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Body Consciousness

Contemporary culture increasingly suffers from problems of attention, over-
stimulation, and stress. We are plagued by a growing variety of personal and
social discontents generated by deceptive body images. This book argues
that improved body consciousness can relieve these problems and enhance
one™s knowledge, performance, and pleasure. The body is our basic medium
of perception and action, but focused attention to its feelings and move-
ments has long been criticized as a damaging distraction that also ethically
corrupts through self-absorption. In Body Consciousness, Richard Shusterman
eloquently refutes such charges by engaging the most in¬‚uential twentieth-
century somatic philosophers and incorporating insights from both West-
ern and Asian disciplines of body-mind awareness. Rather than rehashing
intractable ontological debates on the mind-body relation, Shusterman reori-
ents study of this crucial nexus toward a more fruitful, pragmatic direction
that reinforces important but neglected connections between philosophy of
mind, ethics, politics, and the pervasive aesthetic dimensions of everyday life.

Richard Shusterman is the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in the
Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Florida Atlantic University, Boca
Raton. Educated at Jerusalem and Oxford, he is internationally known for his
contributions to philosophy and his pioneering work in somaesthetics, a ¬eld
of theory and practice devoted to thinking through the body. A recipient of
senior Fulbright and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships,
Dr. Shusterman has held academic positions in Paris, Berlin, and Hiroshima
and is the author of several books, most recently Surface and Depth and Perform-
ing Live. His Pragmatist Aesthetics has been published in thirteen languages.
Body Consciousness
A Philosophy of Mindfulness and Somaesthetics

richard shusterman
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK
Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9780521858908

© Richard Shusterman 2008

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of
relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place
without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.
First published in print format 2008

ISBN-13 978-0-511-39314-3 eBook (EBL)

ISBN-13 978-0-521-85890-8 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of urls
for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not
guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.
In memory of J.W.S.,
whose body gave me life, love, and consciousness.

. . . her pure and eloquent blood,
Spoke in her cheeks and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say, her body thought.
She, she, thus richly, and largely housed, is gone.
John Donne, “Of the Progress of the Soul:
The Second Anniversary”
“The human body is the best picture of the human soul.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

“The body is to be compared, not to a physical object, but rather to a
work of art.”
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception

“Monks, one thing, if practiced and made much of, conduces to great
thrill, great pro¬t, great security after the toil, to mindfulness and self-
possession, to the winning of knowledge and insight, to pleasant living in
this very life, to the realization of the fruit of release by knowledge. What
is that one thing? It is mindfulness centered on body.”
The Buddha, Anguttara Nik¯ ya

“Besides, it is a shame to let yourself grow old through neglect before
seeing how you can develop the maximum beauty and strength of body;
and you can™t have this experience if you are negligent, because these
things don™t normally happen by themselves.”
Socrates, from Xenophon™s Memoirs of Socrates

Preface page ix

Introduction 1
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self: The Case of Foucault
1 15
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy: Somatic Attention
De¬cit in Merleau-Ponty 49
Somatic Subjectivities and Somatic Subjugation: Simone de
Beauvoir on Gender and Aging 77
Wittgenstein™s Somaesthetics: Explanation and Melioration
in Philosophy of Mind, Art, and Politics 112
Deeper into the Storm Center: The Somatic Philosophy of
William James 135
Redeeming Somatic Re¬‚ection: John Dewey™s Philosophy
of Body-Mind 180

Select Bibliography 217
Index 227


Contemporary culture increasingly suffers from problems of attention,
overstimulation, and stress. We are further plagued by a growing variety
of personal and social discontents generated by deceptive body images.
This book argues that improved body consciousness can help relieve
these problems and enhance one™s knowledge, performance, and plea-
sure. If body consciousness is a topic unlikely to comfort conventional
philosophical tastes, this is not because philosophy has always ignored
the body, as too many somatic advocates are fond of complaining. The
body in fact exerts a very powerful (though generally negative) presence
in philosophy™s persistent privileging of mind and spirit. Its dominantly
negative image “ as a prison, distraction, source of error and corruption “
is both re¬‚ected and reinforced by the idealistic bias and disregard for
somatic cultivation that Western philosophers generally display.
We must not forget, however, that philosophy in ancient times was
practiced as a distinctly embodied way of life in which somatic disciplines
frequently formed an important part, even if such disciplines sometimes
assumed a more body-punishing character in philosophies where mind
and soul were thought to achieve more freedom and power through
severe somatic asceticism. Plotinus, for example (according to his admir-
ing biographer Porphyry), was so “ashamed of being in the body” and
so keen to transcend it that he not only drastically limited his diet but
even “abstained from the use of the bath.” Today, when philosophy has
shrunk from a global art of living into a narrow ¬eld of academic dis-
course, the body retains a strong presence as a theoretical (and sometimes
potently political) abstraction. However, the idea of using its cultivation
for heightened consciousness and philosophical insight would probably
strike most professional philosophers as an embarrassing aberration. I
hope to change this prejudice.

Unlike philosophers, artists have generally devoted a very adoring,
revering attention to the body. Realizing how powerfully and precisely
our mental life is displayed through bodily expression, they have shown
how the most subtle nuances of belief, desire, and feeling are re¬‚ected in
the postural and gestural attitudes of our ¬gures and facial countenance.
However, in their idolizing love of the human body, artists have usually
preferred to portray it as the attractive object of another person™s con-
sciousness rather than the radiating expression of the somatic subject™s
own probing consciousness of embodied self. Women, particularly young
vulnerable women, are the frequent subjects of such objecti¬cation, por-
trayed as lusciously sensuous and obligingly passive ¬‚esh for the viewer™s
devouring delectation. The artistic yearning to glorify the body™s beauty
as desired object often results, moreover, in stylistic exaggerations that
propagate deceptive images of bodily ease and grace.
Such problems can be detected in the illustration that adorns the cover
of this book, the famous Valpincon Bather (1808) of Ingres, one of his series
of acclaimed Turkish bath and harem paintings portraying naked odal-
isques (female slaves or concubines of the harem). The young woman
here, passively posed on a luxuriously bedded and curtained interior, is
fresh and naked from her bath and thus ready for her required sexual
service. She presents a deliciously lovely and luminous backside of ¬‚esh.
But in her static pose, with her head turned away in darker shadow and
her gaze and facial expression invisible, we get no sense of her having any
active, thoughtful consciousness at all. She even seems unconscious of the
close presence of the implied viewer, who sees her in almost total naked-
ness, apart from the turban on her bound hair and the sheet wrapped
around her arm “ both more suggestive of her bondage than of pro-
tective covering. Ingres, moreover, intensi¬es the woman™s visual beauty
and erotic charge by putting her in a postural constellation of legs, spine,
and head that highlights her ¬gure™s graceful long limbs and curving
lines but that in fact is anatomically far from a posture conducive to com-
fort, let alone effective action. What a shock to learn that the marketing
department had selected this beautiful but painfully misleading image
for the cover of my book on body consciousness! As a critic of media
culture™s deceptive objecti¬cations of the body, but also as a Feldenkrais
practitioner sensitive to the strain and suffering of the spine, I voiced my
objections but was decisively told that the vast majority of my potential
readers would only be attracted to the beauty of the Ingres and never
notice its unsightly social and somatic import. If that indeed is true, then
this book™s arguments are all the more needed to open their eyes to other
Preface xi

forms and beauties of body consciousness. Do not judge this book by its
We can easily appreciate, however, why artists would focus on beauti-
fying the body™s external form and why philosophers would ¬nd body
consciousness a disconcerting matter and prefer to think of mind. As
bodies are the clearest expression of human mortality, imperfection, and
weakness (including moral frailties), so body consciousness, for most of
us, primarily means feelings of inadequacy, our falling far short of the
reigning ideals of beauty, health, and performance “ a point that also
indicates that body consciousness is always more than consciousness of
one™s own body alone. Moreover, despite its share of intense pleasures,
body consciousness is perhaps most acutely and ¬rmly focused in experi-
ences of pain. Embodiment thus suggests a discomforting vulnerability or
evil, epitomized in Saint Paul™s declaration that “nothing good dwells in
me, that is, in my ¬‚esh.” Cultivation of body consciousness has thus been
repeatedly attacked as a psychological, cognitive, and moral danger, even
though philosophy™s commitment to self-knowledge would surely seem
to entail the exercise of heightened somatic awareness. Kant, for exam-
ple, though af¬rming self-examination as a crucial duty (and despite his
meticulous personal attention to details of diet and exercise), sharply
condemns somatic introspection for generating melancholia and other
corruptions. William James likewise warns that heightened consciousness
of the bodily means of action leads to failure in achieving our desired
Do our bodies really function best when we most ignore them rather
than mindfully trying to guide their functioning? How should we rec-
oncile this incentive for nonthinking with philosophy™s ideal of critical
re¬‚ection? Without critical somatic consciousness, how can we correct
faulty habits and improve our somatic self-use? If philosophy remains
committed to the maxim “know thyself,” how, then, can we better know
our somatic selves, feelings, and conduct? If philosophy is likewise com-
mitted to the goal of self-improvement and self-care, could enhanced
skills of somatic awareness enable better ways of monitoring and direct-
ing our behavior, managing or diminishing our pain, and more fruit-
fully multiplying our pleasures? How to distinguish between helpful and
unhelpful forms of body consciousness? How to combine critical body
mindfulness with the demands for smooth spontaneity of action? Are
there special principles or methods of somatic introspection for improv-
ing body consciousness and then using such enhanced awareness for
better cognition and sensorimotor performance? How do these methods

relate to the struggles of individuals whose bodies serve to underline their
subordinate social status? How does somatic proprioception expand our
traditional picture of the senses and their role in cognition and coordi-
nated action? Is body consciousness nothing more than an awkward term
for denoting the mind™s re¬‚ective consciousness of the body as an exter-
nal object, or are there truly bodily forms of subjectivity, intentionality,
and awareness?
Such questions, and many others related to body consciousness, will
be addressed in this book, which is a product of at least a decade of strug-
gling both theoretically and practically with this topic. Though the strug-
gle continues, this book marks a signi¬cant measure of progress in my
ongoing project of somaesthetics that grows out of earlier work in philo-
sophical pragmatism as a philosophy of life. The pragmatism I advocate
puts experience at the heart of philosophy and celebrates the living, sen-
tient body as the organizing core of experience. Underlining the body™s
formative role in the creation and appreciation of art, my Pragmatist Aes-
thetics (1992) included the arts of self-styling. The body is not only the
crucial site where one™s ethos and values can be physically displayed and

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