned out to be completely, utterly wrong?
  3. The Zhuangzi talks about “scurrying around while sitting down.” What do you think the text means?
  4. Do you have any physical, embodied practices of your own that help you in the cultivation of wisdom? (For example, going for walks, meditation, working out, engaging in crafts that involve physical effort). How do these things help?


[1] In Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper (Hackett Publishing 1997), p. 56.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid. p. 118

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, trans. Adrian del Caro (Cambridge University Press 2003), p.23

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and Other Writings, trans. Judith Norman (Cambridge University Press 2005), p.86

[6] Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, trans. Hugh Tredennick and Robin Waterfield (Penguin Books 1990), p 74.

[7] The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, a translation of the Majjhima Nikāya, trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli (Wisdom Publications 1995), p. 706.

[8] Mengzi: with selections from traditional commentaries, trans. Bryan van Norden (Hackett 2008), p. 146.

[9] Zhuangzi: the essential writings with selections from traditional commentaries, trans. Brook Ziporyn (Hackett 2009), p. 30

[10] Body Consciousness: A philosophy of mindfulness and somaesthetics, Richard Shusterman (Cambridge University Press 2008), p. 19

More further reading

Online resources

There’s a great blog and podcast on gut feelings over on Philosophy Talk.

And if somaesthetics looks like your kind of thing, there’s a whole journal (available as Open Access) to read about it. [LINK]

Image: Blood-letting points and moxa points on the human body. Gouache painting, Tibet. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Sign up to the Looking for Wisdom newsletter