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is also what opens me out upon the world and places me in a situation
there” (PoP, 164“165).
Merleau-Ponty may also have a more personal reason for advocating
the hidden mystery of the body: a deep respect of its need for some privacy
to compensate for its function in giving us a world by exposing us to it, by
being not only sentient but part of the sensible ¬‚esh of the world. Some
of his remarks express a strong sense of corporeal modesty. “Usually man
does not show his body, and, when he does, it is either nervously or with
an intention to fascinate” (PoP, 166). And when Merleau-Ponty wants
to exemplify “those extreme situations” in which one becomes aware of
one™s basic bodily intentionality, when one grasps that “tacit cogito, the
presence of oneself to oneself . . . because it is under threat,” the threat-
ening situations that he gives are “the dread of death or of another™s gaze
upon me” (PoP, 404).
Merleau-Ponty™s notion of bodily intentionality de¬es philosophical
tradition by granting the body a kind of subjectivity instead of treating it
as mere object or mechanism. But he is still more radical in extending
the range of unre¬‚ective somatic subjectivity far beyond our basic bodily
movements and sense perceptions to the higher operations of speech
and thought that constitute philosophy™s cherished realm of logos. Here
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 61

again, the ef¬cacy of spontaneous body intentionality replaces conscious
representations as the explanation of our behavior:

thought, in the speaking subject, is not a representation . . . The orator
does not think before speaking, nor even while speaking; his speech is his
thought . . . What we have said earlier about the “representation of move-
ment” must be repeated concerning the verbal image: I do not need to
visualize external space and my own body in order to move one within the
other. It is enough that they exist for me, and that they form a certain ¬eld
of action spread around me. In the same way I do not need to visualize
the word in order to know and pronounce it. It is enough that I possess its
articulatory and acoustic style as one of the modulations, one of the possible
uses of my body. I reach back for the word as my hand reaches toward the
part of my body which is being pricked; the word has a certain location in
my linguistic world, and is part of my equipment. (PoP, 180)

In short, just as “my corporeal intending of the object of my surround-
ings is implicit and presupposes no thematization or ˜representation™ of
my body or milieu,” so continues Merleau-Ponty, “Signi¬cation arouses
speech as the world arouses my body “ by a mute presence which awakens
my intentions without deploying itself before them. . . . The reason why
the thematization of the signi¬ed does not precede speech is that it is the
result of it” (S, 89“90).
The marvelous mystery of this silent, yet spontaneously ¬‚owing somatic
power of expression is likewise highlighted:

like the functioning of the body, that of words or paintings remains obscure
to me. The words, lines, and colors which express me . . . are torn from me
by what I want to say as my gestures are by what I want to do . . . [with] a
spontaneity which will not tolerate any commands, not even those which I
would like to give to myself. (S, 75)

The mysterious ef¬cacy of our spontaneous intentionality is surely
impressive. But it alone cannot explain all our ordinary powers of move-
ment and perception, speech, and thought. I can jump in the water and
spontaneously move my arms and legs, but I will not reach my goal unless
I ¬rst learned how to swim. I can hear a song in Japanese and sponta-
neously try to sing along, but I will fail unless I have ¬rst learned enough
words of that language. Many things we now spontaneously do (or under-
stand) were once beyond our repertoire of unre¬‚ective performance.
They had to be learned, as Merleau-Ponty realizes. But how? One way
to explain at least part of this learning would be by the use of various
kinds of representations (images, symbols, propositions, etc.) that our
Body Consciousness

consciousness could focus on and deploy. But Merleau-Ponty seems too
critical of representations to accept this option.
Instead, he explains this learning entirely in terms of the automatic
acquisition of body habits through unre¬‚ective motor conditioning or
somatic sedimentation. “The acquisition of a habit [including our habits
of speech and thought] is indeed the grasping of a signi¬cance, but it
is the motor grasping of a motor signi¬cance”; “it is the body which
˜understands™ in the acquisition of habit.” There is no need for explicitly
conscious thought “to get used to a hat, a car or a stick” or to master a
keyboard; we simply “incorporate them into the bulk of our own body”
through unre¬‚ective processes of motor sedimentation and our own
spontaneous corporeal sense of self (PoP, 143“144). The lived body, for
Merleau-Ponty, thus has two layers: beneath the spontaneous body of the
moment, there is “the habit-body” of sedimentation (PoP, 82, 129“130).
Af¬rming the prevalence, importance, and intelligence of unre¬‚ective
habit in our action, speech, and thought, I also share Merleau-Ponty™s
recognition of habit™s somatic base. Both themes are central to the prag-
matist tradition that inspires my work in somatic philosophy. But there
are troubling limits to the ef¬cacy of unre¬‚ective habits, even on the
level of basic bodily actions. Unre¬‚ectively, we can acquire bad habits just
as easily as good ones. (And this seems especially likely if we accept the
Foucauldian premise that the institutions and technologies governing
our lives through regimes of biopower inculcate habits of body and mind
that aim to keep us in submission.) Once bad habits are acquired how do
we correct them? We cannot simply rely on sedimented habit to correct
them “ since the sedimented habits are precisely what is wrong. Nor can
we rely on the unre¬‚ective somatic spontaneity of the moment, for that is
already tainted with the trace of the unwanted sedimentations and thus
most likely to continue to misdirect us.8
This is why various disciplines of somatic training typically invoke rep-
resentations and self-conscious body focusing in order to correct our

8 Nor,I should add, can we rely on mere trial and error and the formation of new habits
because that process would be too slow and haphazard and would tend to repeat the bad
habit unless that habit was critically thematized into explicit consciousness for correction.
F. M. Alexander stresses these points in arguing for the use of the representations of
re¬‚ective consciousness to correct faulty somatic habits. See Alexander™s Man™s Supreme
Inheritance (New York: Dutton, 1918), and Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual
(New York: Dutton, 1923); The Use of the Self (New York: Dutton, 1932), and my discussion
in Chapter 6.
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 63

faulty self-perception and use of our embodied selves. From ancient Asian
practices of mindfulness to modern systems like Alexander Technique
and Feldenkrais Method, explicit awareness and conscious control are
key, as are the use of representations or visualizations. These disciplines
do not aim to erase the crucial level of unre¬‚ective behavior by the
(impossible) effort of making us explicitly conscious of all our percep-
tion and action. They instead seek to improve unre¬‚ective behavior that
hinders our experience and performance. But in order to effect this
improvement, the unre¬‚ective action or habit must be brought into con-
scious critical re¬‚ection (if only for a limited time) so that it can be
grasped and worked on more precisely.9 Besides these therapeutic goals,
disciplines of somatic re¬‚ection also enhance our experience with the
added richness, discoveries, and pleasures that heightened awareness
can bring.10
In advocating the unre¬‚ective lived body and its motor schema in
opposition to the conceptual representations of scienti¬c explanation,
Merleau-Ponty creates a polarization of “lived experience” versus abstract
“representations” that neglects the deployment of a fruitful third option “
what could be called “lived somaesthetic re¬‚ection,” that is, concrete
but representational and re¬‚ective body consciousness. This polarizing
dichotomy is paralleled by another misleading binary contrast that per-
vades his account of behavior. On the one hand, he discusses the per-
formance of “normal” people whose somatic sense and functioning he
describes as totally smooth, spontaneous, and unproblematic. On the
other hand is his contrasting category of the abnormally incapacitated “
patients like Schneider (PoP, 103“107, 155“156) who exhibit pathologi-
cal dysfunction and are usually suffering from serious neurological injury
(such as brain lesions) or grave psychological trauma.11

9 Advocates of somatic mindfulness vary with respect to the degree, duration, and range of

domains to which critical mindful re¬‚ection should be applied. For some the ideal is to
return as quickly as possible to unre¬‚ective spontaneity with a corrected habit that ensures
effective performance, while others seem to argue that critically mindful somatic self-
consciousness be maintained even in the performance itself. See, for example, Zeami™s
theory of N¯ performance in his treatise “A Mirror Held to the Flower (Kaky¯),” in On the
o o
Art of the N¯ Drama, trans. J. Thomas Rimer and Yamazaki Masakazu (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1984).
10 See, for example, F. M. Alexander™s books cited in note 8; and Moshe Feldenkrais, Body and

Mature Behavior (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1949); Awareness Through Movement
(New York: Harper and Row, 1972); The Potent Self (New York: HarperCollins, 1992).
11 This dualistic tendency (and related neglect of the value of somatic self-consciousness)

can still be detected in some of today™s best somatic philosophy inspired by Merleau-Ponty.
Body Consciousness

This simple polarity obscures the fact that most of us so-called normal,
fully functional people suffer from various incapacities and malfunctions
that are mild in nature but that still impair performance. Such de¬cien-
cies relate not only to perceptions or actions we cannot perform (though
we are anatomically equipped to do so) but also to what we do succeed in
performing but could perform more successfully or with greater ease and
grace. Merleau-Ponty implies that if we are not pathologically impaired
like Schneider and other neurologically damaged individuals, then our
unre¬‚ective body sense (or motor schema) is fully accurate and miracu-
lously functional. For Merelau-Ponty, just as my spontaneous bodily move-
ments seem “magical” in their precision and ef¬cacy, so my immediate
knowledge of my body and the orientation of its parts seems ¬‚awlessly
complete. “I am in undivided possession of it, and I know where each
of my limbs is through a body image (sch´ma corporel) in which all are
included” (PoP, 98).
While sharing Merleau-Ponty™s deep appreciation of our “normal”
spontaneous bodily sense, I think we should also recognize that this sense
is often painfully inaccurate and dysfunctional.12 I may think I am keep-
ing my head down when swinging a golf club, though an observer will
easily see I do not. I may believe I am sitting straight when my back is
rounded. If asked to bend at the ribs, many of us will really bend at the
waist and think that we are complying with the instructions. In trying to
stand tall by arching their backs in extension, people usually think they
are lengthening their spines when they are in fact contracting them.
Disciplines of somatic education deploy exercises of representational

Shaun Gallagher, for example, in defending the (vague and contested) distinction
between “body schema” (functioning automatically and “prenoetically” beneath the level
of consciousness) and “body image” (involving conscious perception and personal aware-
ness) builds his case by contrasting between normal behavior of people who can simply
rely on their unconscious body schema for successful performance without any need
for improvement through “conscious re¬‚exive attention” and pathological cases (such
as deafferented patients) who require such attention because their motor schema have
been impaired or destroyed. See Gallagher™s instructive book, How the Body Shapes the
Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), which I review in Theory, Culture, and
Society, 24, no. 1 (2007): 152“156.
12 As Alexander documents our “unreliable sensory appreciation” or “debauched kinaes-

thesia” with respect to how our bodies are oriented and used, so Moshe Feldenkrais
argues that if the term “normal” should designate what should be the norm for healthy
humans, then we should more accurately describe most people™s somatic sense and
use of themselves as “average” rather than normal. For a comparative account of the
nature and philosophical import of Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method, see
Performing Live, ch. 8. The cited phrases are from Alexander™s Constructive Conscious Con-
trol, 148“149.
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 65

awareness to treat such problems of misperception and misuse of our
bodies in the spontaneous and habitual behavior that Merleau-Ponty
identi¬es as primal and celebrates as miraculously ¬‚awless in normal
Though exaggerating our unre¬‚ective somatic pro¬ciency, Merleau-
Ponty cannot generally be condemned for overestimating the body™s
powers. For he highlights the body™s distinctive weakness in other ways,
including its grave cognitive limitations of self-observation. Indeed, his
insistence on the miraculous ef¬cacy of the spontaneous body (and on
the consequent irrelevance of representational, re¬‚ective consciousness
for enhancing our somatic performance) helps keep the body weaker
than it could be by implying that there is no reason or way to improve
its performance through the use of representations. Conversely, his com-
pelling defense of bodily limitations as structurally essential to our human
capacities could also discourage efforts to overcome entrenched somatic
impediments, for fear that such efforts would ultimately weaken us by
disturbing the fundamental structuring handicaps on which our powers
in fact rely.
This suggests another reason Merleau-Ponty might resist the contribu-
tion of re¬‚ective somatic consciousness and its bodily representations.
Disciplines of somaesthetic awareness are usually aimed not simply at
knowing our bodily condition and habits but at changing them. Even
awareness alone can (to some extent) change our somatic experience and
relation to our bodies. Merleau-Ponty acknowledges this when he argues
that re¬‚ective thinking cannot really capture our primordial unre¬‚ec-
tive experience because the representations of such thinking inevitably
change our basic experience by introducing categories and conceptual
distinctions that were not originally given there. He especially condemns
the posited distinctions of representational explanations of experience
(whether mechanistic or rationalistic) for generating “the dualism of
consciousness and body” (PoP, 138), while blinding us to the unity of
primordial perception.
However, the fact that representational explanations do not adequately
explain our primordial perception does not imply they are not useful for
other purposes, such as improving our habits. Change of habits can in
turn change our spontaneous perceptions, whose unity and spontane-
ity will be restored once the new improved habit becomes entrenched.
In short, we can af¬rm the unity and unre¬‚ective quality of primary
perceptual experience while also endorsing re¬‚ective body conscious-
ness that deploys representational thought for both the reconstruction
Body Consciousness

of better primary experience and the intrinsic rewards of somaesthetic
In modifying one™s relation to one™s body, disciplines of somatic mind-
fulness (like other forms of somatic training) also highlight differences
between people. Different individuals often have very different styles of
body use (and misuse). Moreover, what one learns through sustained
training in somatic awareness is not simply “what every man knows well”
through the immediate grasp of primordial perception and unthinking
habit. Many of us do not know (and may never learn) what it is like to
feel the location of each vertebra and rib proprioceptively without touch-
ing them with our hands. Nor does everyone recognize, when he or she
is reaching out for something, precisely which part of his or her body
(¬ngers, arm, shoulder, pelvis, or head) initiates the movement.
If philosophy™s goal is simply to clarify and renew the universal and
permanent in our embodied human condition by restoring our recogni-
tion of primordial experience and its ontological givens, then the whole
project of improving one™s somatic perception and functioning through
self-conscious re¬‚ection will be dismissed as a philosophical irrelevancy.


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