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Notions of Embodied Knowledge

This was originally written for a presentation (February 2003) at University College Winchester, where I am currently engaged in post-graduate research.


I'm currently researching into 'Embodied Knowledge in Eco-Paganism'. Hopefully, I'll be talking to you about Eco-Paganism some time in the future, but today, it's the turn of embodied Knowledge

References to 'embodied knowledge' appear in various fields, including Postmodernism, Feminism, philosophy, anthropology, and cognitive science. I’m going to look at a few of the key references and explore how they have been applied in practice, but before we get into the heady stuff, I want to do a short embodied experiment.

Proprioception exercise

First, I'd like you all to close your eyes, and hold one hand above your head. Now, without opening your eyes, I want you to take that hand and touch your nose.

Thank-you! It looks like that experiment was a success, and no-one had any problem finding their nose.

You’ve just been using your sixth sense, proprioception. ‘Proprioception’ literally means our ‘sense of self’ and refers to the way that we use information from sensors in the body to know where our limbs are. Proprioception is a form of embodied knowledge, and actually experiencing it first hand is probably the best way to get a grip on understanding what I want to explore today.

What is knowledge?

To understand why embodied knowledge is so important, we need to look briefly at more traditional notions of knowledge.

The philosophy of knowledge, epistemology, rose to prominence largely through the influence of Descartes and Locke.

Descartes is most famous for the ‘cogito’ - his belief that ‘I think, therefore I am’.

He wrote:

"my mind, by which I am what I am, is entirely and truly distinct from my body, and may exist without it."

Descartes, 'Sixth Meditation', in the Discourse on Method and the Meditations

This idea that the body and mind are entirely separate has been profoundly influential, and has helped encourage the connected idea that knowledge is something that is in the mind, and therefore, if Descartes is right, cannot be in the body.

This is a crucial point, because if embodied knowledge exists, then the Cartesian way of understanding the world is entirely wrong-headed.

Enlightenment epistemology, which is heavily influenced by Descartes, is based on a dualistic notion of knowledge. There is a knowing subject and a known object, and 'never the twain shall meet'.

But embodied knowledge upsets that duality. In the proprioception exercise we just did there is no separation between a subject that knows and an object that is known. There is just you - the knowing subject is also the known object.

Descartes might argue that this is a special case. This is ‘know how’, and not at all the same as ‘knowing that’ something is so. But the distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that breaks down on examination, as we shall see as we delve into the subject a little more.


Most discussions of embodiment draw on the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty.

Merleau-Ponty, like Heidegger before him, was fascinated by our ‘being-in-the-world' - the way our consciousness is incarnate in the world. For him there is no such thing as the mind separate from the body. Thinking not a product of some disembodied mind located somewhere outside the physical, but is part of an active relationship between embodied humans and the world.

So for Merleau-Ponty all  knowledge is embodied, and it's created in the unity between subjects and objects that is the direct result of having a body.

Think about the last time that you used a computer: If you have any familiarity with it, you didn't need to think about where the keys were - and in an odd sense you don't know. If I asked you to draw the keyboard layout for me, you would probably find it impossible.

I had a good example of this kind of embodied knowledge recently when I needed to tell our computer technician what my log-in password was. I couldn't. I was incapable of telling him what it was, even though I'd typed it out every day for months.

In the end, I had to watch my hands as I typed it in, and then write down what I saw.

This is a practical, embodied knowledge that is quite different from the discursive knowledge I can talk about.

Crucially, it's also an 'interested' knowledge that is bound up with my practical life.

It's the result of a relationship between my hands and the keyboard, and this is what Merleau-Ponty means by a unity between subjects and objects.

As Merleau-Ponty puts it, this

"is knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort."

MP 1962, p. 144.

As I've already suggested, this upsets the Cartesian worldview. It's a form of knowing that transcends subject/object dualism. The 'I' that knows is tangled with what is known.

Some sociologists suggest that the same relationship occurs in social interaction. Our knowledge of how to function in society may be embodied.

Games are a good example of how this might work. The rules of the game, strategies and complex physical movements combine in ways that mean a footballer often has no time to think thorough how to play. They must feel the game 'in their bones'.

The principles of the game are embodied, and the full meaning can only be expressed in actions.

Bourdieu and Foucault

Peirre Bourdieu expresses this as the habitus, a set of dispositions that the body learns and can use given the right social context.

Our social relationships create habitus, and so this process is bound up with relations of power. How a particular class or group physically carry themselves provides other people with an understanding of who they are. These behaviours are the product of embodied knowledge. Bourdieu refers to this as a 'technique of the body', a phrase he has in common with Foucault.

Although Foucault doesn't explicitly explore notions of embodied knowledge in any depth, the idea runs through much of his work.

The process by which power relations inscribe themselves onto individuals is clearly a form of embodied knowledge. The subject does not need to ‘be aware’ or ‘conscious’ of the operations of the inscribing discourses:

"...If power takes hold of the body, this isn't through it having first to be interiorised in people's consciousness."

Foucault, in Power/Knowledge: selected interviews and other writings.

Foucault's belief that power and knowledge 'Directly imply one another'. [Discipline and Punish, p.27] would back my interpretation that the interiorised power is a form of knowledge.

Cognitive science

But it's not only humanities thinkers that have pursued these notions, and Cognitive science has presented some of the most relevant work to date.

Scientists drawing on several sources, but particularly neurobiology have concluded that the mind, our reasoning and our knowledge are embodied.

They propose that our physical experience of the world - our spatial awareness, our bodily movement, and the way we manipulate objects - provide the pattern for how we reason about the world.

In their book, 'Philosophy in the Flesh', Lakoff and Johnson claim that

"What our bodies are like and how they function in the world…structure the very concepts we can use to think."

We reason using metaphorical concepts, and these are based on our physical experiences.

The way we use the metaphor 'more is up' provides a simple example. We almost always think of 'more' in terms of being 'up' - We talk about 'Price rises' or 'stocks plummeting'. Similarly, health and life are up and sickness and death are down.

£10 isn't physically higher than £5, but that's the way we think about it. Lakoff and Johnson claim that this association arises from how we experience the world - like when we pour water in a glass and see the level rise, or that we lie down when we are sick. Early in life such experiences lead to a strong association between 'up' and 'more'.

The idea that 'Down Is Less' follows from this association, and so the notion of 'falling prices' becomes part of our understanding the world.

These conceptual metaphors are learnt, and importantly, they aren't just manifested in spoken language. Some are expressed in grammar, others in gesture, art or ritual.


Some Examples of Primary Metaphors from 'Philosophy in the Flesh'

Affection Is Warmth

Subjective Judgement: Affection

Sensorimotor Domain; temperature

Example: 'They greeted me warmly'

Primary Experience: Feeling warm while being held affectionately

Knowing Is Seeing

Subjective Judgement: Knowledge

Sensorimotor Domain; Vision

Example: 'I see what you mean'

Primary Experience: Getting information through vision


If these theories are right, then knowledge doesn’t have any of the qualities it is traditionally supposed to. Western epistemology is founded on the view that knowledge is transcendent, disembodied and universal. Such challenges to tradition are common to Postmodernist and Feminist epistemology but for them to emerge out of scientific research is particularly significant.


There is only time to touch on Feminist Epistemology, but it is notable that this field aims to deconstruct the ‘disembodied’ system of thought that emphasises transcendence and objectivity.

Feminism is developing notions of embodied thought that emphasise intersubjectivity, relatedness and intuition.

Adrienne Rich, for example is convinced ‘that there are ways of thinking that we don’t yet know about'.

She continues, 'I am really asking whether women cannot begin, at last, to think through the body'.

The dualism of Western epistemology which I spoke of earlier appears to be gendered. The mind/body split that emerges from Descartes prioritises reason over intuition, culture over nature and masculine over feminine.

The question of how women’s embodied knowledge might differ from men's, and whether strength of intuition may be gender-linked, is beyond the scope of this paper. But it's possible that gender socialisation means women use their bodies to attend to the world in a different way from men.

Applying the theory

So much for the theory. How might we apply these ideas in practice?

Some of the most interesting applications of notions of embodied knowledge are found in ethnography and anthropology. I'm going to focus on the work of Thomas Csordas and Meredith B. Mcguire.

It is in McGuire's work that the distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that collapses most spectacularly.

McGuire describes an interview she made while researching attitudes of farmwomen in rural Ireland. Both Mcguire and the interviewee were mothers, and McGuire was nursing her child as they spoke.

McGuire describes how she related to the other woman. She felt ‘the sheer physicality of our mutual understanding. We understood each other, not only cognitively or emotionally, but also with our bodies...I remember this moment now with my body/mind, not just mentally...’

Meredith B. McGuire, New-Old Directions in the Social Scientific Study of Religion. Ethnography, Phenomenology, and the Human Body

She explains that their shared experience of nursing provided a ‘shared physical experience', which drew on her own 'body/mind experience’. (Ibid.)

There seems to be a connection here to other embodied knowledge's we have explored - The social habitus of Peirre Bourdieu and perhaps the embodied power/knowledge of Foucault.

McGuire proposes that ethnographers might use this intuitive understanding of social situations.

"by raising intuition to the level of consciousness, we can train ethnographers have and to use greater intuitive grasp of their research settings.’"

Thomas Csordas proposes a methodology of a 'Cultural Phenomenology' that attends to what he calls "somatic modes of attention".

These are culturally constructed ways of being aware of a situation through the body. For example in a ritual healing the healer might feel, see or hear visions that provide information about the healing process.

Csordas wants to move from a focus on representation to an attention to 'being-in-the-world'. He describes this a progression from 'culture from the neck up' to 'the mind in the body'.


In this brief overview I've touched on notions of embodied knowledge from a wide range of disciplines, and begun to consider the significance of this phenomenon for epistemology and ethnographic research.

What I have found most exciting about this research is the consistency that emerges from different disciplines. I expected, for example, that Cognitive Science would be at odds with Feminist Epistemology, but they are actually in broadly in agreement on many key points.

What has also intrigued me is the suggestion that such knowledge may not be simply 'held in the body', in the sense of that physical outline which stands before you, but more ‘in the world’. It may be that such knowledge is held within the total system of brain, body, and environment, which would include our cultural context.

So, where does the body end and the world begin? If you come to my next presentation I hope to be able to offer some tentative clues, but for now it's an open question.


Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990.

Thomas J. Csordas, Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology Of Charismatic Healing, University Presses of California, Columbia and Princeton, 1997

Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, HarperCollins Publishers, 1999

Meredith B. McGuire, New-Old Directions in the Social Scientific Study of Religion. Ethnography, Phenomenology, and the Human Body, in Personal Knowledge and Beyond. Reshaping the Ethnography of Religion, ed. James v. Spickard, J. Shawn Landres and Meredith B. McGuire. New York University Press. New York and London, 2002

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962


Proprioception  is the process by which the body can vary muscle contraction in immediate response to incoming information regarding external forces by utilising stretch receptors in the muscles to keep track of the joint position in the body.

Kinaesthesia  is the sensation of joint motion and acceleration.

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