Excerto de CASSIN, Barbara (ed.). Dictionary of Untranslatables. A Philosophical Lexicon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
How are we to arrive at rational grounds for choosing a translation of Leib when faced with such a swarm of different decisions taken over the years? It would seem appropriate to reflect on the Greco-Latin roots of the notion. In each case we have a pair ( /sôma [σάϱξ/σῶμα]; caro/corpus ) that modern languages have transposed into “flesh”/“body,” chair/corps, or carne/cuerpo-corpo. But do the theological or philosophical contexts that the classical sources reveal mitigate the difficulties in translating Leib?
A. The equivocality of the contexts of Paul and John: Sôma, sarx,
In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wavers between flesh ( sarx ) and body ( sôma ): after having distinguished between the different kinds of flesh in the animal world and then having differentiated the bodies in the cosmology of the ancients, he separates the psychic, animal body ( destructible, despicable ) from the spiritual, pneumatic body ( glorious, powerful ). Sôma is ambivalent, linked to sin, rejected or elevated to the glory of resurrection. Paul’s sôma has no quality of its own. Sarx, however, is defined in the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians as being opposed to the spirit ( pneuma [πνεῦμα] ), but it is not identified with the somatic body, since as something selfishly closed upon itself, the residue of a sin that is legalized within the law, and the source of death, its meaning is entirely negative ( Rom 7:5–14; Gal 5:13–16 ). Sarx is understood in terms of a morality of abstinence, which gives it a worldly and finite meaning. This meaning of “flesh” as a manifestation of human finitude is also one we find in Matthew 26:41 ( or Mk 14:38 ): the Spirit is filled with love, but the flesh is weak.
In John 3:6, sarx and pneuma refer to two types of creation: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Sôma alone contains the possibility of a glorious self-transformation. Sôma alone can have an individuated and individuating status, while sarx is infra-individual: the asthenic flesh is thus contrasted with the force of the spirit. Yet this ( Husserl, Thing and Space ) does not hold up, because ( a ) we are only dealing with one, asthenic, meaning of the flesh; and ( b ) the axiology of the spirit and of the flesh is supported by that of glory and sin. It is notable, however, that “the Word became flesh” ( Jn 1:14 ) has quite a different valence: the “flesh of life” in John is a redefinition of finitude as the possible power of individuation. The distinction is thus not between flesh and spirit ( and also not between Paul and John ), but between the flesh of sin and the flesh of glory and life ( Cyril of Alexandria, Deux dialogues christologiques ).
B. The univocality of the philosophical context: Soma, psuchê, nous
In the context of Plato and Aristotle, where sarx and pneuma do not form a conceptual framework, the distinction sôma/psuchê [ψυχή], or “animate body”/“intellect” ( nous [νοῦς] ), is the one that prevails, and it is linked to a depreciation of the somatic that would continue through the modern era, up to and including Descartes. Phaedo ( 83d ) and Gorgias ( 493a–b ) describe sôma as a prison cell, a tomb ( sôma = sêma [σῆμα] ), whose sign is desire, and understand psuchê as a form of exile, its own executioner crucified on the body. Aristotle radicalizes what in Plato was not a duality—but rather the soul’s desire through the body, and the soul’s exile in the body—by an ontological break that universalizes pure divine thought ( nous ) and individualizes corporeal form: psuchê and sôma are thus correlates of each other, as “form” ( morphê [μοϱφή] ) and “matter” ( hulê [ὕλη] ), or “activity” and “passivity” ( De anima, 430a 5 ).
This duality reappears in Descartes in the distinction between the res extensa and the res cogitans ( anima, mens, and cogitationes ). In short, the body ( sôma, corpus ) is ontologically insubstantial and is kept at a distance, as passive matter. Heidegger was therefore able to think of corporeality as ontic substantiality, so the Platonic and Aristotelian filiation is not the one we should retain if we wish to see corporeality as something productive.
C. The non-onto-theo-logical ( Hebrew ) dynamic of the flesh: Bāsār, rūah., nèfèš
To understand the theological ambivalence of sôma/sarx ( or of corpus/carne, in Tertullian ), and the positive meaning it can have, we might turn to another context: in the Hebrew scriptures, neither the body nor the flesh are valued negatively. The flesh ( bāsār [בָּשָׂר] ), as a human composite of body and soul, is even privileged as a concrete index of the spirit ( nèfèš [נֶפֶשׁ] ). A human being is an organic unity sometimes referred to as nèfèš, sometimes as bāsār, with rūaḥ [ ַרוּח] ( breath, spirit of God, soul ) linked to it.
As the RT: Traduction oecuménique de la Bible testifies, roughly half of the occurrences of bāsār are translated as chair ( flesh ) ( 137 out of 270 ), indicating a consistent use of this term, whereas corps ( body ) does not correspond to any unified conceptual register: it is designated by seventeen Hebrew terms, among them bāsār ( 28/270 ) and ḥayyah [חַיַה] ( 2/3 ), out of a total of seventy-two occurrences. “Flesh,” on the other hand, corresponds to only five terms in Hebrew.
Nowhere in the Judaic tradition is “flesh” reduced to the physical or organic body. Its spiritual dimension is even the basis from which a possible glorification of the body itself makes sense. Obviously, this dynamic sense of the flesh pulls it away from substantiality: with respect to this endorsement of the flesh, Christianity will then bear onward this non-onto-theological sense of the body to which the expression in John testifies: “the Word became flesh.”
D. How to translate?
We are dealing with four distinct conceptual fields. Christianity and phenomenology emphasize the ambivalence of the corporeal: sinful/glorious ( sarx-caro/sôma-corpus, and Körper/Leib ). The two other fields are unequivocal—either positive ( Judaism ) or negative ( philosophy ).
In addition, there is no analogical or inverse relationship between one pair ( sarx/sôma ) and another ( Körper/Leib ), in which sarx would be to Körper what sôma would be to Leib, since sôma also has a negative sense and sarx a positive sense. In short, the pair sarx/soma ( caro/corpus ) is not on its own a discriminating difference. A further quality polarizes its relevance: the modal pair sin/glory. Sarx on its own is not evil, but the sin by which Paul qualifies it is, to such a point that this sin then comes to define sarx. On the other hand, following the Judaic meaning of “flesh,” John makes it the flesh of life, which refers, as in the Old Testament, to the complete person—body, soul, and mind.
In this respect, one decisive historical point of reference is that of the German esotericists ( Weigel, Oetinger, Baader ), who make Leiblichkeit into a geistige Leiblichkeit, endowing the body-flesh with a spiritual life that Schelling would turn to his advantage, as the body-flesh that phenomenology would reactivate by relieving it of its substantial materiality, and by recasting it as a vital subjective dynamism.
The pair Körper/Leib allows for an operative distinction because of the inertia/life or objective/subjective polarities that the Greek and Latin pairs do not offer and that Hebrew alone allows for through the expanded sense of bāsār. So it is the qualities of sôma-corpus ( sin/glory ) and of sarx/carne ( death/life ) that come to be analogous with the qualities of Leib/Körper ( subjective lived experience / inert objectivity ).
We could say, then, that the Leib/Körper polarity is conceptualized without being terminological. In this respect, it is reasonable to follow Paul Ricœur’s appeal to the economy of meaning ( body/flesh ), and the use of a single term to cover the different concepts that Leib’s history and uses disclose. If we go along with this principle, we will opt for a minimalistic translation of Leib as “body”: we could also convey the phenomenological polarity by using the term “flesh,” given that Husserl uses Leib in a distinctive way, associating it with Körper, and articulating it with Seele. Distinct terms are thus legitimized according to their usage. Either Leib ( flesh ) works phenomenologically in liaison with Körper, or Leib ( body ) is associated with the psychic: in German ( Leib und Seele ), just as in French ( âme et corps ), idiomatic expressions are available that make sense in everyday language.
By working with two usages, one more technical, and the other more everyday, we bring into play a salutary contextualization. By maintaining a distinction between Leib and Körper in French, one can account for the difference between corporeal appearing and carnal appearing. It is then that the philosophical emerges: the aim of the German compound nouns is to indicate the interweaving that is the only way one can conceptualize unity in difference. Further, does this articulation ( as corps and as chair, or between a technical and an everyday term ) not correspond to the double meaning of Leib ( linked to Seele/opposed to Körper ), which signals Leib’s entry into philosophy?