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hatha yoga, Zen meditation, and t™ai chi ch™uan. As Japanese philosopher
Yuasa Yasuo insists, the concept of “personal cultivation,” or shugy¯ (ano

3 Timaeus (88), trans. H. D. P. Lee (London: Penguin, 1965), 116“117.
4 See Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks, 2 vols. (Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), vol. 1: 91, 95, 221; vol. 2: 215, 653; cf. 1: 22, 153,
163; and Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates (London: Penguin, 1990), 172.
5 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 2: 71“73.
Body Consciousness

obvious analogue of “care of the self”), is presupposed in Eastern thought
as “the philosophical foundation” because “true knowledge cannot be
obtained simply by means of theoretical thinking, but only through ˜bod-
ily recognition or realization™ (tainin or taitoku).”6 From its very begin-
nings, East“Asian philosophy has insisted on the bodily dimension of
self-knowledge and self-cultivation. When the Confucian Analects advo-
cate daily examining one™s person in the quest for self-improvement,
the word translated as “person” is actually the Chinese word for body
(shen ). Arguing that care of the body is the basic task and responsibil-
ity without which we cannot successfully perform all our other tasks and
duties, Mencius claims, “The functions of the body are the endowment
of Heaven. But it is only a Sage who can properly manipulate them.”7
The classic Daoist thinkers Laozi and Zhuangzi similarly urge the special
importance of somatic care: “He who loves his body more than domin-
ion over the empire can be given the custody of the empire.”8 “You have
only to take care and guard your own body . . . [and] other things will of
themselves grow sturdy;” “the sage is concerned . . . [with] the means by
which to keep the body whole and to care for life”; “being complete in
body, he is complete in spirit; and to be complete in spirit is the Way of
the sage.”9
This is not the place to explore these ancient and non-Western philoso-
phies of somatic self-care, nor to explain somatic philosophy™s eclipse
in modernity and its displaced resurgence in twentieth-century body
theorists-cum-therapists like Wilhelm Reich, F. M. Alexander, or Moshe
Feldenkrais. However fascinating these topics are, I prefer here to focus
on developing a conception of philosophy as a distinctively embodied
and somatically self-conscious practice of transformative cultivation of the
self by exploring Foucault™s rich but controversial contributions to this

6 Yuasa Yasuo, The Body: Toward an Eastern Mind-Body Theory, trans. S. Nagatomo and T. P.
Kasulis (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), 25. In Yuasa™s later book, The Body, Self-Cultivation,
and Ki-Energy, trans. S. Nagatomo and M. S. Hull (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), the term
shugyo is translated as “self-cultivation.” Derived from combining the two Chinese charac-
ters that respectively stand for “mastery” and “practice,” shugy¯ literally means to “master
a practice,” but the idea that this requires self-cultivation and self-mastery is implicit and
7 See The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, trans. Roger Ames and Henry

Rosemont, Jr. (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 72; Mencius, trans. W. A. C. H. Dobson
(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963), 144; cf. 138.
8 Tao Te Ching, trans. D. C. Lau (London: Penguin, 1963), 17 (XIII).
9 The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, trans. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University

Press, 1968), 120, 135, 313.
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 19

idea.10 First, I propose somaesthetics as a systematic framework in which
his work can be usefully situated. I then consider important objections
both to Foucault™s speci¬c somaesthetic program and more generally to
the idea of somaesthetics as a ¬eld of theory and practice: these include
charges of narrowness, sensualism, hedonistic triviality, and apolitical

Somaesthetics can be provisionally de¬ned as the critical meliorative
study of one™s experience and use of one™s body as a locus of sensory-
aesthetic appreciation (aesthesis) and creative self-fashioning. It is there-
fore also devoted to the knowledge, discourses, and disciplines that struc-
ture such somatic care or can improve it. If we put aside philosophical
prejudice against the body and instead simply recall philosophy™s central
aims of knowledge, self-knowledge, right action, happiness, and justice,
then the philosophical value of somaesthetics should become evident.
1. Since knowledge is largely based on sensory perception whose reli-
ability often proves questionable, philosophy has long been concerned
with critique of the senses, exposing their limits and avoiding their mis-
guidance by subjecting them to discursive reason. Western modernity has
essentially con¬ned this philosophical project to the analysis and critique
of sensory propositional judgments that de¬nes traditional epistemol-
ogy. The complementary route offered by somaesthetics is to correct the
actual performance of our senses by an improved direction of one™s body,
since the senses belong to and are conditioned by the soma. If the body
is our primordial instrument in grasping the world, then we can learn
more of the world by improving the conditions and use of this instru-
ment. A person unable to turn her head to look behind her because of
a stiff neck (typically caused by bad habits of clenching the upper body,
which hinders the shoulders and ribs from swiveling) will see less and

10 This work includes not only Foucault™s three volumes of The History of Sexuality, but also his

numerous short essays, lectures, course summaries, discussions, and interviews dealing
with body practices, sexuality, and the ethics and technologies of self, many of which are
collected in Sylv` re Lotringer, ed., Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961“1984, trans.
Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston (New York: Semiotext(e),1996), hereafter FL; and in
the three volumes of Paul Rabinow, ed., The Essential Works of Michel Foucault, 1954“1984,
trans. Robert Hurley and others (New York: Free Press, 1997), drawn from the more
complete collection, Dits et Ecrits, ed., D. Defert and F. Ewald, originally published in four
volumes by Gallimard in 1994. I refer below to the more recent Quarto edition (Paris:
Gallimard, 2001).
Body Consciousness

perceive less reliably. If our hand muscles are too tightly contracted, we
are less able to make ¬ne perceptual discriminations of the qualities of
soft or subtle surfaces that we touch. As Socrates recognized that physical
ill health (through consequent organ malfunctioning or mental fatigue)
could cause error, so disciplines like the Alexander Technique and the
Feldenkrais Method (and older Asian practices of hatha yoga and Zen
meditation) seek to improve the acuity, health, and control of our senses
by cultivating heightened attention and mastery of their somatic func-
tioning, while also freeing us from the distorting grip of faulty bodily
habits that impair sensory performance.
2. If self-knowledge is a central aim of philosophy, then knowledge of
one™s bodily dimension must not be ignored. Recognizing the body™s com-
plex ontological structure as both material object in the world and inten-
tional subjectivity directed toward the world, somaesthetics is concerned
not only with the body™s external form or representation but also with its
lived experience; somaesthetics works toward improved awareness of our
feelings, thus providing greater insight into both our passing moods and
lasting attitudes. It can therefore reveal and improve somatic malfunc-
tions that normally go undetected even though they impair our well-being
and performance. Consider two examples. We rarely notice our breath-
ing, but its rhythm and depth provide rapid, reliable evidence of our
emotional state. Consciousness of breathing can therefore make us aware
that we are angry or anxious when we might otherwise remain unaware
of these feelings and thus vulnerable to their misdirection. Similarly, an
unnecessary chronic muscular contraction that not only constrains move-
ment but also can result in tension or even pain may nonetheless go
unnoticed because it has become habitual. As unnoticed this chronic
contraction cannot be relieved, nor can its resultant disability and dis-
comfort. Yet increased somaesthetic awareness of our muscle tonus can
reveal such unconscious habits of chronic contraction that unknowingly
cause discomfort, and once such somatic malfunctioning is brought to
clear attention, there is a chance to modify it and avoid its unhealthy
3. A third central aim of philosophy is right action, for which we need
knowledge and self-knowledge but also effective will. Because action is
only achieved through the body, our power of volition “ the ability to
act as we will to act “ depends on somatic ef¬cacy. Knowing and desiring
the right action will not avail if we cannot will our bodies to perform it;
and our surprising inability to perform the most simple bodily tasks is
matched only by our astounding blindness to this inability, these failures
resulting from inadequate somaesthetic awareness and control.
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 21

Consider the struggling golfer who tries to keep her head down and her
eyes on the ball and who is completely convinced that she is doing so, even
though she miserably fails to. Her conscious will is unsuccessful because
deeply ingrained somatic habits override it, and she does not even notice
this failure because her habitual sense perception is so inadequate and
distorted that it feels as if the action intended is indeed performed as
willed. This golfer lifts her head against her will. But no one is forcing
her to lift it, nor is there any wired-in instinct that makes her lift it. So
her head lifting is not involuntary in these senses; yet, it is not what she
consciously wills. Her free will is thus blocked by the oppressive habits
of misuse and misperception of her body. In too much of our action,
we are like the “head-lifting” golfer whose will, however strong, remains
impotent by lacking the somatic sensibility to make it effective. Such
misperception and weakening of the will stunts virtue. Advanced today
by body therapists outside the bounds of legitimized philosophy, this line
of argument has ancient philosophical credentials. Diogenes the Cynic
was not alone in employing it to advocate rigorous body training as “that
whereby, with constant exercise, perceptions are formed such as secure
freedom of movement for virtuous deeds.”11
4. Pursuit of virtue and self-mastery is traditionally integrated into
ethics™ quest for better living. If philosophy is concerned with the pur-
suit of happiness, then somaesthetics™ concern with the body as the locus
and medium of our pleasures clearly deserves more philosophical atten-
tion. Even the joys and stimulations of so-called pure thought are (for
us embodied humans) in¬‚uenced by somatic conditioning and require
muscular contraction; they can therefore be intensi¬ed or more acutely
savored through improved somatic awareness and discipline. Even asce-
tics who castigate the ¬‚esh to seek their higher happiness still must make
their bodies crucial to their pursuit. Recent philosophy has strangely
devoted so much inquiry to the ontology and epistemology of pain, while
so little to its psychosomatic mastery or transformation into pleasure.
5. Beyond these four important but much neglected points, Foucault™s
seminal vision of the body as a docile, malleable site for inscribing social
power reveals the crucial role the soma can play in political philosophy
and the question of justice. It offers a way of understanding how complex
hierarchies of power can be widely exercised and reproduced without
any need to make them explicit in laws or to enforce them of¬cially; they
are implicitly observed and enforced simply through our bodily habits,

11 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 2:71; cf. 1:221; 2:119 for Aristippus and
Body Consciousness

including habits of feeling that have bodily roots. Entire ideologies of
domination can thus be covertly materialized and preserved by encoding
them in somatic social norms that, as bodily habits, are typically taken for
granted and so escape critical consciousness. The norms that women of a
given culture should speak softly, eat daintily, sit with closed legs, assume
the passive role in copulation, walk with bowed heads and lowered eyes,
are embodied norms that both re¬‚ect and reinforce such gender oppres-
sion. Domination of this sort is especially hard to challenge because our
bodies have so deeply absorbed it that they themselves revolt against the
challenge “ as when a young secretary involuntarily blushes, trembles,
¬‚inches, or even cries when trying to raise a voice of protest toward some-
one she has been somatically trained to respect. Any successful challenge
of oppression should thus involve somaesthetic diagnosis of the bodily
habits and feelings that express the domination as well as the subtle insti-
tutional rules and methods of inculcating them, so that they, along with
the oppressive social conditions that generate them, can be overcome.
However, just as oppressive power relations are encoded and sustained
in our bodies, so they can be challenged by alternative somatic practices.
Fruitfully embraced by recent feminist and queer body theorists, this
Foucauldian message has long been part of the psychosomatic program
of thinkers like Reich and Feldenkrais. Af¬rming deep reciprocal in¬‚u-
ences between somatic and psychological development, such theorists
explain somatic malfunctioning as both a product and reinforcing cause
of personality problems, which themselves typically require re-educating
the body for their proper remedy. Similar claims are made by yogis and
Zen masters but also by bodybuilders and martial arts practitioners. In
these diverse disciplines, somatic training forms the heart of philosophy™s
care of the self, a prerequisite to mental well-being and psychological self-
The multifaceted dimensions and somatic nexus of these philosophical
concerns led me to propose somaesthetics as an interdisciplinary ¬eld of
study. For despite today™s palpable increase of theorizing concerning the
body, it tends to lack two important features. First, a structuring overview
or architectonic to integrate its very different, seemingly incommensu-
rable discourses into a more productively systematic ¬eld, some compre-
hensive framework that could fruitfully link the discourse of biopolitics
with therapies of bioenergetics or connect the ontology of supervenience
with the bodybuilding methods of supersets. The second thing lacking in
most current philosophical body theory is a clear pragmatic orientation “
something that the individual can directly translate into a discipline of
Somaesthetics and Care of the Self 23

improved somatic practice. Inspired by Foucault™s embodied vision of
care for the self, somaesthetics seeks to remedy both these de¬ciencies.

1. Somaesthetics, as I conceive it, has three fundamental branches, all
powerfully present in Foucault. The ¬rst, analytic somaesthetics, is an essen-
tially descriptive and theoretical enterprise devoted to explaining the
nature of our bodily perceptions and practices and their function in our
knowledge and construction of the world. Besides the traditional top-
ics in philosophy of mind, ontology, and epistemology that relate to the
mind-body issue and the role of somatic factors in consciousness and
action, analytic somaesthetics also includes the sort of genealogical, soci-
ological, and cultural analyses that Foucault so powerfully introduced
into contemporary philosophy and that has helped shape the somatic
theory of Pierre Bourdieu and feminist theorists such as Judith Butler
and Susan Bordo. Such studies show how the body is both shaped by
power and employed as an instrument to maintain it, how bodily norms
of health, skill, and beauty, and even our categories of sex and gender,
are constructed to re¬‚ect and sustain social forces.12 Foucault™s approach
to these somatic issues was typically genealogical, portraying the historical
emergence of various body doctrines, norms, and practices. This descrip-
tive approach could be extended by a comparative analysis that contrasts
the body views and practices of two or more synchronic cultures or even
an analysis that focuses on the somatic complexity of a single culture
with its variety of subcultures and classes. But the value of such historico-
cultural studies does not preclude a place for more general analyses of
embodiment, whether ontologically or phenomenologically oriented or
from perspectives involving the biological and cognitive sciences.13
2. In contrast to analytic somaesthetics whose logic (whether genealog-
ical or ontological) is descriptive, pragmatic somaesthetics has a distinctly

12 Among the wealth of excellent research in this area, I should at least note two pioneer
works that are similarly titled but very different in content: sociologist Bryan Turner™s


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