Vol. 7 No. 1 (2021): Somaesthetics and Phenomenology
“What is the difference of somaesthetics and phenomenology?” This is the question a teacher of body philosophy encounters when s/he presents somaesthetics, the less known of these two approaches to the philosophy of the body.
The answer might look simple. Phenomenology, when focused on the body, has been the main academic tradition of philosophical body-consciousness. Phenomenologists have mainly aspired to stay academic and theoretical with an epistemological objective and the approach has not originally been established for practical use. Somaesthetics, a much later concept, has been right from the beginning fueled by an aspiration to lead theory and bodily practices into a dialogue – where both could enhance their (for the body often just tacit) knowledge with the help of the other. And if phenomenology, although later actively adapted in e.g. Japan and South Korea, is very (broadly speaking) Central European by its nature, somaesthetics, with roots in the pragmatist philosophy that developed in the United States, has right from its very beginnings, in the early 2000s, encouraged dialogue between different philosophical traditions, both ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’.
However, the issue becomes complicated when looking at the communities working on and with the approaches. Some phenomenologists today are actually dancers, karateka and/or yogi, others apply phenomenology to e.g. robotics and interface and interaction design, and so actually put phenomenology into practice in a way somaesthetics has made programmatic for itself. Contrary, many who write about somaesthetics are actually classical academic philosophers in the sense that their main bodily practice is to sit behind a desk and drink (too much) coffee.
Both traditions take pride in their roots, phenomenology in the philosophical springs of the Brentano-Husserl connection (without forgetting the threads of reflections that have made e.g. René Descartes a central figure in the corpus), and somaesthetics in Dewey’s philosophy of experience and his moderately experimental attitude (without forgetting the way already Peirce and James built approaches to the body). Practically, many who are into phenomenology have not actually much looked at its very beginnings (although the interest in Husserl is somehow rising in importance again), and they start from Merleau-Ponty or Heidegger. The same way, for example Dewey’s original life work is for many somaestheticians known only through the work of later thinkers of pragmatism, most notably of course Richard Shusterman, the initiator of the discussion of somaesthetics.
What could a comparative and/or critical and/or synthetizing inquiry into the relationship of these two approaches bring forth? What are the key differences (historical sources, practical writing, applications) – and could somaesthetics and phenomenology profit from having more philosophical dialogue? What about their very origins? Pragmatism could historically be seen as an offspring of earlier continental philosophy that was imported to the new world through European diaspora. Dewey also went to China for a period and applied some of his Eastern learnings to his philosophy of art and phenomenology had already in Husserl an Asian (Japanese) connection that became stronger with Heidegger (who, besides his dialogues with Japanese thinkers, started to translate Tao Te Ching). Has Asian thinking shaped the emergence of both philosophies in a way that unites them in some respect already quite early – and to what extent? The same could be asked about the continental European philosophies that were imported to Harvard, the birthplace of pragmatism, but served also as a background to the evolution of phenomenology. Peirce attacked Cartesians that dominated Harvard’s philosophical atmosphere, but Husserl engaged in reinterpreting Descartes. Still the source is the same.
One of the original main sources for the birth and early development of phenomenology, the work (i.e. teaching and research) of psychologist and philosopher Franz Brentano, featured intense reflection on the unity of consciousness (see, e.g. Brentano 1995, see, e.g. 57). This same awe about the way we are able to keep focus and to feel mentally centralized, despite all fragmentation, despite being bombarded with random impulses, thoughts and multi-faceted stimulation – in other words, these ‘problems of oneness and unity occupied [Edmund] Husserl throughout all the phases of his philosophical development’ (Sawicki 2001). Husserl, like Sigmund Freud (another theorist of the mind), was Brentano’s student, and the philosopher who appropriated Brentano’s term ‘phenomenology’, which was originally reserved for descriptive psychology. Husserl used it for his new take on scientific thinking by adapting Brentano’s view that being is intentional – and, e.g., challenging his students and readers to take up a new craft of philosophy by systematically dropping perceptional prejudices through reduction (see e.g. Husserl 1990), i.e. through taking away all uncertainties from our accounts of what we sense (which could of course also be read as also one new way to gain more focus for perception and experience).
According to Daniel Dennett, unity of consciousness is needed for survival. Unity of consciousness is, though, still over-emphasized, according to Dennett, as we are not as much in control of our consciousness as we might think, and nor are we even able to grasp it strongly enough to claim possession of it (see e.g. Dennett 1991). It might be that Dennett’s comment to the phenomenologists is true, and that (to make a banal point) those who were able to focus better were more often able to pass their genes to the next generation, but, still, the way ‘things’ sometimes just ‘come together’ into focus, in a way that also feels remarkable, has perhaps been a key experience that has fueled the active, systematic introspection of both Brentano and Husserl. A pragmatist reader might also easily think that it shares some key components with Dewey’s idea of an experience.
The way we are able, with all our fragmented impulses, thoughts and multi-faceted stimulation, to sometimes intensify and build focused experience, feeling not just mentally centralized but also somatically centralized, is a main tenet in Dewey’s aspiration to theorize moments when all our fragmentated memories, impulses, and mental and sensuous stimuli come together in an experience (Dewey 1980). He simply left the narrow intellect behind, and went for a broader unity, but also drags in the organic rhythms of the body – and accentuates memories, (aesthetic) skills and the active construction of the experience. One cannot of course equate consciousness and experience, but both threads of thinking share the same interest in mental focus.
Both phenomenology and pragmatism have mainly worked without empirical data, and they have focused on philosophical descriptions (and introspection), argumentation and speculation (which I have nothing against). If (the significantly later) Dewey described activities as different as cleaning the house and gazing at paintings to make his point, while never particularly detailing the organic rhythms of the body that he mentioned several times, and not being interested in working out taxonomies of holistic experience, Brentano worked only, and restrictively, in the sphere of the mind. The body, though, gained increasingly focus in the work of the line of phenomenologists that starts from Edmund Husserl.