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The body: a phenomenological psychological perspective
The body: a phenomenological psychological perspective

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3.1 Lived experience

Phenomenologists seek to describe people’s lived experience, meanings and consciousness (i.e. the way we perceive, think and feel). They focus on how bodies are experienced at a subjective and intersubjective (relational) level. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), an early existential philosopher, insisted on the primacy of the body, and resisted mind–body dualism, arguing for the unity of mind (or soul) and body:

I am body entirely, and nothing beside; and soul is only a word for something in the body. The body is a great intelligence, a multiplicity with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a herdsman. Your little intelligence, my brother, which you call ‘spirit’, is also an instrument of your body, a little instrument and toy of your great intelligence. You say T and you are proud of this word. But greater than this – although you will not believe in it – is your body and its great intelligence, which does not say T but performs ‘I’.

(Nietzsche, 1961 [1883], pp. 61–2)

There are many manifestations of the body and it is because of this that we often think dualistically – separating body and mind – when in reality all we have is an intelligent body: body and mind are one and the same, not simply biology; we are our body and, through this, perform selfhood. This bodily experience is often pre-reflective – we experience and use our bodies before we think. And it is through using our bodies in our everyday activities that we perceive the world, relate to others and, in the process, learn about ourselves.

‘The body is the vehicle of being in the world’, says the phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1962 [1945], p. 82). It is integral to our perceptions and to any understanding of human experience. It is the ‘horizon latent in all our experience … and anterior to every determining thought’ (p. 92). Our body connects us to the world and – if we tap into our bodily experience – offers us the way to understand that world (including ourselves and others).

Two key ideas are highlighted in phenomenological accounts of the body:

  • bodily consciousness
  • a body–world interconnection.

These are discussed in turn before being considered in relation to some phenomenological research findings on the experience of living with multiple sclerosis (MS).