What does it mean to have a body?

Or should that say 'What does it mean to be a body?' Either way, the idea of embodiment is about taking seriously the implications of the fact that we are not just minds floating in a void. Life as we know it consists of being somebody, somewhere, doing stuff. Descartes famously wrote 'I think, therefore I am' - but if thinking was all we were doing, what kind of existence would that be? If selfhood would even be possible without some kind of situation and the possibility of acting in it, it is hard to imagine what form it might take; the idea that such a disembodied mind might turn out to be anything like ourselves is almost certainly wrong, despite the dualism that has often held sway in philosophical and religious circles.

Embodiment is fundamental to existence as we understand it, and this realisation has far-reaching consequences in a wide range of fields. I can only hope to present a lay-person's overview of a few of them here.

Phenomenology: experience as the ground of anything worth talking about

In philosophy, the phenomenologists concentrated on our own human experience as the basis for everything we can know or imagine. Merleau-Ponty and Husserl were major driving forces in making it clear that embodiment is a topic of profound importance, and a number of writers and thinkers since have seen it as crucial to the philosophy of mind.

Linguistics: on metaphors and meaning

Language is full of talk that expresses ideas in terms which depend on our bodies - either on our relationship with space, or on the details of our physiology. A careful consideration of metaphors in linguistics1 points up embodiment as an idea that warrants serious study.

When we're up we're up, and when we're down, we're down. Anger really does make us hot, and when we first get our heads around the idea that people can point things out to us, they usually do it literally.

Artificial intelligence: the quest for computers that understand anything

It is easy to make computers solve problems, but intelligence is about so much more than that - feeling and interacting are integral aspects of minds as we know them, and without those, artificial intelligence barely seems worthy of the name. Emotions in humans and other animals are profoundly tied up with actions and bodily states2, to the extent that some would question whether the idea of feeling is even coherent without reference to a body of some sort. Could we ever know what hunger is if we didn't understand eating? What would pain be - even emotional pain - if we didn't have a body to hurt? There is a reason people talk about heartache, and we would be hard-pressed to describe any pain that is not localised in some part of the body. If we pick apart what is involved in any emotional or experiential state, we almost always find that they are bound up with bodily sensations. Some would go even further, and argue that the whole idea of disembodied intelligence is incoherent3.

There is a body of thought in artificial intelligence which holds that thinking about thought without reference to bodies has greatly held up the progress of the field. The idea of embodied cognition suggests that for any intelligence we create to function anything like our own, it will need a body to work with, and an environment to interact with. To provide these, researchers build robots or simulated environments so that their would-be intelligences have something to do and somewhere to be.

Literature: writing the body

Given its fundamental importance in language and the experience of being a human, it is no surprise that embodiment also informs the study of literature, and some researchers feel that important things have been missed in the past because not enough thought has been given to writers' (and characters') relationships with bodies, and their interactions with space and material objects4.

As in other fields, it is too easy to think as if ideas and information existed in a world of their own - as if words could provide all their own context, rather than depending for their meaning on the physical existence and situation of their authors and readers. Metaphors are absolutely central to literature - to all writing, in fact - and more often than not they are based on physical experiences or bodily analogies. Personification is one major literary symptom of this, and the portrayal of monstrosity is another.

Our embodied experience is relevant to how we consume literature, too - not just in the sense of how we understand writing, but in terms of the materiality of the book itself. We feel the weight of a book as we hold it, turn the pages with our fingers, keep the book around as a feature of our physical environment. People often strongly associate books - especially ones from their childhood - with smells. Will be the e-book generation have a very different relationship with written narrative?

Religion: you are not your body

If our understanding of the world around us is coloured on an absolutely basic level by our bodily experience of it, it is no surprise that people have often tried to explain natural phenomena and abstract concepts in terms of human-like entities. It is telling that while some religions teach that the ground of being rests in a kind of impersonal cosmic unity, almost all of the popular traditions centre on one or more deities with distinctly human-like traits, often ones who have at times chosen to wear a human body to interact with us directly.

Meanwhile, many doctrines insist that our own embodiment is only a temporary condition: that once we die, some part of us carries on unimpeded, perhaps making its way to another realm, or into another body, or just wandering around on its own. The dualism on which this idea rests might be hard to reconcile with what we now know about the ways in which our minds depend on the state of our bodies and brains, but evidently it still has appeal for many.

Gender politics: you are not just your body

Embodiment also plays a fundamental role in the politics of gender5 and identity more generally, which feed into many of the other fields I have mentioned. Most of the clearest differences between different sexes and genders are either bodily or performative: that is, the sexes are physically different, in both obvious and subtle ways, and our genders are largely defined by our self-presentation, and our interactions with the world and each other. Any inherent mental differences between the sexes are far more marginal.

Historically, one of the major drives in feminism has been to shift attention away from the bodies of females, and towards their minds - to see women as people, first and foremost, where male-dominated society has had a tendency to focus on their appearance and bodily functions. This very natural urge to focus away from the body has its limitations, of course, and modern feminists have looked very seriously at the importance of gendered self-presentation and sexualisation, not to mention sexual health and the inherently different experiences that women's bodies afford, compared to those of men. There are complex issues at stake here around the reclaiming of bodies and sexuality, appropriation and power relations, and I can't hope to do more than skim their surface here.

The body in the 21st century

While we are wrestling with what it means to be a person with a body containing a mind, new technology is altering that meaning in a range of ways, some obvious, some less so6. One of the major trends in technology for a very long time has been to extend of our influence, and in a sense our presence, ever more convincingly beyond our immediate physical environment. We are now used to being able to reach almost anyone, anywhere in the world, almost instantaneously, and the experience is more and more like being somewhere else besides where we're sat, not only but especially when we are interacting through dedicated telepresence devices.

Especially for those of us who write and play on the internet, more of our lives than ever before are spent interacting with other people in ways that mask the relevance of our physical incarnation, while virtual worlds provide us with alternative embodiments - often tailored to our own preferences in ways that would be impossible in what we usually think of as 'the real world'. For now, it's a far cry from our everyday physical experience, but it is already possible to experiment with different kinds of embodiment in a way that it never was before.

If I existed only in a computer, how would you - my reader - know? If embodiment shapes our cognition to the degree that many researchers think, there ought to be many subtle ways, especially if I had always been that way - things I could never understand about what it means to be human, or any kind of animal. The implications of this for any genuine artificial intelligence we create will be profound. Beyond that, it may be just a matter of time before we have the technology to transfer our minds into computers, so that people have the option to exist only as patterns of information within computers, embodied only as avatars, if that. Will they be able to stay sane without having a physical presence of some sort? What would it take for them to feel human? And without their original bodies, could they ever be the same people at all?


This essay could be very much longer still if I also paused to give serious consideration to the importance of embodiment in the following fields:

Em*bod"i*ment (?), n.


The act of embodying; the state of being embodied.


That which embodies or is embodied; representation in a physical body; a completely organized system, like the body; as, the embodiment of courage, or of courtesy; the embodiment of true piety.


© Webster 1913.

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