Embodiment In The Phenomenological Tradition

Philosophical and ethical issues are closely connected with medical and health professional self-understanding, knowledge, research, and practice. The human body occupies a central place in those contexts, but especially within medicine—certainly one of the sources for understanding the human body. In this entry, after a brief review of ideas about the body in the history of medicine, its place in philosophical thought since René Descartes is addressed. This history plays an important role in more recent philosophical reflections on human life, especially in writings directed to the experience of embodiment. After reviewing that history and the understanding of embodiment, some suggestions are made about the relationship between embodiment and the variety of ethical issues presented by medicine, biomedical research, and clinical practice. This discussion is unavoidably difficult, because both that history and the issues raised by efforts to explicate and understand embodiment are complex. Addressing those complexities, however briefly, will be helpful in delineating the specific concepts, terms, and methods used in the phenomenological tradition regarding embodiment.

From the earliest stirrings of human fetal life through old age, individuals are embodied. Whether their bodies are more or less healthy, or are sick, injured, compromised by congenital or genetic defects, or are such that they arouse social prejudice, individuals experience the surrounding world by means of a particular body. Being embodied, furthermore, means having a certain sexuality and thus experiencing the milieu in ways that both structure and are socially structured by that sexuality. Even slight reflection also shows that the human body has aesthetic, economic, political, and other dimensions specific to every cultural time: the body figures prominently in clothing styles, pornography, labor, torture, and the like. The experience of the body by oneself and others plays other important roles in broader terms: in the "body politic," for instance, or in the manufacture of automobiles, or in contexts such as physical examinations in the military.

Underlying all of these, however, is a striking phenomenon: regardless of the state of health, skin coloration, sexuality, or sociopolitical usages, one body is uniquely singled out for a person's experience as "mine," as that sole body through which anything else is experienced. While any full explication of embodiment must address each of these fascinating dimensions, the first question concerns that core sense of "mineness": How are we to understand that? It is to this that the present entry is devoted. First, however, an equally brief word is needed about the place of the body in medicine.

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