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According to philosopher Immanuel Kant, experience is “empirical knowledge,” which is knowledge that is acquired by means of humans’ practical engagement, encounter, and direct, immediate perception of events or phenomena (Kant, 1781). Philosophers and phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have debated whether experience is purely a conscious process. Within this debate, early phenomenologists stood on the shoulders of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a leading proponent of Cartesian dualism, a line of philosophical and social inquiry that encourages a radical distinction between the mind and the body in which the mind and body are viewed as separate and mental or conscious processes are seen as superior to bodily processes. Hence, in studying conscious experience, philosophers and social scientists were primarily interested in examining and representing human thought rather than human bodies. Even within the discipline of anthropology, which gives attention to human races, societies, and cultures, Cartesian dualism led anthropologists to neglect attention to bodies. Instead, social anthropologists aspired to represent the world in terms of sociological rules and principles. Semiotic and symbolic anthropologists focused on representing the world in terms of signs and symbols. Structural and poststructural thinkers such as Jacques Derrida operated under the assumption that there is no reality beyond textual discourse. Anthropologists interested in the study of experience primarily focused on ways in which language communicates experience (Csordas, 1994). Theorists who incorporated Cartesian dualism in their study of human experience mistakenly assumed that bodies are purely “readable texts upon which social reality is ‘inscribed’” and subsequently took embodied experience for granted (Csordas, 1994).

French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty played an integral role in challenging Cartesian dualism’s theoretical assumption that human subjectivity is lodged within the realm of human consciousness. Through analyzing perception and sensory experience, Merleau-Ponty contended that human perception is intrinsically embodied. That is to say humans’ bodily physical senses factor strongly in how they perceive objects within society (Moore and Kosut, 2010; Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Merleau-Ponty argued that the body is not a mere object of consciousness; the body is humans’ means of knowing, perceiving, and experiencing the world. It is essentially humans’ means of “being-in-the-world” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Csordas, 1994). Embodiment focuses on “lived experience” or human experiences as it is “felt in the flesh” (Young, 2005). An embodiment approach to human experience holds that the body is itself an experiencingagent and the basis of subjectivity (Csordas, 1994: 8-9).

The body is an important point of entry to studying how humans physically experience the cultural, social, and physical world (Moore and Kosut, 2010; Todes, 2001). Persons’ experiences of emotions, trauma, disease, pain, pleasure, etc. are grounded in their bodies. Feminist theorists have come to acknowledge that studying embodiment is essential to understanding the lived experiences of women, including their experiences with pregnancy and menstruation (Young, 2005). Likewise, focusing on embodied experience instead of conscious experience is necessary to understand the distinct experiences of multiple cultural, racial, and social groups. Exploring embodied experience allows scholars to obtain a more complete understanding of how social customs, norms, and routines are lived, negotiated, and practiced.

Works cited

Csordas, Thomas J. ed. Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Rather than approaching the body as a text with cultural values written upon it, this edited volume views the body as the existential basis of culture and human experience. The authors proffer a phenomenological interpretation of culture that focuses on lived bodily human experience as its starting point. The contributors explore embodied experience through focusing on a broad array of themes including but not limited to the movement of bodies, emotive bodily expression, and somatic experiences of pain.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999, orig., 1781.

This dense, theoretically rich philosophical text is best read through reading Kant’s Prologomena to Any Future Metaphysics first. Nevertheless, Kant’s central objective in The Critique of Pure Reason is to determine the limits of reason or rational thought. Kant argues that human beings can only obtain knowledge of the world through their senses and experience. Kant argues that human beings cannot know the essence of things in themselves, shifting the focus of philosophical investigation from ontology (the study of essence) to epistemology (the study of knowledge). In regards to the discussion of experience, two concepts are important: a priori knowledge and a posterior knowledge. A priori knowledge is defined as knowledge that exists independent of experience, and a posteriori knowledge is defined as knowledge that is acquired empirically or through practical experience. The basic definition of experience discussed above is grounded in Kant’s concept of a posteriori knowledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge, 2012 [originally published in 1945]).

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception is a classic in the philosophical study of the body. Arguing that the body is the medium of perception (perception understood as the primary way we grasp reality in an intelligible manner), Merleau-Ponty sought to overcome the mind-body distinction that was present in Descartes, and remained present in his philosophical predecessor, Husserl (see above). One of Merleau-Ponty’s most important contributions is the fact that we are not distinct from the world, but “bathed” in it. In other words, we are as much a part of the world as the world is a part of us; and we come to understand this through the ways we use our bodies. For example, in order to read something, we must adjust our eyes—and also our bodies—in order to get at the right distance from a text in order for us to read it. Get too close or too far away, and a text becomes unintelligible. These descriptions underscore for Merleau-Ponty the reality that our bodies are the very medium of perception, of intelligibility; and because of this, Merleau-Ponty came to understand our existence as inseparable from our physical, social, and cultural surroundings.

Moore, Lisa Jean and Mary Kosut, ed. The Body Reader: Essential Social and Cultural Readings. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

This edited volume seeks to encourage scholars to move beyond the traditional Cartesian dualistic mind/body paradigm and to take embodiment seriously. The book provides a solid introduction to the theoretical discussion of embodiment and key concepts. The authors examine issues of gender, race, class, and sexuality through concentrating on four thematic areas: “vulnerable bodies,” “bodies as mediums,” “extraordinary bodies,” and “bodies in media.”

Todes, Samuel. Body and World. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2001.

Based on American philosopher Samuel Todes’ dissertation written in 1963, this seminal work carries Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Martin Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of the body further. Arguing that the human body is the material subject of the world, he explains ways that the independent physical world and nature interconnect with lived bodily experience. For example, the bodily capacity of coordination and movement is attained only as a result of humans’ navigation within the world. Humans find themselves in the process of discovering their surroundings in time and space. He argues that bodily activity and human perception are two sides of the same coin.

Young, Iris Marin. On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

In these collected essays, Iris Marin Young analyzes various facets of the lived bodily experiences of women. Employing a feminist critique, she uncovers ways that patriarchal social norms have inhibited and controlled women’s bodies. While she agrees with Toril Moi’s argument that feminist theorists should theorize women’s subjectivity through focusing on their lived bodily experiences, she argues that the concept of gender has some utility for theorizing social structure. Her remaining essays engage some basic aspects of women’s bodily experiences such as pregnancy, menstruation, and how women’s bodies move in time and space.

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