Embodiment Philosophy

Embodiment in philosophy

At its core, and similar to embodiment in other fields, embodiment in philosophy tries to understand the relationship between the body and experience. But this can take many forms and paths from various philosophical perspectives and traditions. Considering the role of the body in perception, thought and experience is as old as philosophy itself.

Yet in contemporary philosophy, embodiment is usually associated with a field of cognitive science called embodied cognition. Researchers in embodied cognition attempt to understand the relationship between cognition and the body. Not strictly limited to philosophy, embodied cognition is better characterised as interdisciplinary. It includes researchers from neuroscience, psychology, linguistics and artificial intelligence, as well as the philosophy of mind and language.

Embodied cognition responds to issues in cognitive science

Embodied cognition is not a unified field. It contains a variety of perspectives and commitments. Researchers in this field agree that the body plays some role in cognition but have strong disagreements about howand indeed how muchthe body influences cognition.

Rather than a single position or approach, embodied cognition is best understood as a variety of responses to issues in traditional cognitive science.

embodied cognition

Traditional cognitive science understands cognition in terms of information processing, much like the workings of a computer. It explains cognition with reference to brain processes and tries to understand how we (or our brains) internally create so-called mental representations of the world and therefore the abstract concepts that allow us to perceive the world, think rationally and make decisions.

Weak and strong versions of embodiment

Embodied cognition disagrees with this traditional, internalist concept of mind and cognition. It instead emphasises the significance of the body in cognition. But that significance can range from a fairly limited causal influence (such as the body providing feedback to the brain) to the body being constitutive of cognition (such as the brain and body forming one whole system from which cognition emerges).

Thus, positions in embodied cognition can adopt either weak or strong forms of embodiment. Some of the weaker positions are compatible with computational views of mental processes and continue to use the metaphor of the brain as a computer. Weak forms of embodiment tend to see the body as providing information and feedback that influences brain processes.

Strong forms of embodiment see the body as inseparable from cognition, even in the most abstract thinking. For example, the enactive approach to embodied cognition argues that we can only form concepts through our ongoing, active and embodied engagement with the world. A related position, based on theories of metaphor, argues that the structures of our embodied engagement are the basis of our abstract reasoning. The body is always and deeply involved in both our experience and our understanding.

4E Cognition

Strong commitments to embodiment also lead to stronger ideas about how the world beyond the body is involved in cognition. For instance, many researchers in embodied cognition consider the influences of our actions and interactions with other people; our use of tools; and our relation to our environments as integral aspects of our actual cognition. In their language, our cognition is enactive, extended and embedded as well as embodied.


The overall approach that includes these further considerations of the world beyond the body is called 4E Cognition. 4E Cognition is sometimes used synonymously with embodied cognition. Once again, it contains a diversity of perspectives and commitments, strong and weak positions on these connections beyond the body, as well as within the body and brain.

Embodiment and phenomenology

Embodiment in philosophy is not limited to embodied cognition, even if it is probably the broadest and most active research program relevant to embodiment. One of the most important influences on embodied cognition is phenomenology, a field of philosophy with a very different starting point than that of embodied cognition. In the words of Edmund Husserl (considered its founding father) phenomenology in its pure form asks us to orient to the things themselves. This means begining with observations of experience as it appears to us, in our conscious experience. Phenomenology is concerned with (but not limited to) our subjective experiences.

Attending directly to our subjective, bodily experience seems to resonate with other contemporary uses of embodiment, such as embodiment practices and embodiment as a therapeutic tool. Husserl makes the important distinction between the objective body (body-as-object) and the lived body (body-as-subject). The objective body might be the various ways we consciously understand our own body, as knowledge, while the lived body points more directly to our experience. Experience might be of the body itself (such as feelings and sensations) or the holistic sense of ourselves and our bodies within situations. We implicitly know our position and movements while we are engaged with the world.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty develops these ideas further. Regarded as the best known philosopher of embodiment, Merleau-Ponty draws upon neuroscience and psychology, integrating them into a phenomenology of perception in which the lived body is central. He generates a more holistic notion of the body as we sense it in situations, as intentional and dynamically organised by an implicit body schema.

“For Merleau-Ponty… the body is the perceiver, and perception involves both sensory and motor processes.” (Gallagher, 2014)

Embodied self-consciousness

Contemporary phenomenologists continue to build on the understanding of subjective experiences, such as the pre-reflective sense of self and the ownership of experience—the sense of my experience.

4E cognition philosopher, Shaun Gallagher also distinguishes the sense of agency present in this pre-reflective awareness—the sense of me doing something (rather than something done to me). Thus, upon reflection we can identify different aspects of our subjective experiences, as distinct from the holistic experience of acting in situations, which is our usual mode when we are engaged with something.

embodied consciousness

As Gallagher mentions, along with the complexities of embodied self-consciousness, embodied cognition must also grapple with the importance of affect (or feeling). Affect has been a relative late-comer to the field of embodied cognition. This may be partly due to embodied cognition as a response to traditional cognitive science, which operationalises cognition into highly specific categories (such as working memory, emotional recognition and attention) This compartmentalised approach to cognition, which has not traditionally included affect, is difficult to shake off.

Holistic senses, such as the sense of the self or even the feeling of acting in a situation have often been left out of embodied cognition, even if they are quite fundamental to phenomenology. On the other hand, well-known neuroscientists of emotion (such as Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux) have influenced some researchers in embodied cogntion to some extent. But more work still needs to be done to integrate feeling into theories of embodiment.

Embodiment and metaphysics

It is useful to note the tension between phenomenology as a consideration of subjectivity and embodied cognition as an objective approach. Embodied cognition must be commited to science. It is a research program as much as a theoretical endeavour and and draws significantly on empirical, scientfic studies (not least from neuroscience). Thus, we can fairly easily identify discrepancies between the underlying assumptions of science and those of phenomenology.

Even if embodied cognition can only draw on phenomenological perspectives as they might pertain to science (such as relating neurophysiology to self-reports, or helping us to identify what to investigate) embodiment seems to naturally bring forward the fundamental nature, not only of experience, but of my experience and my body. This tension brings up much deeper questions about the mind-body relationship and the nature of reality itself, questions that ultimately pertain to metaphysics. This is why considering a new metaphysics, beyond the division between objective and subjective should be a central aspect of new theories about embodiment, specifically giving a central place to feeling and the body.

If you are interested in these questions, you might like to take a look at my book or my more personal take on embodiment philosophy. For more detail on the topics covered here, the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy offers a detailed summary of embodied cognition as well as extensive entries on more specific topics and philosophers, including phenomenology. For this article I consulted an introduction to 4E Cognition and a discussion of phenomenology and embodied cognition.

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