Phenomenology of Embodiment

Phenomenology of Embodiment


Welcome to my Musings section of my blog. What I write in this section of the blog are thought experiments, while attempting to  make sense of some very difficult ideas. It is not meant to be a definitive answer to the subjects covered in each piece, nor am I saying I am even right. At times, I come back and retract some of what I wrote, or rewrite sections as the ideas make more sense to me. Some of the writing is academic in nature, others not, while at other times a mix of both. Take the pieces as such and in the spirit they have been written.

Phenomenology o Embodiment

The academic neglect of the body as both instrument in lived experience, as a valid source of knowledge and as an active agent in the world goes as far back as Plato’s Phaedo (Gallop, 1975). Plato saw the body as negatively interfering with the search for true knowledge. The body he claimed interrupted our attention, with all kinds of passions and fancies. In other words it distorts reality through its flawed perception (Bostock, 1986). The body then was seen as merely a tool in the service of our intellect. This way of thinking of the body held powerful sway for centuries in Christian philosophy and more later in modern philosophy such as idealism (Shusterman, 2008).

Inspired by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), phenomenology was one of several prominent philosophical approaches during the 20th century. Husserl saw phenomenology as a way to come into contact with concrete lived experience, a way of doing philosophy that was as he viewed it — a radical shift from the metaphysical speculative pseudo-problems of western philosophy since the ancient Greeks (Moran, 2000; Lewis & Staehler, 2010). The tradition of western philosophy, as Johnson and Rohrer note, “mistakenly asks how the inside (i.e., thoughts, ideas, concepts) can represent the outside (i.e., the world)” ( 2007, p.17) thereby further separating mind from body.

Phenomenology can be understood as three distinct, yet interrelated conceptions, as methodology, as research process and as a philosophy (Van Manen, 1997). At its heart Van Manen (2014) has argued that phenomenology is essentially a philosophy. Distinguishing itself, phenomenology as defined by Husserl (1901) advocated describing experiences, as well as the things themselves “apart from their relation to our intuition” (Kant 1999 p.35), without resorting to metaphysical and theoretical speculations. In other words, experience should be examined in the way it occurs, and on its own terms as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness (Smith et al. 2009).

Husserl sought to develop a science of phenomena, with the intention of understanding how objects present themselves in consciousness through corporeal existence (i.e.of or relating to a person’s body). Husserl suggested that objects present themselves in a persons consciousness by intentionally translating stimuli from the body into meaning in the mind. Although initially concerned with finding the essence of reason — not dissimilar to Plato — Husserl instead concluded that the “body is…the medium of all perception” (cited in Rojcewicz & Schwer 1989, p 61). From this perspective, the body in phenomenology is seen to directly contribute to the content of what is perceived, and its role in the external material world is one that is relational (Welton 1999).


Essence of Practice

Here the essence of practice (Wilde,1999) or the ‘how’ takes a central role. Phenomenology brings forth a focus on the “originally [of] personal experience. The experience of the way we live situationally, the way we are personal beings in space” (Patočka, 1998, p. 97). Figal (2010) has suggested that any philosophical discussion that is not ‘originary’ in nature, whilst it may make a contribution to philosophical understanding, is not a philosophy in of itself. This premise sits at the heart of phenomenology, that the phenomena of appearance, or more succinctly how it appears in the lived experience of a person, their consciousness — is knowledge that both counts and is necessary (Lewis & Staehler, 2010). Reaching similar conclusions, William James, American philosopher and psychologist noted, “The world experienced…comes at all times with our body as its centre, centre of vision, centre of action, centre of interest” (James 1976, p86).

Nietzsche (who predates Husserl), whilst not considered a phenomenologist but rather an existentialist — viewed the philosophy of thinking, acting, feeling, and living, as beginning with the human subject (Macquarrie, 1972). Just like Husserl, Nietzsche rebounded against the metaphysical position which focused on the ‘about’ of things as they appear, rather than the appearance itself as the subjective person living in the world (Rehberg, 2011). Where phenomenology is the study of things in the way in which they appear to us, metaphysics on the other hand focuses on what is not subject to the senses, suggesting rather that there can be no scientific knowledge of appearance, only opinion (Lewis & Staehler, 2010). For Nietzsche if there was a ‘thing in itself’ not only was appearance part of it, but these appearances were the “direct presentation of what really existed” (Lewis & Staehler, 2010 p.2-3).


The Body as Lived Experience

Husserl defines two ways in which we experience the world from a first person perspective. On the one hand is what he terms the ‘natural attitude’ of everyday life. Here, we see the objects of our experience such as other people, physical objects, and even ideas, as simply real and straightforward in existence. In other words they ‘just are’ or are our ‘ordinary’ way of being in the world. The phenomenological perspective emerges when we step back from this ‘natural attitude,’ not denying its existence, but rather to investigate these experiences as they arise (Husserl, 1982). Phenomenological enquiry then arises from the embodied person as a “prediscursive phenomenon that plays a central role in perception, cognition, action, and nature to a way of living or inhabiting the world” (Weiss, & Haber, 1999 p. xiii). Central to phenomenological enquiry is ‘bracketing out,’ to put aside one’s own belief or knowledge of the subject under investigation (Carpenter, 2007), so that the ‘thing itself’ emerges — this is crucial for it to be genuinely considered a philosophy as Figal (2010) argued earlier, and further a science.

Noting the above points, its is clear that in phenomenology as a philosophy, the body plays a central role in lived experience (Merleau-Ponty, 2002). Yet does the body stay the same over time, or is it rather a product of social and historical constitution? In other words is the body itself natural, primordial (Merleau-Ponty, 2002), or is it rather ‘deformed’ or ‘formed’ by cultural and social forces (i.e., socially constructed)? (Foucault, 1984; Hoy, 1999.) Historically in philosophy, with the exception of Nietzsche the body had been seen as unchanging (Csordas, 1994). It is only with 20th Century thinkers like Foucault and Bourdieu that the later had been seriously argued (Hoy, 1999). For Foucault the body is malleable, transient and discontinuous over its history, whilst Bourdieu is more focused on the body as persistent and continuous (Hoy, 1999) — yet both viewed the body as being formed by cultural and social forces.

While Foucault doesn’t deny what he terms “structures” of experience (i.e., a primordial state), he argues that they are not independent of concrete determinations of social existence, and cannot in themselves give rise to or interpret experiences. Rather, these experiences arise through thought, which itself has a historicity “proper” to it (Hoy, 1999). Thought then, having this historicity is not “deprived of all universal form, but instead that the putting into play of these universal forms is itself historical” (Foucault 1984, p.335). The main argument as presented by Foucault (and Bourdieu) that there is nothing natural in the body, but instead it is socially and culturally constructed — so how can it then be deformed? To be deformed requires that it changes from an original, ‘before’ state, something that could be considered primary before these changes took hold (Hoy, 1999).

In contrast, Merleau-Ponty (2002, p.168) believed that the body had an “original and (perhaps) primary” nature, a practical knowledge (praktognosia), which could not be analytically deconstructed into concepts such as ‘body’ and ‘mind’. In his view, the body’s practical knowledge allows for a “way [for us to] access…the world and the object” (p.168) — for example our perception of spatial relationships between us and an external object. We experience these relationships not as objective (out there), but rather always from the perspective of our own action oriented bodily organisation (e.g., down, up, near, far, on, under). These form dimensions of our lived ‘phenomenal’ spatiality, arising out of the ‘praktognosia’ that we sense from our embodied intentionality.

Hoy (1999) has argued that one can simultaneously acknowledge the body’s “primary” nature, yet at the same time take into account how the body is influenced socially, by its historicity and culture — The body then can be seen as more or becoming more than what it was previously. This acknowledgement of becoming, sits at the heart of phenomenological enquiry. There is no gap between mind, body and a person’s experience of reality (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). A person’s experience of things, arises out of that person’s embodiment in the world.


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