Throughout human history, philosophers, doctors, and most recently, psychologists, have attempted to understand the relationship between the mind and body and how it results in human beings' awareness and perception of reality. At least since the golden age of Greek philosophy, thinkers have been aware of an ostensible distinction between the mind and body, a distinction that nonetheless allows for some intermingling such that physical issues affect the mental state just as mental issues may result in physical symptoms. Thus, if one desires to truly understand how contemporary Western psychologists and philosophers consider the nature of consciousness via the interaction between mind and body, one must trace the history of these concepts starting with the Greek philosophers, moving through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and on to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when psychology first began to develop as a formal discipline. Doing so will reveal how the conceptualization of the relationship between the body and mind has been shaped by cultural and contextual necessities that, while structuring the particular theories of the time within accepted ideological frameworks, nonetheless managed to reveal important truths regarding the functioning of the human psyche and its relation to the material world.
Perhaps the first major Greek thinker to postulate a theory of the mind and body was the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who suggested "a dualistic universe: one part abstract, permanent, and intellectually knowable […] and the other empirical, changing, and known through the senses" (Hergenhahn, 2009 p. 35). Naturally, human beings were seen to be equally split, with the mind containing those "reasoning powers that allow us to attain an understanding of the abstract world" in addition "to the flesh of the body," such that "Pythagoras' philosophy provides one of the first clear-cut mind-body dualisms in the history of Western thought" (p. 35). The importance of Pythagoras' idea cannot be understated, because this confident division between the mind and body has remained one of the most commonly supposed formulations of human consciousness, to the point that Bunge (2010) notes in his article "The Mind-Body Problem" that "the most popular view about the nature of the mind is that it is immaterial, hence separable from the body," and "moreover, it is still widely believed that we are alive ("animated") as long as we have souls (animae), and that we die when these leave us" (p. 143). Pythagoras' theory went on to inform nearly all subsequent Greek thought, such that Plato's theory of idealized forms and Aristotle's notion of reason can be easily traced to Pythagoras' distinction between the empirical world and a "higher," more valuable plane of abstract thought (Hergenhahn, p. 46, 62).
Before moving on to a discussion of the mind and body in the philosophy and thought of the Middle Ages, it is useful to consider some of the ramifications of Pythagoras' (and subsequent Greek philosophers) ideas, because his theories influenced subsequent thought greatly, and set up humanity for millennia of insufficient treatment for mental and physical ailments. In short, because Pythagoras' theory suggested that only the mind could provide one with "true" knowledge or fulfillment, the body itself was considered secondary, and "in fact, such [sensory] experience interferes with the attainment of knowledge and should be avoided" (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 35). Thus, Pythagoras and his followers set strict behavioral taboos for themselves, setting the stage for the unhealthy and altogether hypocritical repression of bodily impulse and desire that would fully blossom upon the blending of Greek philosophy with the retrograde moralism of Christianity during the Middle Ages (which in turn may be seen as the root cause of any number of atrocities throughout history, all the way up to the more recent sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church or the practice of female "circumcision").
It is important to note that it is not the distinction between mind and body which is the problem (although Pythagoras' moral and philosophical ideas are rather simplistic), but rather the assumption that the mind, or the abstract is de facto more valuable than sensory experience or the body. Pythagoras goes from the reasonable observation that there appears to be some distinction between the collection of sensory information and the subsequent processing and synthesis of that information to assuming that the latter is somehow more valuable and true, and the only means of accessing some eternal, pure, and abstract world. This gap is reasoning is ultimately responsible for much of the despicable treatment of the mentally ill throughout history, because by elevating the mind above the body, Pythagoras' ideology implies that failures or illnesses of the mind connote a subsequent moral failure, something that would be seized upon by a much stronger and more violent ideology over the course of the subsequent millennia.
As mentioned before, the Middle Ages saw Greek philosophy assimilated into the rapidly expanding behemoth that was the Church, such that "the emerging Judeo-Christian personalistic emphasis resulted in a novel mystical and symbolic view of man" which blended Greek ideas regarding reason and the mind with Church-approved notions of the soul, "culminating in the great theological syntheses of the thirteenth century," the most important of which were produced by Thomas Aquinas (Mora, 1978, p. 344). Aquinas focused mostly on Aristotle, because "Aristotle had said several things that, with minor shifts and embellishments, could be construed as supporting church doctrine" (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 90). Perhaps the most damaging of these "adjustments" was Aquinas' conflation of Aristotle's reason with faith, which simultaneously gave blind, a priori assumptions regarding the nature of the universe the same critical heft as an idea arrived at through logical thought and provided the altogether unnecessary elevation of the mind over the body the imprimatur of divine authority.
Although "several philosophers following Aquinas argued that faith and reason could be studied separately and that reason could be studied without considering is philosophical implications," Aquinas' work served to conflate the mind with the spiritual, such that mental illnesses could, and were, easily assumed to be the work of demons, or else a result of spiritual failure (Hergenhahn, p. 91). Thus, the mentally ill were not ill, but rather evil, and "Thomas Aquinas attributed hallucinations and insanity to demons and other supernatural influences" (Kendell, 2001, p. 490). This ludicrous conception of the division between mind and body would continue for hundreds of years, until some braver thinkers were courageous enough to challenge the imbecilic assumptions of the Church and its sycophants.
Along with revolutions in the arts and physical sciences, the Renaissance saw a simultaneous revolution in thought, especially pertaining to consciousness and the relationship between the body and mind. Perhaps the two theorists most responsible for this transformation of the philosophy of the mind and body from an ideology of moralizing mysticism to something resembling scientific inquiry were Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza.
Although Descartes nonetheless remained relatively faithful to the Church (if only to keep from being murdered, or worse), he revolutionized the study of the mind by suggesting that "the nonphysical mind could influence the physical body," thus confronting "the ancient mind-body problem head on" (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 122). Furthermore, although Descartes believed in a distinction between an ephemeral, immaterial mind and a physical body, he still contributed much to the line of inquiry which would eventually give birth to genuine psychology by focusing "attention on the brain as an important mediator of behavior," and perhaps more importantly, by formulating his investigations not as an inquiry into "sinful-versus-moral behavior" but rather "animal-versus-human, rational-versus-irrational behavior" (p. 123). In doing so, Descartes provided the first useful description of the relationship between body and mind, at least for anyone looking to actually help the ill, whether mentally or physically.
Writing a little after Descartes, Baruch Spinoza expanded on the former's theories while rejecting some of his more provincial considerations regarding theology. In particular, Spinoza "denied demons, revelation, and an anthropomorphic God," and simultaneously denied any real division between the mental and the physical, doing away with the idea of a "higher," abstract plane and instead arguing that "the mind and body were two aspects of the same thing," such that "anything happening to the body is experienced as emotions and thoughts; and emotions and thoughts influence the body" (Hergenhahn, 2009, p. 182). Though these ideas were of course met with fierce resistance by those who made a living convincing people to feel bad about breaking the rules supposedly made by an imaginary creature, Spinoza's revolutionary abandonment of the traditional mind-body division set the stage for the eventual formulation of a true psychology based in observable, scientific inquiry.
Although the Renaissance represented a watershed moment for the evolution of scientific and psychological thought, the theorists of the day were nonetheless chained by the ideological context in which they found themselves, so it would not be until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that something which may be confidently called psychology began to take shape (at least if one has any respect for psychology as a…