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Worse, it will be seen as a threatening change and distraction from the
originary level of perception that is celebrated as philosophy™s ultimate
ground, focus, and goal. Merleau-Ponty™s commitment to a ¬xed, uni-
versal phenomenological ontology based on primordial perception thus
provides further reason for dismissing the value of explicit somatic con-
sciousness. Being more concerned with individual differences and con-
tingencies, with future-looking change and reconstruction, with plural-
ities of practice that can be used by individuals and groups for improv-
ing on primary experience, pragmatism is more receptive to re¬‚ective
somatic consciousness and its disciplinary uses for philosophy. William
James made somatic introspection central to his research in philosophy
of mind, while John Dewey went further by advocating re¬‚ective body
consciousness to improve one™s self-knowledge and self-use.


IV
Given his philosophical agenda, Merleau-Ponty has adequate motives
for neglecting or even resisting re¬‚ective body consciousness. But do

13 Dewey recognizes this by advocating the re¬‚ective “conscious control” of Alexander Tech-

nique, while continuing to urge the primary importance of unre¬‚ective, immediate
experience. On the fruitful dialectic between re¬‚ective body consciousness and body
spontaneity, see Practicing Philosophy, ch. 6 and Chapters 5 and 6 in this volume.
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 67

they constitute compelling arguments or should we instead conclude
that Merleau-Ponty™s project of body-centered phenomenology could be
usefully supplemented by a greater recognition of the functions and value
of re¬‚ective body consciousness? We can explore this question by recast-
ing our discussion of Merleau-Ponty™s motives into the following seven
lines of argument.
1. If attention to re¬‚ective somatic consciousness and its bodily rep-
resentations obscures the recognition of our more basic unre¬‚ective
embodied perception and its primary importance, then re¬‚ective somatic
consciousness should be resisted. This argument has a problematic ambi-
guity in its initial premise. Our re¬‚ective somatic consciousness does dis-
tract us for a time from unre¬‚ective perception (since attention to any-
thing inevitably means a momentary obscuring of some other things).
But somatic re¬‚ection need not always or permanently blind us to the
unre¬‚ective, especially because such re¬‚ection is not (nor is meant to
be) constantly sustained. The use of somatic re¬‚ection in most body dis-
ciplines is not meant to preclude unre¬‚ective perception and habit, but
instead to improve them, by putting them into temporary focus so they
can be retrained. If such body disciplines can af¬rm the primacy of unre-
¬‚ective behavior while also endorsing the need for conscious representa-
tions to monitor and correct it, then so can somatic philosophy. Besides,
if we adopt Merleau-Ponty™s claim that experience always depends on the
complementarity of ¬gure-ground contrast, we could then argue that
any real appreciation of unre¬‚ective perception depends on its distinc-
tive contrast from re¬‚ective consciousness, just as the latter clearly relies
on the background of the former.
2. Merleau-Ponty rightly maintains that re¬‚ective consciousness and
somatic representations are not only unnecessary but also ineffective
for explaining our ordinary perception and behavior, which are usually
unre¬‚ective. From that premise, one might infer that representational
somatic awareness is a misleading irrelevancy. But this conclusion does
not follow: ¬rst, because there is more to explain in human experience
than our unproblematic unre¬‚ective perceptions and actions. Represen-
tational somatic consciousness can help us with respect to cases where
spontaneous competencies break down and where unre¬‚ective habits
are targeted for correction. Moreover, explanatory power is not the only
criterion of value. Somaesthetic re¬‚ection and its representations can
be useful not for explaining ordinary experience but for altering it and
supplementing it.
3. This prompts a further argument. If the changes that somatic re¬‚ec-
tion introduces into experience are essentially undesirable, then, on
Body Consciousness
68

pragmatic grounds, it should be discouraged. Merleau-Ponty shows how
re¬‚ection™s representations form the core of both mechanistic and intel-
lectualist accounts of behavior that promote mind/body dualism. Re¬‚ec-
tive somatic consciousness thus seems condemned for engendering a
falsely fragmented view of experience, a view that eventually infects our
experience itself and blinds us to the unre¬‚ective unity of primary per-
ception.14 But the misuse of representational somatic thinking in some
explanatory contexts does not entail its global condemnation. Likewise,
to af¬rm the value of representational somatic consciousness is not to
deny the existence, value, or even primacy of the unre¬‚ective. Repre-
sentational and re¬‚ective consciousness, I repeat, can serve alongside
somatic spontaneity as a useful supplement and corrective.
4. Merleau-Ponty prizes the body™s mystery and limitations as essential
to its productive functioning. He repeatedly touts the miraculous way
we perform our actions without any conscious re¬‚ection at all. Could he,
then, argue pragmatically that re¬‚ective somatic consciousness should be
resisted because it endangers such mystery and “effective” weakness? This
argument rests on a confusion. The claim that we can do something effec-
tively without explicit or representational consciousness does not imply
that we cannot also do it with such consciousness and that such conscious-
ness cannot improve our performance. In any case, plenty of mystery and
limitation will always remain. Somaesthetic re¬‚ection could never claim
to provide our bodies with total transparency or perfect power, since our
mortality, frailty, and perspectival situatedness preclude this. But the fact
that certain basic bodily limits can never be overcome is not a compelling
argument against trying to expand, to some extent, our somatic powers
through re¬‚ection and explicit conscious control.
5. Here we face a further argument. Re¬‚ection impairs our somatic
performance by disrupting spontaneous action based on unre¬‚ective
habit. Unre¬‚ective acts are quicker and easier than deliberatively exe-
cuted behavior. Moreover, by not engaging explicit consciousness, such
unre¬‚ective action enables better focusing of consciousness on the tar-
gets at which action is aimed. A well-trained batter can hit the ball better
when he is not re¬‚ecting on the tension in his knees and wrists or imagin-
ing the pelvic movement in his swing. Not having to think of such things,
he can better concentrate on seeing and reacting to the sinking fastball


14 Merleau-Ponty complains that re¬‚ective thought “detaches subject and object from each

other, and . . . gives us only the thought about the body, or the body as an idea, and not the
experience of the body” (PoP, 198“99). But this is not true for disciplines of somaesthetic
re¬‚ection that focus on the body as concretely experienced.
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 69

he must hit. Somatic self-re¬‚ection would here prevent him from react-
ing in time. Deliberative thinking can often ruin the spontaneous ¬‚ow
and ef¬cacy of action. If we try to visualize each word as we speak, our
speech will be slow and halting; we may even forget what we wanted to say.
In sexual behavior, if one thinks too much about what is happening in
one™s own body while visualizing to oneself what must happen for things
to go right, there is much more chance that something will go wrong.
Such cases show that explicit somatic consciousness can sometimes be
more of a problem than a solution. The conclusion, however, is not to
reject such consciousness altogether, but rather to re¬‚ect more carefully
on the ways it can be disciplined and deployed for the different contexts
and ends in which it can indeed be helpful.15 That there can sometimes
be too much of a good thing is also true for somatic awareness.
6. Describing the body as “la cachette de la vie” (“the place where life
hides away” in basic impersonal existence), Merleau-Ponty suggests yet
another argument against somatic mindfulness.16 Explicit concentration
on body feelings entails a withdrawal from the outer world of action, and
this change of focus impairs the quality of our perception and action
in that world: “when I become absorbed in my body, my eyes present
me with no more than the perceptible outer covering of things and of
other people, things themselves take on unreality, behavior degenerates
into the absurd.” To “become absorbed in the experience of my body
and in the solitude of sensations” is thus a disturbing danger from which
we are barely protected by the fact that our sense organs and habits are
always working to engage us in the outer world of life. Absorbed somatic
re¬‚ection thus risks losing the world but also one™s self, since the self is
de¬ned by our engagement with the world (PoP, 165).
Merleau-Ponty is right that an intense focus on somatic sensations can
temporarily disorient our ordinary perspectives, disturbing our custom-
ary involvement with the world and our ordinary sense of self. But it

15 For a review (based on experimental studies) of the different ways and contexts in which
explicit self-awareness can be advantageous and disadvantageous, see T. D. Wilson and
E. W. Dunn, “Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value, and Potential for Improvement,” Annual
Review of Psychology, 55 (2004): 493“518. One apparent conclusion is that explicit aware-
ness helps in learning stages but often tends to interfere later. A more recent study
con¬rms that “aware subjects demonstrated a small but signi¬cant advantage in their
ability to adapt their motor commands,” see E. J. Hwang, M. A. Smith, and R. Shadmehr,
“Dissociable Effects of the Implicit and Explicit Memory Systems on Learning Control
of Reaching,” Experimental Brain Research, 173, no. 3 (2006): 425“437, quotation on
425.
16 The French expression is from Pdp, 192 and is rendered by the parenthetical quotation

in English from PoP, 164.
Body Consciousness
70

is wrong to conclude that absorption in bodily feelings is essentially a
primitive impersonal level of awareness, beneath the notions of both self
and world, and thus con¬ned to what he calls “the anonymous alertness
of the senses” (PoP, 164). One can be self-consciously absorbed in one™s
bodily feelings; somatic self-consciousness involves a re¬‚ective awareness
that one™s self is experiencing the sensations on which one™s attention
is focused. Of course, this “turning in” of bodily consciousness on itself
involves to some extent withdrawing attention from the outside world,
though that world always makes its presence somehow felt. A pure feeling of
one™s body alone is an abstraction. One cannot really feel oneself somatically with-
out also feeling something of the external world. If I lie down, close my eyes,
and carefully try to feel just my body in itself, I will also feel the way it
makes contact with the ¬‚oor and sense the space between my limbs. (And
if I do so with attentive somatic self-consciousness, I will likewise feel it is
I who am lying on the ¬‚oor and focusing on my bodily feelings.) In any
case, if somaesthetics™ de¬‚ection of attention to our bodily consciousness
involves a temporary retreat from the world of action, this retreat can
greatly advance our self-knowledge and self-use so that we will return to
the world as more skillful observers and agents. It is the somatic logic of
reculer pour mieux sauter.
Consider an example. If one wants to look over one™s shoulder to see
something behind one™s back, most people will spontaneously lower their
shoulder while turning their head. This seems logical but is (and should
feel) skeletally wrong; dropping the shoulder constrains the rib and chest
area and thus greatly limits the spine™s range of rotation, which is what
really enables us to see behind ourselves. By withdrawing our attention
momentarily from the world behind us and by instead focusing attentively
on the alignment of our body parts in rotating the head and spine, we
can learn how to turn better and see more, creating a new habit that
eventually will be unre¬‚ectively performed.
7. Merleau-Ponty™s most radical argument against re¬‚ective somatic
observation is that one simply cannot observe one™s own body at all,
because it is the permanent, invariant perspective through which we
observe other things. Unlike ordinary objects, the body “de¬es explo-
ration and is always presented to me from the same angle . . . To say that
it is always near me, always there for me, is to say that it is never really in
front of me, that I cannot array it before my eyes, that it remains marginal
to all my perceptions, that it is with me.” I cannot change my perspective
with respect to my body as I can with external objects. “I observe external
objects with my body, I handle them, examine them, walk round them,
The Silent, Limping Body of Philosophy 71

but my body itself is a thing which I do not observe: in order to be able
to do so, I should need the use of a second body” (PoP, 90“91). “I am
always on the same side of my body; it presents itself to me in one invari-
able perspective” (VI, 148).
It is certainly true that we cannot observe our own lived bodies in exactly
the same way we do external objects, since our bodies are precisely the
tools through which we observe anything and since one cannot entirely
array one™s body before one™s eyes (because our eyes themselves are part
of the body). However, it does not follow from these points that we cannot
observe our lived bodies in important ways. First, it is wrong to identify
somatic observation narrowly with being “before my eyes.” Though we
cannot see our eyes without the use of a mirroring device, we can, with
concentration, observe directly how they feel from the inside in terms of
muscle tension, volume, and movement, even while we are using them
to see. We can also observe our closed eyes by touching them from the
outside with our hands. This shows, moreover, that our perspective on our
bodies is not entirely ¬xed and invariant. We can examine them in terms
of different sense modalities; and even if we use a single modality, we
can scan the body from different angles and with different perspectives
of focus. Lying on the ¬‚oor with my eyes closed and relying only on
proprioceptive sensing, I can scan my body from head to foot or vice
versa, in terms of my alignment of limbs or my sense of body volume, or
from the perspective of the pressure of my different body parts on the
¬‚oor or of their distance from the ¬‚oor. Of course, if we eschew somatic
re¬‚ection, then we are far more likely to have an invariant perspective
on our bodies “ that of primitive, unfocused experience and unre¬‚ective
habit, precisely the kind of primordial unthematized perception that
Merleau-Ponty champions.
Merleau-Ponty™s notion of bodily subjectivity might provide a last-ditch
argument against the possibility of observing one™s own lived body. In his
critique of “double sensations” (PoP, 93), he insists that if our body is the
observing subject of experience, then it cannot at the same time be the
object of observation. Hence, we cannot really observe our perceiving
bodies, just as we cannot use our left hand to feel our right hand (as an
object) while the right hand is feeling an object. Even in his later “The
Intertwining “ The Chiasm,” where Merleau-Ponty insists that the body™s
essential “reversibility” of being both sensing and sensed is crucial to our
ability to grasp the world, he strongly cautions that this reversibility of
being both observer and observed, while “always imminent,” is “never
realized in fact” through complete simultaneity or exact “coincidence.”
Body Consciousness
72

One cannot at the very same time feel one™s hand as touching and
touched, one™s voice speaking and heard (VI, 147“148). In short, one
cannot simultaneously experience one™s body as both subject and object.
So if the lived body is always the observing subject, then it can never be
observed as an object. Besides, as G. H. Mead claims, the observing “I”
cannot directly grasp itself in immediate experience, since by the time
it tries to catch itself, it has already become an objecti¬ed “me” for the
grasping “I” of the next moment.
Such arguments can be met in different ways. First, given the essen-
tial vagueness of the notion of subjective simultaneity, we could argue
that, practically speaking, one can simultaneously have experiences of
touching and being touched, of feeling our voices from inside while
hearing them from without, even if the prime focus of our attention may
sometimes vacillate rapidly between the two perspectives within the very
short duration of time we phenomenologically identify as the present
and which, as James long ago recognized, is always a “specious present,”
involving memory of an immediate past.17 Part of what seems to disrupt
the experience of simultaneous perception of our bodies as both sensing
and being sensed is simply the fact that the polarity of these perspec-
tives is imposed on our experience by the binary framing of the thought
experiment, a case where philosophy™s re¬‚ection “prejudges what it will
¬nd” (VI, 130). Moreover, even if it is a fact that most experimental sub-
jects cannot feel their bodies feeling, this may simply be due to their

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