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tout court as in deep, dreamless sleep. Yet, even in such sleep, can we
not discern a primitive bodily perception of an unconscious variety that
recalls Merleau-Ponty™s notion of basic “motor intentionality” or “motility
as basic intentionality” (PoP, 137“138)? Consider our breathing while we
sleep. If a pillow or some other object comes to block our breathing, we
will typically turn our heads or push the object away while continuing
to sleep, thus unconsciously adjusting our behavior in terms of what is
unconsciously grasped.4 Even if this lack of consciousness might make us
shrink from applying the term “perception” here, there is no doubt that
such behavior displays purposive understanding and intelligent inten-
tional action.
A more conscious level of bodily perception could be characterized
as conscious perception without explicit awareness. In such cases, I am
conscious and perceive something, but I do not perceive it as a distinct
object of awareness and do not posit, thematize, or predicate it as a spe-
ci¬c object of consciousness. My awareness of it is at most a marginal or
recessive awareness. If my attention is then explicitly directed to what is
perceived, I could in turn perceive it with explicit awareness as a deter-
minate, speci¬c, predicative object. But the introduction of such focused
attention and explicit awareness would mean going beyond this basic


4 When de¬ning consciousness as simply “being towards-the-thing through the intermedi-
ary of the body” in a relationship not of “I think that” but of “I can” (PoP, 137, 138“139),
Merleau-Ponty would seem to imply that purposeful action in sleep should be construed
as the action of consciousness. One might then wonder to what extent we can ever
speak of unconscious human life, let alone unconscious human acts or intentions. But
Merleau-Ponty sometimes speaks of consciousness as if it demanded a further “constitut-
ing” function: “To be conscious is to constitute, so that I cannot be conscious of another
person, since that would involve constituting him as constituting” (S, 93).
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 55

level of consciousness, which Merleau-Ponty celebrates as “primary con-
sciousness,” describing it as “the unre¬‚ective life of consciousness” and
“ante-predicative life of consciousness” (PoP, xv“xvi).
Consider two examples of this basic consciousness. Typically, in walking
through an open door, I am not explicitly aware of the precise borders
of its frame and its relation to my body dimensions and posture, though
the fact that I perceive these spatial relations is shown by the fact that I
smoothly navigate the opening, even if it is a completely new door and the
passage is not very wide. Similarly, I can perceive in some vague marginal
sense that I am breathing (in the sense of not feeling any suffocation or
breathing impediment) without being explicitly aware of my breathing
and its rhythm, style, or quality. In a state of excitement I may experience
shortness of breath without my being distinctly aware that it is short-
ness of breath I am experiencing. Such shortness of breath is here not
represented to consciousness as an explicit object of awareness or what
Merleau-Ponty sometimes calls a thematized object or representation.
But perception can be raised to a third level in which we are consciously
and explicitly aware of what we perceive, whether such perception is of
external objects or of our own bodies and somatic sensations. Just as we
can observe the door opening as a distinct object of perception, so we
can consciously perceive (both visually and proprioceptively) whether our
stance is wide or narrow and whether our arms are extended or close to
our torso. We can likewise explicitly recognize that our breath is short or
that our ¬sts are clenched; we can even be mindfully aware of the distinct
feelings of such breathing or clenching. At this level, which Merleau-
Ponty regards as the level of mental representations, we can already speak
of explicitly conscious somatic perception or somaesthetic observation.5
I would add a fourth layer of still greater consciousness in perception,
a level that is very important in many somatic disciplines of body-mind
attunement. Here we are not only conscious of what we perceive as an
explicit object of awareness but we are also mindfully conscious of this
focused consciousness as we monitor our awareness of the object of our
awareness through its representation in our consciousness. If the third

5 This level of explicit proprioceptive body consciousness is recognized by various somatic
theorists. See, for example, Brian O™Shaughnessy, “Proprioception and the Body Image,”
in J. L. Bermudez et al. The Body and the Self (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 175“
´
203; and Jonathan Cole and Barbara Montero, “Affective Proprioception,” in Janus-
Head, 9 (2007), 299“317, which deploys my somaesthetic distinction between pleasure
from external representations and that from inner experience such as proprioceptive
feelings.
Body Consciousness
56

level can be characterized as conscious somatic perception with explicit
awareness (or, more concisely, somaesthetic perception), then the fourth
and more re¬‚ective level could be called self-conscious or re¬‚ective
somatic perception with explicit awareness (or, more simply, somaesthetic
self-consciousness or re¬‚ection). On this level, we will be aware not sim-
ply that our breath is short or even precisely how we are breathing (say,
rapidly and shallowly from the throat or in sti¬‚ed snorts through the nose,
rather than deeply from the diaphragm); we will also be aware of how our
self-consciousness of breathing in¬‚uences our ongoing breathing and
attentive awareness and related feelings. We will be focused on our self-
awareness of how our ¬sts are clenched not only in terms of speci¬c
attention to explicit feelings of tightness and orientation of thumb and
¬ngers in the clenching but further to the feelings of that mindful atten-
tion itself and the ways such somatic self-consciousness in¬‚uences our
experience of ¬st-clenching and other experiences.
Merleau-Ponty™s philosophy poses a challenge to the value of these two
higher (or representational) levels of conscious somatic perception. It
does so not merely by celebrating the primacy and suf¬ciency of unre-
¬‚ective “primary consciousness” but also by speci¬c arguments against
body observation and the use of kinaesthetic sensations and body rep-
resentations. An adequate defense of somaesthetic mindfulness must do
justice to the details of this challenge.


III
One principal aim in Merleau-Ponty™s phenomenology is to restore our
robust contact with the “things themselves” and “our world of actual expe-
rience” as they “are ¬rst given to us” (PoP, ix, 57). This means renewing
our connection with perceptions and experience that precede knowl-
edge and re¬‚ection, “to return to that world which precedes knowledge,
of which knowledge always speaks” (PoP, ix). Phenomenology is there-
fore “a philosophy for which the world is always ˜already there™ before
re¬‚ection begins “ as an inalienable presence; and all its efforts are con-
centrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world,
and endowing that contact with a philosophical status” (PoP, vii).
Philosophy is perforce a re¬‚ective act, but phenomenology™s “radical
re¬‚ection amounts to a consciousness of its own dependence on an unre-
¬‚ective life which is its initial situation, unchanging, given once and for
all.” “It tries to give a direct description of our experience as it is” in
our basic prere¬‚ective state, pursuing “the ambition to make re¬‚ection
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 57

emulate the unre¬‚ective life of consciousness.” Such philosophy “is not
the re¬‚ection of a pre-existing truth,” but rather an effort “of describing
our perception of the world as that upon which our idea of truth is for-
ever based”; it aims at “relearning to look at the world” with this direct,
prere¬‚ective perception and to act in it accordingly (PoP, vii, xiv, xvi, xx).
Such primary perception and prere¬‚ective consciousness are embodied
in an operative intentionality that is characterized by immediacy and
spontaneity (S, 89“94). “Thus the proper function of a phenomenologi-
cal philosophy . . . [would] be to establish itself in the order of instructive
spontaneity” (S, 97); and this basic, embodied spontaneity constitutes
a worldly wisdom and competence that all people share. Merleau-Ponty
therefore concludes that the special knowledge of the philosopher “is
only a way of putting into words what every man knows well . . . These
mysteries are in each one of us as in him. What does he say of the relation
between the soul and the body, except what is known by all men who
make their souls and bodies, their good and their evil, go together in one
piece” (IPP, 63)?
Three crucial themes resound in such passages. First, Merleau-Ponty
af¬rms the existence and restoration of a primordial perception or expe-
rience of the world that lies below the level of re¬‚ective or thematized
consciousness and beneath all language and concepts, but that is never-
theless perfectly ef¬cacious for our fundamental needs and also provides
the basic ground for higher re¬‚ection. This nondiscursive level of inten-
tionality is hailed as the “silent consciousness” of “primary subjectivity”
and “primordial expression.” Second, he urges the recognition and recov-
ery of spontaneity that is characteristic of such primordial perception and
expression. Third is the assumption that philosophy should concentrate
on conditions of human existence that are ontologically given as basic,
universal, and permanent. Hence, its study of perception and the body-
mind relationship should be in terms of what is “unchanging, given once
and for all” and “known by all men” (and presumably all women) or at
least all men and women deemed normal.6
Even the ¬rst theme alone would discourage Merleau-Ponty from sym-
pathetic attention to explicitly conscious bodily sensations. Not only do

6 Merleau-Ponty™s notion of a primordial, universal bodily experience that is ungendered
has been criticized for generating an account of embodied existence that in fact is andro-
centric rather than neutral. See, for instance, Judith Butler, “Sexual Ideology and Phe-
nomenological Description: A Feminist Critique of Merleau-Ponty™s Phenomenology of
Perception,” in The Thinking Muse: Feminism and Modern French Philosophy, ed. Jeffner Allen
and Iris Marion Young (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 85“100.
Body Consciousness
58

those sensations go beyond what he wishes to af¬rm as prere¬‚ective
consciousness but they are typically used by scienti¬c and philosophi-
cal thought to usurp the explanatory role and neglect the existence of
the primary perception or consciousness that Merleau-Ponty so ardently
advocates. This primordial consciousness has been forgotten, he argues,
because re¬‚ective thought assumed such consciousness was inadequate
to perform the everyday tasks of perception, action, and speech; so it
instead explained our everyday behavior as relying on “representations,”
whether they were the neural representations of mechanistic physiology
or the psychic representations of intellectualist philosophy and psychol-
ogy. Merleau-Ponty™s arguments are therefore devoted to showing that
the representational explanations offered by science and philosophy are
neither necessary nor accurate accounts of how we perceive, act, and
express ourselves in normal everyday behavior (and also in more abnor-
mal cases like “abstract movement” and “phantom limb” experience).
His excellent criticisms of the different representational explanations
are too many and detailed to rehearse here, but they share a core strategy
of argument. Representational explanations are shown to misconstrue
the basic experience or behavior they seek to explain by describing it
from the start in terms of their own products of re¬‚ective analysis. Fur-
ther, such explanations are shown to be inadequate because they rely (in
some implicit but crucial way) on some aspect of experience that they do
not actually explain but that can be explained by primordial perception.
For instance, in order to account for my successful passing through the
threshold of an open door, a representational explanation would describe
and explicate my experience in terms of my visual representations of the
open space, the surrounding door frame, and of my conscious kinaes-
thetic sensations of my body™s width and orientation of movement. But
normally I do not have any such conscious representations when pass-
ing through a door. These representations, Merleau-Ponty argues (much
like William James and John Dewey did earlier), are re¬‚ective, theoreti-
cal explanatory notions that are falsely read back or imposed onto orig-
inal experience.7 Moreover, even if I did have these different visual and
kinaesthetic explanatory representations, they cannot themselves explain
my experience because they cannot explain how they are properly sorted


7 Dewey described this as “the philosophic fallacy,” while James called it “the psychologist™s
fallacy.” See John Dewey, Experience and Nature (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University
Press 1988), 34; and William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890 (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 1981), 195, 268.
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 59

out from other, irrelevant representations and synthesized together in
successful perception and action. Instead, claims Merleau-Ponty, it is our
basic unre¬‚ective intentionality that silently and spontaneously organizes
our world of perception without the need of distinct perceptual repre-
sentations and without any explicitly conscious deliberation.
Though this basic level of intentionality is ubiquitous, its very perva-
siveness and unobtrusive silence conceal its prevailing presence. In the
same way, its elemental, common, and spontaneous character obscures
its extraordinary effectiveness. To highlight the astounding powers of
this unre¬‚ective level of perception, action, and speech, Merleau-Ponty
describes it in terms of the marvelous, miraculous, and even the magical.
The “body as spontaneous expression” is like the unknowing “marvel of
a style” in artistic genius (S, 65, 66).

As the artist makes his style radiate into the very ¬bers of the material he
is working on, I move my body without even knowing which muscles and
nerve paths should intervene, nor where I must look for the instruments of
that action. I want to go over there, and here I am, without having entered
into the inhuman secret of the bodily mechanism or having adjusted that
mechanism to the givens of the problem . . . I look at the goal, I am drawn
by it, and the bodily apparatus does what must be done in order for me
to be there. For me, everything happens in the human world of percep-
tion and gesture, but my “geographical” or “physical” body submits to the
demands of this little drama, which does not cease to arouse a thousand nat-
ural marvels in it. Just my glance toward the goal already has its own miracles
(S, 66).

If representations of body parts and processes are negatively described
as mechanistically inhuman, the unre¬‚ective use of the body is not only
linked to the human and the artistic but also suggests “ through its miracu-
lous marvels “ the divine. In a section of Phenomenology of Perception where
Merleau-Ponty is criticizing the use of kinaesthetic sensations, he like-
wise insists on the miraculous nature of bodily intentionality, describing
its immediate, intuitive ef¬cacy as “magical.” There is no need to think
of what I am doing or where I am in space, I just move my body “directly”
and spontaneously achieve the intended result, even without consciously
representing my intention. “The relations between my decision and my
body are, in movement, magic ones” (PoP, 94).
Why should a secular philosopher hail our ordinary body intention-
ality in terms of miracle and magic? True, our mundane bodily com-
petence can, from certain perspectives, provoke genuine wonder. But
emphasizing the miraculous or magical also serves other functions in
Body Consciousness
60

Merleau-Ponty™s somatic agenda. To celebrate the primal mystery of spon-
taneous body pro¬ciency is a strong antidote against the urge to explain
our bodily perception and action through representational means, pre-
cisely the kind of explanation that has always obscured the basic somatic
intentionality Merleau-Ponty rightly regards as primary. Moreover, cele-
bration of the body™s miraculous mystery deftly serves Merleau-Ponty™s
project of foregrounding the body™s value while explaining it as silent,
structuring, concealed background. “Bodily space . . . is the darkness
needed in the theatre to show up the performance, the background
of somnolence or reserve of vague power against which the gesture and
its aim stand out.” More generally, “one™s own body is the third term,
always tacitly understood, in the ¬gure-background structure, and every
¬gure stands out against the double horizon of external and bodily space”
(PoP, 100“101). The body is also mysterious as a locus of “impersonal”
existence, beneath and hidden from normal selfhood. It is “the place
where life hides away” from the world, where I retreat from my interest in
observing or acting in the world, “lose myself in some pleasure or pain,
and shut myself up in this anonymous life which subtends my personal
one. But precisely because my body can shut itself off from the world, it

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