Western philosophy’s struggle with the body is exemplified in Descartes’ effort to separate mind and body. (Descartes, 1968). Today there is “a renewal of philosophical interest in how bodies think, how thought is embodied”. (MacCannell in MacCannell and Zakarin (eds.), 1994: 6).
Most contemporary discussions of embodiment draw on the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, who was fascinated by our ‘being-in-the-world' - the way our consciousness is incarnate in the world. For Merleau-Ponty thinking is part of an active relationship between embodied humans and the world. Cognition is embodied and functions as part of 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 may not know. This practical, embodied knowledge is quite different from the discursive knowledge we can talk about. It's the result of a relationship between our 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." (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 144).
Gendlin's process philosophy of the implict has taken forward Merleau-Ponty's ideas by showing that interaction is more fundamental than perception (Gendlin, 1992). He describes how a "body-sense" arises from any situation that is in fact a an embodied tacit knowing (Gendlin, 1981: 10).
Last updated: 17-01-2005
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