This is the first of a number of posts that introduce thinkers who’ve been especially influential on my work. I begin with the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), who was a pioneer in the study of embodiment.
Merleau-Ponty was fascinated by our ‘being-in-the-world’ – the way our consciousness is incarnate in the world. Our awareness doesn’t emerge from a disembodied mind floating somewhere beyond physical reality, but is part of an active relationship between us and the world.
He concluded that the process by which we come to understand the world emerges from a unity between subjects and objects that is the direct result of our embodiment. As he rather beautifully puts it, “[m]y body is the fabric into which all objects are woven” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Though his primary concern was with perception as an embodied process, he understood our entire being-in-the-world in the same way:
“As I contemplate the blue of the sky … I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it ‘thinks itself within me,’ I am the sky itself as it is drawn together and unified, and as it begins to exist for itself; my consciousness is saturated with this limitless blue … ”
Practical, embodied knowing is difficult – if not impossible – to express in words and quite different from the theoretical knowledge we can talk about. Think about the last time you used your computer keyboard: If you have any familiarity with it, you didn’t need to think about where the keys were. In an odd sense you don’t know; if I asked you to draw the keyboard layout for me, you would probably find it impossible. This is a “knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). This upsets the Cartesian world-view, because it’s a form of knowing that transcends subject/object dualism: The ‘I’ that knows is tangled with what is known.