Husserl on the Body, or How Husserl can Inform Body Schema

I have been reading Husserl and I am intrigued on what he has to say about the Body, but I think that he can be helpful in informing body schema.  In the philosophy of mind, the focus has generally been about the production of the mind: how does something physical produce the mental? How can inert matter explain certain qualitative feels? While these are interesting questions, hardly anyone takes a look at this from the other side: how does the mental deal with the body? I have an impression of my body, but this is still a mental impression. My body image is still something mental. I think a fair question to ask is: how does the mental see the body? In this, I think Husserl offers a starting point. The way we approach the Body must be taken with a certain attitude. One can approach it with a scientific attitude, but for Husserl, he is more interested in taking the phenomenological attitude.  Note: Following Husserl, Body (with a capital “B” is the lived body, whereas body (with a small “b”) is simply the material body.

I am intrigued with Husserl on the Body. The Body flows with the rest of the subject as opposed to seeing the body as a mere thing that happens to be attached to the subject. Husserl writes: “The unity of the soul is a real unity in that, as unity of psychic life, it is joined with the Body as unity of the Bodily stream of being, which for its part is a member of nature” (146). It is a concrete unity of soul and Body. I find this refreshing because previous philosophers have emphasized the “inner” portion of the subject and tend to downplay or ignore the aspects and experiences of the Body. In Section 2, Chapter three, Husserl concentrates on this theme.

The Body “is involved” (152) in all experience of objects. The Body is “the medium of all perception” (61). By understanding the Body, we can see that it has certain material features (extension, color, hardness, texture); but there is also a sense to it on where I have certain experiences of what it is like to be this Body. The Body is a totality of sense organs where if something affects the Body, one can immediately sense this. This is what I find most important and I think previous philosophers miss this. The closest I could find is Nagel’s “What is it like to be a Bat?” but I think he focuses too much on the mind and not on the actual bodily experience.

Husserl writes: “movements of my Body are apprehended as mechanical processes like those of external things, and the Body itself is apprehended as a thing which affects others and upon which the others have effects” (167-168). Moreover, I can see the Body as merely a physical thing and look at the sensations abstractly. However, if I include something as part of the Body, then it is not as if the extra thing is simply attached to the body, the extra thing becomes Body because it can now sense. In an interesting way, I can add and subtract things from the body. As an obvious case, those who have prosthetics may at first see this object as foreign, but over time, the phenomena is given to the subject, that the prosthetic is now Body.  To make it more intriguing and complicated, the notion of phantom limbs has inspired some possible treatments. One of the famous one’s is the mirror box theory where one puts a limb in a box and the other amputated limb is in the other side of the box. The amputated limb is covered so one can’t see it, but when looking at the normal limb, one would see a mirror and this mirror image acts as if it was the amputated limb. By doing certain exercises and movements, the pain in the phantom limb would be lessened. The mirror image, then, is part of the sensual experience. Oddly enough, the mirror image has become Body.

Intriguingly, a material object can be lived through, and this material object is not biological nor is it limited by biology of physiology. It is part of what Husserl calls the “I can”: by being mobile and lived through, I can do certain tasks because this Body part is lived through me. The “I can” moves with physical abilities.

On the other side, Husserl writes about how an abnormal change of the organ itself would gives different givens of one’s phenomena. For example, Husserl notes that if there is a blister on a finger, or if a hand has been abraded, then the tactual properties of the things are given differently (cf. 66). This is analogous to having a prosthetic. It may not sense the world in the robust sense as a body part with nerves, but it senses in that the one can feel what the prosthetic is functioning: holding a door open, shaking hands, walking, sitting, etc. The prosthetic can be seen as an object, but so can any other part of the body. If one can take a look at a biological organ, there are periods where it could be immobile. These examples would include paralysis, strokes, being in a cast, or a benign case of the “pins and needles” experience when the organ “falls asleep.” The body part, in that situation, is not lived through. It is not Body, but merely body. One then sees this body part as a thing, something that happens to be attached to the Body, but yet one still has a concern over this body part. The function has changed: the organ is not Body, yet one still cares for it. However, the loss of the lived Body loses the “I can.” This attached body part loses its lived aspect where I now take on an “I cannot” because of this loss.

With this, there could be different levels of an apperceptive unity of a manifold. These different levels would explain why the sensitivity is lessened when there is an abnormal change in the organ. This does not necessarily have to include missing body parts; this could include additions in order to enhance the subject. Examples would include: glasses, contacts, hairpins, body piercings, tattoos. These objects become Body when the subject does not think about the object as merely physical or foreign. Instead, they become part of who one is. I can feel something is wrong if the added appendage is not functioning well.

Perhaps what is even more striking is if another subject can become another subject’s Body. Let us take a nursing mother. Could a newborn be part of a woman’s body during feeding? In this example, one could see the newborn as a physical thing, but one can also see the newborn as another subject. To constitute the newborn so that it becomes Body is another perspective to take. The nursing mother takes the newborn and can sense the world through the newborn. The newborn, in a sense, becomes Body–the mother’s body–and newborn is an additional appendage.

A stronger case of this would be conjoined twins. Depending on the conjoining, this is one body, but with two psyches! The Body is lived through two Egos, and yet the Egos do not consider “sharing” the Body, but simply a Body that they are both engaged and embodied. Even stranger, the experiences of one Ego can inform the other Ego because of the lived, “shared” Body.

Finally, if one works at a job that requires tools for a long time, it can come to the point where the tool feels as if it is an extension of the body. One could say that one senses the world through the ball of a hammer, or through the tip of the screwdriver. Husserl writes: “The touch-sensing is not a state of the material thing, hand, but is precisely the hand itself” (157) which suggests that sensation is part of the Body itself, and not merely the function of the Body. Any tool that one uses has sensation as it becomes Body: “[the Body] become a Body only by incorporating tactile sensations, pain sensations, etc.—in short, by the localization of the sensations as sensations” (158-159).

The Body is used as a way to orient oneself in the world: “each Ego has its own domain of perceptual things and necessarily perceives the things in a certain orientation. The things appear dn do so from this or that side, and in this mode of appearing is included irrevocably a relation to a here and its basic directions. All spatial being necessarily appears in such a way that it appears either nearer or farther, above or below, right or left” (165-166). Moreover, the surrounding world also orients around the Body. The Body is so integral to orient the Ego, that one cannot distance oneself from the Body; one experiences the Body from “within.”

Overall, I think Husserl gives a phenomenological account of body schema: the way one perceives the Body. It is the unconscious center of orientation of our body image where one has a representation of the spatial configurations of the body, including the dynamic movement of the body. Learning to play an instrument, or driving a car submerges one to how to use the Body. Over time, the awareness of the Body becomes lessened and the actions become automatic and unconscious. Human babies take a long time to get a sense of their own bodies.  This brings up an interesting question. If it were possible to hook up a human’s brain with another animal, would it be possible for the brain to “learn” this new body? Suppose that we could connect your brain to a newly animated cat. Could you–in principle–learn how to be a cat through its orientations, its bodily movements, its orientation, the fact that you can purr through your throat, that your spatial sight is affected by how long your whiskers are, that you are constantly on all fours and walking on hind legs would be uncomfortable, that you could not talk because your tongue and the shape of your mouth hinder you from doing that, and that you have faster reflexes than you would as human? Could you imagine it?!

When I am running, I do not simply treat my Body as a “thing,” but as a dynamic movement where the Ego is swiftly moving along a new orientation. I express myself through my Bodily gestures : with certain mini hops, faster and harder breathing, contracting muscles, and the hardness of the ground once my feet hit the ground.

More striking, one can take on a new Body as an extension of the biological body. As an example, I often borrowed my parents car when I was younger. I had a sense of a certain height between me and the road, the distance between me and the steering wheel, the vibrations of the car as it continues on the road, the sounds of the engine, the sensitivity of the breaks and gas pedal, the pressure of the seat. In short, I had a sense of localization of where I was with respect to the car, and where I was via the car with respect to the road.

Later on, I had my own car which was very different than my parents car. The height between me and the road was higher, the distance between me and the steering wheel was greater (and the steering wheel was thinner), the vibrations were stronger even when the car was idling, the sound of the engine sounded different and it also had a different feel to it, the pedals were not as sensitive so I had to push harder (and when I switched back to my parents car, I was surprised at how sensitive the pedals were), the seat had stronger pressure. In short, my orientation and localization was very different in respect to the car and the road. However, this new experience gave me a surprising jolt where it was still me, yet not-me. Of course, everyone I knew that I had to “get used to it” but this was something more. When it comes to bodily movements, I do not need to think about it; I am in automatic pilot mode, so to speak. I do not need to think about walking; I simply do it. Everything is out “there” while I am “here.” With driving, it is the same way. One eventually no longer needs to think about steering or applying pressure to the pedals; one simply does it. Because the car was something that surrounded me and something that I had to control, I felt that this car was literally a part of me. It was as if this car was an extension of my Body! If there was a problem with the car, I had to figure out a way to fix it. If something is out of place with the vibrations or any other features that I am used to, I can immediately sense that something is wrong.

Again, I can feel something is wrong if this “added appendage” is not functioning well. There could be a malfunction in the engine, I have to take my time when I drive on icy roads for example. Since the car becomes Body, the car would also have sensings, my sensings. When I drive, I am my car. By switching cars, I get a sense of losing an ability or a readjustment of a body schema. By getting used to driving a car, the Body is mainly ignored unless there is something wrong with it. Using my Body, I go through tasks and when my stomach hurts, my Body grabs my attention. The Body, then, has a certain functioning that runs smoothly, but when it breaks down, I have a complete awareness of my Body as a thing. Otherwise, there is no awareness. Using Heideggerian terminology, my Body is ready-at-hand by performing certain tasks, and I do my daily tasks without any thought about the Body. But when a stomach ache is presented to me, the dull ache grabs my attention and my Body now becomes present-at-hand. I now do my tasks while thinking of my Body, but the Body is presented to me as a thing. Perhaps another way to view the Body as completely alien is when one has Parkinson’s Disease. The Body is stricken to many “I cannot’s” and freedom of movement has become limited. It is a loss of the lived Body.  On an interesting side note, perhaps rehab is a way to re-train oneself to have a new conception of their Body, thus informing a new body schema.  When I get sick, my Body breaks down completely and I cannot do my tasks. The same could be said with my car: the car is ready-at-hand, but when something does not sound or “feel” right, the car becomes present-at-hand and I now focus on the turmoil of the car “from within.”

Of course, the disanalogy is that this sounds more like a ghost in the machine where I am the ghost controlling the mechanics of the car. But while driving, I felt as if the car and my life were intertwined. There is still a sense of alertness, movement, etc. As mentioned before, different levels of an apperceptive unity of a manifold changes. Thus, I may not feel the road with my biological feet, but I can still “feel” the road underneath me while I drive; it is as if the tires have become Body, the tires are now my rubber feet. At the same time, the apperception comes to me much quicker while I drive: the corners come to me faster, the road zooms past me as I am speeding, the scenery and background is given to me at a faster rate. Along with this, people can express this new Body with gestures as well: speeding with a sense of aggressiveness, zigzagging through traffic, honking the horn, blinking the lights, etc. Through the car, there is an added level of interaction where other cars are like other Egos, and one is fully aware of them intersubjectively. Not only do my movements influence them, but they also influence me. In an interesting sense by adding a car to the body schema, cars can act intersubjectively.

Husserl brings forth what I felt was missing in a lot of philosophy of mind/body. The focus has always been on the mind and the body is hardly discussed. This has always bothered me when discussing these issues. There is the classic case of switching a brain into a new body. In terms of switching brains into another body, my first thought is not which person is which; rather, my first thought is, “How does one re-orient oneself in this new body? The arms are longer/shorter. The strength, agility, and endurance of all movements are entirely different. Reaching out and touching things, even of one’s own body, must be a new given. Simple activities such as walking, talking, looking would seem like a new experience. It is as if one is ‘entrapped’ in a new body.” Of course, over time, I am sure that one would adjust and reorient oneself to the Body and surroundings, but I think Husserl is the first to help direct one to a new way of re-orienting a worldview from the Body, and I think that body schema is a way to guide this direction.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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