Embodiment

There are several issues that we might address when we think about bodies and place:

1. How do bodies "know" place? In what way is place a function of our bodily presence?

2. How are places inscribed to "fit" bodies (and which bodies?). For instance, are places "male" or "female"? Do places have anything to do with race or ethnicity?

3. How are places modelled on bodies?


Prelude: Knowing the world

In the modern period, the dominant theory of knowledge has been the representational theory. This suggests that our senses receive the raw data of the world and make "pictures" out of it. Our mind then knows the "snapshots" or the "movies" of the world received in this way. Locke explicitly holds this sort of theory, and it is behind British empiricism. This is why Berkeleyan idealism can make sense B if what we know is our image of the world, not the world itself, then we have no way of knowing whether our images really correspond to the world. In fact, all we really need are those images.

This theory of knowledge also suggests that knowledge is about concepts. If we are to know anything, we must convert the thing that is known into concepts of some sort. There is difference on the nature of these concepts, of course. For Locke, the concepts are the result of our assembling simple sensations into more and more complex parts. For Kant, on the other hand, the concepts are already in the mind, but unavailable until there is input from the world outside. Knowledge of the physical world becomes possible because of these hard-wired concepts, and knowledge of the underlying reality of things means knowing the synthetic a priori contents of the mind, made available because we live in the world.

Under this theory of knowledge, knowledge itself does not have a history and is not governed by metaphors or contingencies. Of course, we have more or less knowledge, and we try to add to it, but the nature of knowledge itself is indisputable.

But what if knowledge is contingent on metaphors?


Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of the Body

How is it possible to think with the body? It is not my intention to simply reverse the Cartesian dichotomy of mind and body, and propose now that body alone rather than mind alone is the operative force in knowledge. The point here is to consider how the body can be involved in knowing, without making the dichotomy at all.

So, how do we know the world, and how do we know our bodies? Through senses, certainly, but as I said earlier, this does not mean that our senses simply give us the raw material for concepts. I want to say that we know these things "directly" (although not immediately, if by that we mean non-contextually).

 

Knowing the body: Perception as the centre of existence

Most of us do not know our bodies very well. They are so close to us that, like the tool, we think through them rather than about them. But of course, the body is not precisely like a tool. We have an awareness of the body that is unlike the awareness we have of any other thing. If there was truly a mind/body split, the body would be an object of knowledge like anything else. But it is not, for several reasons.

a. Consider the phenomenon of the phantom limb. Most of us have not experienced this. We might try to explain it using some physiological explanation involving the nervous system and its well-worn pathways. But the point is not just that we continue to have sensations with limbs that aren=t there. Rather, these limbs continue to be meaningful to us. The absence points to something that we have in presence B a way of understanding meaning in the world through our bodies.

The problem of meaning or rationality comes down to the problem of perception, which amounts to determining what the lived body is. What is it that perceives? Why is it that we continue to feel the limb? We can't really do the phenomenon justice with physiological explanations, because they do not come to terms with the history behind the body. The limb makes sense to the person. It is part of the person=s way of existing in the world. Consciousness is corporeal, it has a bodily presence in the world.

The body, then, is a way of viewing the world. It is the way a subject comes to know itself, and comes to express itself. "I have a body" does not indicate ownership, but identity and a way of thematizing ourselves. This fact, that I have a body, is an ambiguous one. I exist in myself, as something which senses and takes in perceptions about the world, and I exist for myself, as a thing sensed. My body forms a system which can be approached from two sides. The body is always in this circular relationship, both toucher and touched. It is never completely subject, and never completely object. But these two functions never come together, either. The hand never exists as both subject and object at the same time. Body and soul do not coincide; but they are reversible.

 

b. Think about the way we know ourselves in sensation. Touching the self is different than touching anything else. You know this if your arm falls asleep in the middle of the night, and you touch it. It is you, but not you. It is the same phenomenon as trying to tickle yourself - you can't. Yet someone else can tickle you. We encounter ourselves differently than we encounter others, and than others encounter us. We are out of place when we expect an encounter of the self that does not reverse itself and "touch back".

This knowledge of ourself extends to our knowledge based on place. You can, for example, simulate physical reactions to, say, being near a cliff edge by simulating the visual stimulus. This is well known if you go to a movie you can get carried away by the visual image, and really believe that you are there. What happens when we stand near a cliff edge? It is not simply a sense of a wide-open space in front of us. We sense our own bodies in relation to the ground, and specifically, the lack of ground. A step is also a kind of cliff, but we do not have the same reaction, because of what one writer calls the "affordances" of the situations. Depth has become meaning in both of these cases, meaning related to the body itself.

 

c. If we really attended to what we know about our bodies, it would likely be different than we conventionally believe. As with tools, we generally only attend to our bodies when there is something wrong. Most of us can probably close our eyes and recall the faces of any ten people more readily and clearer than our own face. We notice the body when it is out of the ordinary. But that does not mean that we do not know it at another level. Our conscious awareness is guided by the priority our society gives to conceptual knowledge, but our pre-conscious awareness always has the body in mind.

 

d. Reflex: Classical physiology explained nervous action by referring to reflex behaviour. This suggests that stimulation and reaction are external events, chemical and physical things that exist in a mechanical fashion. But the reflex is not a linear, mechanistic event of this sort. The reflex action is part of a constellation of parts. The point is that the reflex cannot be understood if it is isolated from the entire organism, and for that matter, from the environment around it. It is not that reflexes don=t exist; they just don=t exist as mechanistic things.

Even at a primitive level, life is defined by structures which are circular, just as reflexes are circular, and vertical, in the sense that life is oriented upward.


e. Higher level behaviour: Freud actually has some insight here. He insisted that there was a relationship between the physical level and the psychological and the spiritual. Of course, he saw this as a causal relationship, which may be a bit much. But the notion that there is an integration between the physical, psychological, and spiritual is intriguing. Perhaps Freud's insistence that our problems are caused by the psycho-sexual stages of our development, really should be seen as our inability to integrate and give meaning to certain structures of our lives. We are alienated from ourselves, even from our bodies. Freud talks about repression, resistance, and so forth; perhaps we really have the inability to come to terms with our significance at an one time.

This is made more difficult by Descartes' version of the world. If we believe that our minds and bodies are separate, we really are alienated from our bodies. After all, we identify with the mind, not the body. So what are bodies like, in this version of the world?

Minds:

Bodies:

 

f. Bodies as structures: we do not want Cartesian dualism here; but we also do not want some reduction of one to the other. This is not idealism (the body is really just mind) or materialism (the mind is really just body). Nor is there a fusion, a la Leibniz. Nor do we have something in which there is a higher order, and the lower manifestations are body and mind. There is indeed a body and a "soul" or "mind", but the body is a human body only in being the foundation of the soul, the visible expression of a spiritual life, and the soul is a soul only by means of the body which is like its very appearance. Body and soul are not separate; they are like poles in tension. There is no dualism, but there is duality.

This integration is, in some way, a future project, rather than a present reality. It is never absolute. As for Heidegger, we fail to realize that we are both individual and part of a group. We exist as fallen, which means that we try to fix our identity in one or the other, and in doing so, take away the future possibilities.

So there is a circularity about our existence. Maurice Merleau-Ponty gives us a picture of this:

. . .there is the body as a mass of chemical components in interaction, the body as dialectic of living being and its biological milieu, and the body as dialectic of social subject and his group; even all our habits are an impalpable body for the ego of each moment. Each of these degrees is soul with one respect to the preceding one, body with respect to the following one. The body in general is an ensemble of paths already traced, of powers already constituted; the body is the acquired dialectical ground upon which a higher "formation" is accomplished, and the soul is the meaning which is then established. (Structure of Behaviour 210)

In other words, as for Aristotle in his theory of hylemorphism, the mixture of matter and form is not a fixed one, but a fluid one. The matter/form combination at one level becomes the matter for the next level. And the body at one level is the soul for the level below.

This is what was meant earlier by verticality. The human body is never just an inert object, but part of this circular relationship, and vertical connection. Higher level structures are founded on lower level structures.

 

g. Any theory that takes seriously the knowledge of bodies, therefore, will have to take seriously knowledge that involves emotion. How does emotion fit into bodily knowing?

One might think of emotions as a kind of depth. We sometimes talk about unemotional people as "flat" "His tone was flat" means it had no emotion. One might talk about emotion as depth perception. We are able to see at a distance, and in a third dimension. Things move from being surfaces to being bodies. Perhaps it is not merely metaphorical that emotion could be thought of this way.

Thinkers in various fields have started to realize the centrality of emotion to our sense of knowing. Traditionally these have been pitted against each other. If you get too emotional, you can't know properly, we think. But perhaps without emotion, we cannot know at all. And perhaps emotion is the bodily part of knowing.

Emotions can be as basic as preferences. We are drawn toward some things, and repelled from others. We may construct a rational theory for why this is, but that comes after the fact. The point is this: emotions may be the basis of why things matter to us. Mattering may be a feature of bodily knowledge, not of conceptual or reflective knowledge. We may give an account after the fact of rationally why something should matter, but that's not why it matters.

Take this in connection with the environment. Why should be environment matter? We can give stories about the rights of nature, or the inherent spiritual existence of nature, or some such thing, but that does not tell us why it should matter. It comes after the fact.

Emotion can be more than this. In a world of meaning, which is meaning constituted by the lived body (this will come in a few minutes), emotion may be a way of keying in to that meaning, and specifically, meaningful change. But this requires us to not think of emotion as simply internal states or Afeelings@. These too are stories we tell ourselves based on our bodily, emotive existence, just as our rational stories also are. Emotions are not simply displayed, but they are also not simply private. It might be more accurate, instead of saying that men are not in touch with their emotions or cannot express their emotions, that rather the lived experience of men does not permit emotion as a legitimate expression. The feelings are certainly there; the emotions are a result of a certain relationship to bodily reality, partly self-imposed, partly inherited.

 

Knowing with the body: The perceived world

Despite the fact that vision has been the metaphor for the most abstract, distant, "objective" form of knowledge, when we consider how we actually see we find that it is much less linked to concept formation and much more linked to competence in a world. Put simply, we do no see all things equally. Seeing comes with expectations, and we tend to force the world into the familiar.

Knowing the world seems straightforward. But there is more going on than meets the eye, so to speak. For example, we think we see with the eyes. Actually, we see with the eyes, which are in the head, which is on the shoulders, which is on the body 5-6 feet above the ground. Seeing involves the whole body, not just the eyes. Our visual awareness of the environment is an act of the entire body, not just the eyes.

Gibson distinguishes between the visual field and the visual world. The first is simply the immediate limits of vision, roughly oval in shape, extending about 180 degrees from side to side and about 140 degrees up and down. The visual world, on the other hand, has no such boundaries. It is like the surface of a sphere going right around you. The visual world is the field + the motion of the body. The visual field can be mimicked by a camera; the visual world cannot be mimicked by anything, even IMAX. Why? Because the visual world has the sensation of the body built into it. Of course, you may have to move your body around in an IMAX presentation, but that=s just the point. Your body still has to be involved. There is an awareness of position in relation to the body. Athletes know this well. Basketball players sometimes talk about "basket sense", the sense to know where the basket is at any time, in any position on the court. There are many other examples where our visual world translates into a meaningful world in which our body is situated.

The visual world assumes that we exist, that we occupy a point. The view of the world we get from that point depends on the body. It also depends on the face. You see the world the way you do because of the shape of your nose, because of the shape of your head.

The visual world is also not like a series of snapshots, which is what people often assume. The eye has no shutter, it scans over a field. It is not a series of discrete images. And, the visual system detects its own movements at the same time as it detects the movements of the object, which is why the world does not seem to move when you are looking and turning your head. The visual world for us in not a series of images (which pretty much undermines the representational theory of knowledge, by the way).

What do we privilege in seeing? Human forms, and more particularly, faces. What is a face? It is almost impossible to define, when we take into account animal faces. We can distinguish minute differences in faces that enable us to tell the difference between people. If we were presented with 10 bodies with the heads covered up, we'd have a hard time telling who is who. But if we were presented with 10 heads with the bodies covered up B no problem. Not only do we focus on faces in ways we don't focus on other things, we are also able to tell very minute differences in faces that give cues to emotions and thoughts. If you are talking to someone whose face is "flat", that is, she gives no visual response when you talk, it is unsettling. We look for some response, and if we don't get it we are thrown off. None of this is to say that we could not learn to understand other parts of bodies, or other things, but the point is, we haven't.

One major psychologist of vision (Gibson) has a theory of affordances, by which he means the things in the visual environment that are "offered to" the animal or person for good or ill, as opposed to the things that are just there as surfaces. He is referring to something close to what Heidegger would mean by the "available". Affordances are measured relative to the observer (will that board hold me up? Can I fit through that opening?) We see things in the world according to our purposes, and our purposes are not always reflective or conceptual purposes. In other words, we do not have concepts first, and sift through the raw data of the visual world to see what fits those concepts. Our bodies know what they need to sit on, what they need to fit into, what they need to fear, and so forth, and we use concepts when there is some question or need for reflective ability. It means that we do not simply see the existence and properties of a thing, but also the meaning or value of a thing. This is not after the fact, but part of the perception itself.

Example: the edge of a cliff affords falling off, not just for us but for many other animals as well. We do not venture close. What if a very sturdy pane of glass is put horizontally out over that cliff, and you are convinced that it will not break? Your senses continue to tell you that the cliff affords falling, and it is still difficult to venture out. The glass barrier is mistaken for air, and your conceptual knowledge has to be quite strong to overcome your perceptual knowledge. What if the pane is vertical at the edge of the cliff? Well, it becomes much easier to get closer B think of a window in a high building. The window is probably framed, at least by supports, and is now mistaken for a wall, even though you can still see through it.

Gibson's word for the process of apprehending affordances is, interestingly, "ecology". Things are value-rich ecological objects, by which he means that there is a reciprocal relationship between environment and perceiver.

Knowing other bodies is not like knowing other inert physical things. Hearing a child cry evokes a very different reaction to hearing another noise of equal intensity. People may get annoyed with the child crying, while they would be able to block out the equal intensity sound. Touching another person is not like touching an inert object.

Knowing the world also involves having a sense of the world. Enlightenment thinkers such as George Berkeley believed that we could not perceive distance, because we were always looking at the end-point of a line between our eye and the object we looked at. Two eyes did not help; this was just two end-points. So, he found it difficult to explain distance. But perhaps this is something we do not simply know with the visual field, but as part of the visual world.

The usual way to think about vision implies that we only have access to surfaces. The visual field gives us surfaces. Surfaces are essentially flat.

To go back to a discussion from earlier in the term: we made the distinction between space and place. I suggested at the time that space was abstracted place, that we first have a sense of place, which is basically an embodied, meaningful sense, and then we abstract that to our sense of space. The body knows itself and its immediate surroundings as a place. When we take the body out, we have space.

Having said this, one might turn the distinction over. Perhaps it is not so much that space is derivative of place, but that space is place which is reflected upon. We think about space, or spaces, at least. A particular space makes us feel a certain way, has an effect on our perception and on our sense of self. Places might do this too - an eerie place, for example - but we more often feel it in spaces. Buildings can feel "sterile" or "warm". Architects and colour consultants know all about making public spaces have the right feel. City halls have to feel like important things happen there. Churches should feel like holy things happen there. Classrooms should feel like profound things happen. Banks? Efficient things happen, not to mention things that you as a lowly customer have no access to.

These are all bodily knowledge. There are signs, certainly, that are built into these spaces. However, it is the orientation of our bodies that is important. Why do cats like high places, or confined spaces? Why do some people feel claustrophobic in small spaces, or agoraphobic in open spaces, especially those with people in them? Bodies have meaningful experiences in these spaces, and the meaning is not the sort that the mind can quite catch up to. We know things with our bodies.

Again, this is not to suggest that bodies are somehow separate from minds. Merleau-Ponty is right on this - it is a circularity and a verticality. But that means that we have to take the knowledge that the body produces seriously, not in distinction to intellectual knowledge, but as an integral part of it.

What other ways does the body "know"? Child-birth. Fatigue. Depression. Happiness. Humour. In some of these cases, your body knows before you know reflectively.

More on space: bodies do not know space because of some abstraction. They are the authors of space. They take up space. We perceive the world as something which demands a certain amount of space. Without the body (i.e., regarding the world as in-itself), there would be no here or there, no high or low. Nothing would stand out from anything else; everything would be at equal distance from everything else. The body enables us to let some things stand out from each other.

This actually suggests, as D. E. Harding wrote, that the body itself is out of space, a kind of negation in the middle of presence, which makes all presence possible. D. E. Harding wrote a book called I have no head. In fact, he even started a society of headlessness. As he points out, we have no perception of our own heads. We are a kind of emptiness, an empty space that makes all else possible. The more we attend to our actual perceptions in the world, the more inescapable is the conclusion. It is only by relying on what we Aknow@, rather than on what we "perceive", that we can conclude that we have a head. Harding would probably argue in a similar fashion to Hegel and Sartre, that Being (our bodily existence in the world) and nothingness (the absence of the central part of that body) come together as an identity.

So, space exists as an existential dimension, made possible by place (or, the body). And the things in space come to exist not simply as things in themselves, but in a relation or tension with the body. It's not so much that we know things, as that we exist in a lived relationship with things. The thing out there has, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, a kind of "style", just as I myself am a certain way of treating the world.

We cannot very well suppose that we are in a relation to the world, without also supposing that the world is in a relation to us. If the perception of the body is a perception of the world, it must also be that the perception of the world is the perception of the body. The lived body and the perceived world are correlatives. AThe lived body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system. (Phenomenology of Perception, 203)

So, just as the body as consciousness and the body as object exist together, the lived body and the perceived world form a kind of system. We live with things and are tied to a world.

Now, someone might say that the world seems to appear to us as a thing in itself. A mountain is there for everyone, for example. Merleau-Ponty is not suggesting that the perception of the world is an idealist move. There really is stuff out there. The point is not existence, but meaning. In fact, the world presents itself as an "insurpassable plenitude", which suggests that there is more going on than just idealism. To "live" a thing is not to coincide with it, nor to fully embrace it in thought. A thing is lived by us, but it is still transcendent in relation to our life. It always escapes from us in the final analysis, and brings us face to face with alien nature.

This point is worth considering. What does Merleau-Ponty consider the world, or nature to be? What is that alien space out there? The best way to think of it is as the opposite pole on a continuum, to our preconscious bodily existence. In fact, Merleau-Ponty does tend to define the world in relation to bodily subjectivity

This relation to the world is a kind of communion. We coexist with the world; we have a life in common. Things receive meaning which is the meaning of my life in them.

 

The world as meaningful:

Merleau-Ponty connects structure and meaning through perception. All that we have said about perceiving the world, connects with the notion that there is not a gulf but a continuity between the physical, the psychological, and the spiritual. Merleau-Ponty has a long-standing battle with Gestalt psychology on this point. He agrees with gestalt, that the concept of form is central to any discussion of body. But Gestalt assumes the distinction between the exterior and the interior, between matter and spirit. Their conclusion was to fall back on the exterior or material, and argue for the external and physical reality of the form. (They might have gone the other way, and seen form as an idea of a constituting consciousness, but they didn't). So, meaningful structures existed in things, like a nature in itself. The problem, when you do this, is that you break the link of intelligibility. Separation breaks down meaning.

So, meaning does not exist in nature, if by that we mean apart from everything else. That might end up suggesting that the meaning is reductionist. For example, the behaviour of an animal might be explained then by adding up the physical and chemical elements. But Merleau-Ponty wants to say that animal behaviour is not reducible to these parts.

Does this mean that the natural world is meaningless apart from human understanding? It is probably better put that the natural world is significant in that it is present to consciousness. When he talks about structure, then, it means the "joining of an idea and an existence which are indiscernible". It is a concept that has become conscious of itself. What can this mean?

It refers to the fact that our knowledge comes from perception, which is bodily. Form is not an objective thing, but part of perception. It is what a consciousness discerns when it looks around. Of course, as mentioned earlier, we are alienated from that world. We exist as if our concepts are things in themselves, as if we have no connection to the world.

All this means that meaning exists in perception. But don't get the idea that this is like it was for the empiricists like Berkeley. They weren't concerned about meaning, but metaphysics. For Merleau-Ponty, things don't exist as objective meanings, but neither are they simply keyed to our subjective whims. Meaning does not exist in itself, but for me, the onlooker. Subjectivism does not come to terms with the fact that I, the onlooker, exist as part of the scene I am viewing.

Really, Merleau-Ponty's problem is that of rationality. Where does reason come from? Our purposes with him will be different, or perhaps more specific B how do we understand our milieus, and how do we act in them? Merleau-Ponty will call this, following Heidegger,  "Being in the world".

 

Sources: Madison, The Phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty
Cataldi, Emotion, Depth, and Flesh: A study of sensitive space
Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception
Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, Phenomenology of Perception