Visual by Anjali
Western Philosophy observes a distinction of mind-body since the time of Plato. The ‘rational’, as it is equated with the mind, stands above ‘emotions’, as equated with the body. Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) marked the culmination of this mind-body dualism, wherein both elements were irrefutable and distinct. Yet, the philosophers had left a question unanswered- how and where did the mind and body interact?
Embodiment is the other end of this spectrum, opposing dualism with its emphasis on the body being involved real time in our interaction with the world. But what does it mean to be embodied? In everyday parlance, embodiment refers to the body being included in our cognitive resources. These cognitive resources help us make sense of the environment. Our perception and action are thus involved in our cognition.
Phenomenologist (philosophers engaged in ‘describing phenomena’) such as Edmund Husserl wrote on the phenomenology of the lived body, understanding the world to be made up of experiences. He focused on the intentional nature of our minds, the necessity of them always being about something. In this setting, the body is “no longer just our sensible apparatus…it creates experiences. It is an active principle of the interpretation of the world”. For Martin Heidegger, Husserl’s student, our ‘everydayness’ is attestation to us being thrown and involved in the world. A table is more than just a table. It becomes a place for his discussions or a place for his sons to spend time. This involvement of ours engages a complex network of things, invoking our ‘care’ for being in the world. For Merleau-Ponty, his magnum opus Phenomenology of Perception focuses on our situatedness in an embodied space i.e. “to be in a certain position with reference to other spatial things”.
On the basis of these philosophies, cognitive science has provided concepts such as Embodied Cognition, Enactivism and Radical Enactivism. They dispute the status quo with the claim that we are more than our minds; instead “the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment”. For example, George Lakoff, a notable figure in the field, observed through his work on metaphors how semantics crop up from our bod y(“I have control over him”, “I am on top of the situation”).
The link between phenomenology and cognitive science is thus undisputed. Borratt, Kelly and Kwan put forth this relationship succinctly, “Embodiment, as understood phenomenologically, represents the condition of intelligibility of certain terms in our experience and, as such, refers to one aspect of that background which presupposes our understanding of the world.”Additionally, consequences of this approach can be perceived in the field of body politics and sexuality. Instead of being an innocuous passive receptor or shell, the body is now an active involved being.
Chouraqui, Frank; The Body and Embodiment: A Philosophical Guide
Bakewell, Sarah (2017) At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 1908-1961. Phenomenology of Perception. London : New York :Routledge & K. Paul; Humanities Press, 1974.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1981). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago Press.
Donald Borrett , Sean Kelly & Hon Kwan (2000) Bridging embodied cognition and brain function: The role of phenomenology, Philosophical Psychology
Katyayani Singh is a philosophy postgraduate student from Delhi University. Her areas of interest are phenomenology, cognitive science and psychology.