Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Foul Play

WILLIAM IAN MILLER (1997), The Anatomy of Disgust

Aristotle’s students did not want to study the parts of animals. Recoiling in disgust from the study of blood and flesh, they found the distant stars cleaner and more appealing. But Aristotle advised them not to “make a sour face” at biology. Once, he told them, some visitors wanted to meet the famous philosopher Heraclitus, and when they arrived they “found him in the kitchen, warming himself in front of the stove.” (Scholars suspect that this sentence really refers to toilet activities.) They halted outside, but Heraclitus said: “Come in, don’t be afraid. There are gods here too.”

William Miller is one of Aristotle’s unregenerate students. He finds nothing but disgust in the contemplation of what he calls “thick, greasy life.” No gods here: just ooze and stench and corruption, “the grotesque body, unrelenting physical ugliness, nauseating sights and odors … suppuration, defecation, rot.” Miller maintains that our disgust with our own feces and sweat and hairiness and semen is a major element in our humanity—not only in the personal life, where it explains why sex is “so difficult,” but also in public life, in political life. We are creatures who aspire to the cleanness of the stars, to “purity and perfection.” And fueling a great part of that striving, in Miller’s view, is disgust “with what we are … that we live and die and that the process is a messy one emitting substances and odors that make us doubt ourselves and fear our neighbors.” Believing that any adequate investigation of these connections requires a multidisciplinary humanistic inquiry, Miller, who is a law professor at the University of Michigan, has written a wide-ranging and rich account of the emotion of disgust, drawing on psychology, literature, and history—all filtered through his own vivid narrative of the phenomena of bodily existence.

Miller recognizes that he is investigating (and expressing) a sensibility that has been shaped by an age-old Christian tradition linking disgust with sex, and linking both with the female body. Miller officially distances

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