Philosophy Phridays – Bodily Awareness

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Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Bodily Awareness.

Bodily Awareness probably isn’t something most people think a lot about. Being aware of our bodies is the default. Virtually everyone has been aware of their own body for as long as they can remember. In philosophy, though, our bodies have always been treated strangely. Many philosophers have treated the body like a nuisance, while believing that our real selves are our minds or souls. Descartes’ point of view was common that the mind alone is active and the body is just dead matter.

With the rise of psychology and neurology, philosophers have had to change their views on bodies and bodily awareness. The modern approach is typically divided into three basic questions. How is bodily awareness different from awareness of other things? How are action and mental representations of the body related to bodily awareness? And, what makes us know that our bodies are our own?

The main difference between bodily awareness and awareness of other things is that we are aware of our bodies from the inside. We are aware of everything else from the outside. That’s fairly obvious. What’s puzzling is how we are aware of our bodies. For external objects, we become aware of them through sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Those five senses don’t cover it with our own bodies. Sure, we can see and hear and touch our own bodies, but that doesn’t cover the actual awareness we have. When we are hungry or tired, we don’t see, hear, or touch anything that tells us that. We just know. So, people have posited something called “body senses.” These body senses are what tell us our physical states.

There are two schools of thought as to what we are aware of when we’re aware of our body. One school of thought is that we are aware of mental representations of our body. This, naturally, comes from the school of thought that all we can know is mental. It’s a little counterintuitive to think that we really don’t know our bodies, but only know our mental representations of them, but this view does nicely answer questions about phantom limbs, tools and other bodily extensions, and things like that.

The other school of thought is that we know our bodies through action. This is the view held by Phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It is often called the sensorimotor view. They make a distinction between the objective body and the lived body. Unlike the objective body, the lived body cannot be viewed from various angles or perspectives. It is the body we experience pre-reflection. This view has the advantage of being in line with theories that equate conscious feelings with bodily states. For example, the idea that you feel happy when you smile.

As to body ownership, the questions come from the fact that our bodies feel like ours in a different way than my computer feels like mine. Some take a reductionist approach and say that there is no feeling of “mineness” apart from the mere experience of having a body. Others see body ownership as coming from the feeling that we are bound and separated from other objects. The self is everything within that boundary. And still others say that the feeling of mineness comes from agency. Our body is that which we have direct control. This does nicely explain some experiments that have been done where people start to feel body ownership for avatars in video games.

There are lots of ailments that can mess with bodily awareness. Amputation is often discussed. There are also neurological disorders that make people believe they have an extra limb or that their hand doesn’t belong to them. There are many others, and this is where a lot of the literature on bodily awareness comes from. I think that’s unfortunate. I’m not sure how much you can tell about the mechanism’s normal functioning from looking at the times it fails to function properly. It’s kind of like psychology’s fixation on disorders. It’s not that they shouldn’t be studied, but they tell us very little about how a healthy psyche works.

So, there you have it. More than you probably wanted to know about a philosophical subject that you might not have realized was philosophical. If you want to go any deeper, I suggest you read the article. If you’re like me, I don’t have the neurological or psychological expertise to dig a whole lot deeper, it’s a nice primer on the subject.

de Vignemont, Frédérique, “Bodily Awareness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/bodily-awareness/>.

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