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Embodiment. Phenomenology East/West

Unter dem Titel „Embodiment“ werden in der aktuellen internationalen Debatte philosophische, soziologische, kulturwissenschaftliche und neurowissenschaftliche Perspektiven zusammengeführt, die der immer noch dominanten Vorstellung eines körperlosen Subjekts eine alternative begriffliche Konzeption entgegensetzen. Diese Kritik wendet sich gegen die Dichotomie von „Körper“ und „Geist“, vor allem aber gegen die Vernachlässigung des Körpers in der Theorie. Der gemeinsame Ausgangspunkt ist dabei der Sache nach der erlebte und gespürte Körper, der in der Phänomenologie als „Leib“ im Unterschied zum vergegenständlichten, von außen wahrgenommenen „Körper“ bezeichnet wird. Der Begriff des Leibes, zunächst von Husserl verwendet, ist für alle phänomenologischen Schulen zentral, da sich von ihm aus die Philosophie und ihre praktische Relevanz neu bestimmen lassen. Denn es ist der Leib, der als Medium der Orientierung in der Welt die Erfahrung nicht nur des eigenen, sondern auch fremder Körper allererst ermöglicht, selbst aber bisher weitgehend unbestimmt geblieben ist. Vor allem in der asiatischen Tradition wird die praktische Phänomenologie der Leiblichkeit als eine Einübung in die Beziehung von Ich und Welt verstanden.

Die Konferenz will unter dem Stichwort „Embodiment“ die divergierenden Entwicklungen der Phänomenologie in Ost und West in den Blick nehmen und die unterschiedlichen phänomenologischen Schulen (Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty etc.) miteinander in Kontakt bringen. Sie lädt zu Überlegungen darüber ein, wie die Phänomenologie die Grenzen im Denken zwischen Ost und West überwinden und zu einer gemeinsamen philosophischen Einstellung führen kann.

Embodiment. Phenomenology East/West

The philosophical tradition of phenomenology, which in the last third of the 20th century was rather marginalised in the international debate as well as in German philosophy, has clearly gained ground in the last decade or two, both internationally and nationally. An essential factor in this was a fundamental turn, which began in the more recent cognitive sciences. To start with our title “embodiment” was associated with the theory that consciousness requires a body and thus physical interaction. This conviction is directly opposed to cognitive and computational theories of consciousness and thus triggered fierce debate. With astonishing speed, the concept of “embodyment” was taken up in various disciplines, partial disciplines, and special research contexts, where it was used to describe extremely different phenomena, problem fields and epistemological interests. (See below.) What was and is striking, however, is that everywhere that theoretical interests are coupled with the expression “embodiment”, recourse is made to phenomenology of differing provenances.

The proposed conference has three objectives: Firstly, it wishes to bundle the current phenomenological work in the area of “embodiment” and thus to put to discussion the most recent connections between phenomenology and empirical research, which to date have had barely any interaction with East Asian “applied phenomenology”. Secondly, it wants to lead the Eurocentric view of phenomenology to a more global perspective, and thirdly it wishes to contribute to the lifting of artificial borders of different schools of thought, which have long blocked the development of phenomenology and an academic-scientific usage of its fruits.

The reason interdisciplinary research on “embodiment” draws so consistently upon phenomenology is that phenomenology is the only philosophical tradition, which has from the outset developed a sophisticated conceptualisation and terminology for phenomena of bodily expressions and lived body experience. In substance Husserl already differentiates between lived body [Leib] and body [Körper], between the perceiving body (“organ of sensation” [“Empfindungsorgan”]) and the perceived body (“corporeal thing” [“Körperding”]), a differentiation which is further developed with respectively different accentuation in different phenomenological schools, for instance by Helmuth Plessner, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hermann Schmitz and many others. The principle subject-matter is the “lived body” or the “lived-body experience”, whereby the terminological difference between “lived body” and “body” is crucial and can be clarified in an initial approach through the differentiation between “being a lived body” [“Leibsein”] and “having a body” [“Körperhaben”] (Plessner) or from a first-person and third-person perspective. Unlike a “body”, which can be a physical body, animal or human, dead or alive, ones “own” or “another”, at any rate appearing as a
measurable and manipulable object in three dimensional space and scientifically analysable, the “lived body” is first of all in each case “ones own” determining medium of the human (or in each case of my) relationship to world (Jemeinigkeit, in each case mineness, for Heidegger).

The expression “lived body” describes the subjectively experienced body as opposed to the objectified “body” as perceived from without. For all phenomenological schools “lived body” is a central concept through which philosophy and its practical relevance are redefined: it is the lived body, as a medium of orientation in the world, which first allows experience, namely the experience of situations, inanimate things and other lived-body creatures as well as one’s own self-perception.

The current upswing in phenomenology, which is also observable in East Asia, is due to its no longer addressing philosophy exclusively, but rather making available and allowing further development on its rich vocabulary for describing the lived-body experience on the basis of empirical research. In the latest research on “embodiment” the theoretical debates are clearly more closely connected with applications than in the older rather more exegetically operating phenomenological investigations. Thus the work on concrete phenomena acquires a stronger focus than before, but the debate with the ideas of the classical phenomenologists is also more strongly oriented along the lines of systematic interests and “applications”. In the light of this concrete orientation, the differences in henomenological schools take a back seat and a new mutual field of research is opening up, which is proving itself within interdisciplinary research and enabling new research perspectives.

Thus in the current international debate, starting out in the critical cognitive sciences, it was possible, under the title “embodiment”, to combine sociological, cultural studies’ and neuroscientific perspectives that counter the still dominant image of a bodiless subject with an alternative conceptual approach. This critique opposes the dichotomy between “body” and “mind” and particularly the neglect of the body in the theory. In this, it leans on various phenomenological traditions, especially on the concepts of the living body or felt body, which however are put into a new context. Their corresponding phenomena now come into their own in their socio-cultural determinacy, but also in their own sense. For a long time in social and cultural sciences, the social formation of the body and the incorporation of the social took central stage with the aim of investigating the conditions and limits of the reproduction of forms of socialisation and rule but also of investigating their variation and questioning. Admittedly, in this, the body often appears as passive material of discourse and practise. Here the phenomenology of the lived body has a correcting function, as it emphasises the meaning of the subjective lived body experience and thereby the first-person perspective thus making it possible to address the lived-body/body’s own importance against sociocultural demands and forms without recourse to essentialist or biological approaches. 

“Embodiment” stands for the inclusion of the body and its movements in research on cognition, emotion, and identity as well as in the related field “theory of mind”. The associated critique of cognitive research characterised by representational and computational approaches with their latent Cartesian dualism is broad. It ranges from attempts at a “mediation” of lived body or body on the one hand and mind or cognition on the other in the sense of “embodied mind” (Valera/Thompson/ Rosch 1993) or “embodied self” up to radical concepts of a “bodily self” which understand the lived-body/body as constitutive for cognition and identity, having experiences and the power to act, and for language and culture. In this, experience and knowledge are described as always being already “embodied”, “embedded”, “situated”, “enacted” as well as necessarily tied to movement (Gallagher 2011).

Thus, appealing to empirical research on the one hand and to the various phenomenological schools of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on the other, the understanding of “embodiment” and its respective consequences are controversially discussed (cf. Ziemke/Zlatev/Frank 2007, Chemero 2009). In this, the discussions on “body-as-subject” versus “body-as-object” particularly (Legrand 2010) and “first person” versus “third person bodily awareness” (Bermudez 2011) show clear parallels to the phenomenological guiding differentiation between “lived body” and “body”. Beyond this, other research of particular interest focuses on kinaesthesia (Sheets-Johnstone 2010), “body ownership” and its relation to “agency” (Tsakiris 2011), the role of proprioception and pre-reflective form or modalities of consciousness, perception and self-reference (Legrand 2007), the interlockedness of sensory data of varying origins in “intermodal” and kinaesthetic forms of perception and experience.

These developments have led to surprising scientific connections with phenomenology: concepts such as “neurophenomenology” (Varela 1996, Lutz/Thompson 2003) and “naturalizing phenomenology” (Petitot/Varela/Pachoud/Roy 1999) combine the rehabilitation of the firstperson-perspective and the phenomenal wealth of the subjective experience with the aspiration of investigating them from a neuroscientific perspective and of finding naturalistic explanations. The guiding working hypothesis is that the subjective experience cannot be evaluated as a mere epiphenomena, which would be negligible for a scientific or naturalistic explanation of the human mind. Rather, to the contrary, the precise description and analysis of its phenomenal structure and process character is decisive for an adequate understanding of the human mind. Thereby phenomenological investigations, cognitive research and neurosciences no longer appear primarily as competitors, but rather as mutually complementary approaches of a comprehensive research perspective, with which for instance Thompson (2007) wishes to solve the riddle of consciousness using a general theory of living systems reacting in a situational context. A similar approach is to be found with Thomas Fuchs (2009). Critical of “neuroreductionism”, he combines (lived-body) phenomenology with medicine and psychiatry, interpreting the brain in a social and life-historical sense as a “relationshiporgan” open to its environment and connected to the lived body.

Here there is emerging a noticeable and simultaneously surprising overlapping of interests with phenomenological research in Asia, which initially proceeded from very different premises. This had, one the one hand, arisen from the reception of European philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, from its beginnings and on the basis of the respective philosophical traditions, it had always pursued very independent paths: as transformative phenomenology, i.e., as phenomenology aimed at the transformation of ourselves and of the world through bodily and linguistic practice. This differentiates it from the descriptive (Husserl) and hermeneutic (Heidegger) approaches in phenomenology and makes room for cognitive and experiential processes in which the phenomena themselves acquire a reflexive existence for the investigator. This phenomenological performance, which in the Asian tradition is also understood as a (lived-bodily) working-ones-way into the relation between ego and world, can be described as a self-transformation of phenomenology, as a working-its-way into its own practice (applied phenomenology), indeed, as practical phenomenology of embodiment, from which ethical action first emerges.

Under the heading ‘embodiment’, the planned conference intends to bring the diverging developments in East and West as well as the various phenomenological schools (Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, etc) into contact with each other. It invites reflections on how – beyond the borders between East and West - phenomenology can uncover a deep dimension of our knowledge that can lead to a shared philosophical approach.

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