top of page

What is the body? In academia, there have been many different ways of conceiving of the body and its relationship to the world. More specifically, in recent scholarship in religion, the body has come to be an important topic. Here, we will explore two ways scholars have thought about the body, both of which have been important to the study of religion. One way is the historical/social way and the other is philosophical. As we shall see, both of these ways of analysis underscore the centrality of the body in human experience.

Historical/Social Analysis

…deployments of power are directly connected to the body—to bodies, functions, physiological processes, sensations, and pleasures; far from the body having to be effaced, what is needed is to make it visible through an analysis in which the biological and historical are not consecutive to one another… but are bound together in an increasingly complex fashion in accordance with the development of the modern technologies of power that take life as their objective” – Michel Foucault

The first way of thinking about and understanding the body we will explore is what one might call the historical/social way. This approach analyzes the relationship between bodies and their social and cultural surroundings. What historians and social theorists of the body are concerned about is how society and culture come to interact with and relate to our bodies—how, for example, the body comes to have social and cultural “meanings” within different places and times. Michel Foucault’s quotation above attests to this, particularly in terms of the relationship between bodies and “power,” or, in other words, how certain scientific, legal, and cultural forms of knowledge—what he calls discourse—have come to determine what bodies are, what they can and cannot do, and what they should and should not do. In Foucault’s analysis, the body is understood as a site upon which certain forms of knowledge and certain political practices are enacted. And, as we see, Foucault’s analysis of these practices is aimed at making the body more visible; without bodies, these practices have no meaning or potency, and Foucault’s work would not make sense or have any influence at all.

One of the great insights from this approach is the idea that the meaning of the body constantly changes. Because society changes constantly, technological and scientific advancements happen more rapidly, and human culture creates different meanings for bodies. (historian Thomas Laqueur, for example, shows that the “two-sex” model of “male” and “female” is only a very recent phenomenon). This approach is concerned not only with the relationship between bodies and their physical and social surroundings, but also with how these bodies change over time—that is, how our bodies come to have different meanings and capacities as human societies and cultures continue.

This approach also underscores the interconnectedness of embodiment and society, or embodiment and culture. Within this approach, the body does not stand “behind” or “above” societal, legal, scientific, and cultural developments; rather, it is constantly being “made” and “remade” in light of such developments and movements.

This understanding of the body as interconnected to society also results in a new way of thinking about the body—namely, the social body. Thinkers such as Mary Douglass (along with Michel Foucault), through their research, realized that societies often use the physical body as a model for structuring themselves. We see this, of course, in religious communities (the “body of Christ,” for example), but we also see it in economic and cultural arrangements as well. As a metaphor for society, the social body acts upon the individual physical body in many different ways, and you will see this in many of the essays on this website.

As noted above, the historical/social approach has provided many important insights—one of which is showing how social and cultural structures come to change the meaning of the body over time. However, one might understand this approach as not attending to the “fleshiness” of the body. In other words, while these thinkers analyze the relations between bodies and their physical and social surroundings, they often overlook the “concrete” aspects of our fleshy existence—our experiences of pleasure or pain, for example.

The Philosophical Approach

“Sensing, however, invests the quality with a living value, grasps it first in its signification for us, for this weighty mass that is our body, and as a result sensing always includes a reference to the body.” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty

“Theorizing from the ruins of the Logos invites the following question: ‘What about the materiality of the body?” – Judith Butler

The philosophical approach is concerned with the relationship between the body and intelligibility. Intelligibility is a large word that means “making sense.” In other words, the philosophical approach to the body provides an analysis of how the body is involved in the process of us coming to understand the world. In Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s quote, for example, he is discussing how sensing—that is, making sense of the world—is always occurring in and through our bodies. The physical body for Merleau-Ponty is a medium, a space through which the rest of the world comes to have any meaning at all. Pain and pleasure, for example, are physical ways of making sense of one’s world.

Judith Butler, who is heavily influenced by Michel Foucault, tries to understand how the material or physical nature of the body figures into our experiences of and in the world. In other words, her work aims at showing how even the physical nature of the body—particularly “sex” or “gender”—is wrapped up in the many ways we come to experience, think about, and make sense of our world and our relationships in it (in the United States, we typically do not think about our bodies without already thinking about gender and race, for example). For Butler, this process of “making sense” has much to do with language and discourse. In her presentation of other philosophical thinking on the body, she shows how the material body is already framed by language—particularly gendered language. This places her in a different camp than that of Merleau-Ponty, who is primarily concerned with experience as the starting point for thinking about the flesh. Butler is certainly concerned with experience; however, she cannot understand experience as divested from certain discursive and philosophical structures into which we are born.

One of the great insights philosophical thinking on the body brings is the idea of subjectivity and a sustained focus on experience as the starting point for analysis. Merleau-Ponty, for example, does this repeatedly in The Phenomenology of Perception, with his analysis of how one comes to see certain colors in one’s experience. Butler does this through psychoanalysis in her discussion of novelist Nella Larsen’s work. And long before both Merleau-Ponty and Butler, René Descartes developed a sense of the nature of embodiment through his experience with a piece of wax. Philosophers are primarily concerned with how we come to know who and what we are, and they often do this through a turn to experience.

However, one of the drawbacks of the philosophical approach is that, until recently, philosophers have been concerned with essences, that is, things that don’t change. Plato, for example, sought to find those unchangeable structures that served as templates for our world; René Descartes thought that we were, in essence, “thinking things,” and this is what exactly made us human. And Edmund Husserl claimed that, through a shift in one’s perception, one could very well decipher the unchangeable structures that made our world work. For those philosophers who have worked with the body, it is often that the meaning of the body doesn’t change, and this meaning is often juxtaposed against an understanding of the mind. Too often the body (in the aforementioned cases of Plato and Descartes, for example) is deemed as less valuable or important as the mind. This hasn’t always been the case, however. Judith Butler is a great counterexample to this, as she is concerned precisely with how the meaning of sex and gender can and do change, and how these changes are part of the process of making sense of our world. The body and the mind are both very important to understanding our world. However, she is able to do this because she is heavily influenced by the historical/social approach. As Butler shows, combining these approaches can be quite useful.


Both approaches featured here—both the historical-social and the philosophical—provide useful insights for understanding and thinking about the body, and more specifically, its relationship to what we call “religion.” It is important to note that both approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. Foucault, for example relies heavily on philosophical thinking (particularly the work of Friedrich Nietzsche) to approach his work; and, as we have shown above, Judith Butler is heavily influenced by the historical/social approach in her work. Furthermore, despite their differences (and overlap), both of these approaches highlight the centrality of the body (even if it is conceived in many different ways) in human life and experience. In these modes of analysis, the body remains central; neither power, knowledge, meaning, intelligibility, nor identity can be understood without reference to our bodies.

Underscoring this centrality has profound effects on the study of religion. Whether religion is understood as an “eminently social thing,” a process of rationalization, “the quest for complex subjectivity,” or a paradoxical experience of something “wholly other” that is terrifying and extremely attractive at the same time, bodies remain vital in religious studies and whatever might be deemed as “religious experience.” As the essays on this website will show, focusing on the body’s relationship to some of the central categories of religion (ritual studies, theology, literature, and art are a few examples) will demonstrate how important our existence as flesh is to the study, the practice, and the experience of religion. Philosopher Rene Descartes once remarked that we could not be separated from our bodies; as you peruse the website, you will see that there are scholars of religion who have come to take this comment seriously.

bottom of page