Paper accepted for SPHS 2013 on ‘motricity’ in Merleau-Ponty

The Society for Phenomenology and the Human Sciences (SPHS), whose conference runs after SPEP (Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy), have accepted my paper on concepts of movement in Merleau-Ponty.

The paper is entitled: The ‘handmaid of consciousness’? On the role of early neurophysiology in Merleau-Ponty’s motricity. 

Merleau-Ponty’s concept of bodily movement in Phenomenology of Perception is translated by Smith in 1962 as ‘motility’, but the recent Donald Landes translation (2012) has ‘motricity’. This will be a chance to re-read the book through the new translation (I was lucky enough to see the panel on this new translation at SPEP last year with Landes, Galen Johnson and others).

My abstract is here:

From nineteenth and early twentieth century neurological discoveries, a medicalized language starts to emerge categorizing hitherto indistinct somatic sensations or forms of ‘inner touch’. There is the ‘muscle sense’ of Charles Bell (The Hand, 1833), and the concepts of ‘kinaesthesia’ and a ‘muscular sense’ from Henry Charlton Bastian (‘On the muscular sense and the physiology of thinking’, 1869). Kinesthesia as a form of inner touch dealing with movement is picked up by Charles Sherrington’s (1906) identification of the sense of one’s own body, ‘proprio-ception’.

Kinesthetic sensations are an important component of the sensory body for Husserl, and ‘kinesthesis’ is also considered in terms of the intentionality of the ‘lived body’. Despite the fact that kinesthetic awareness is localized for Husserl, it is co-constituted and therefore intersubjective in nature by permitting the grasping of the “aesthesiological layer” of another’s body. His lectures of 1910-11 were conscious of this problem, even importing Theodor Lipp’s idea of Einfühlung (later translated by British psychologist Titchener as ‘empathy’) to explain this. The ground is laid for later considerations of movement as kinesthetic empathy. Of course, Merleau-Ponty’s visit to the Husserl archives was formative for his chapter on the body and motricity in Phenomenology of Perception (1945), where he focuses on the centrality of movement to embodied consciousness, at one point calling motricity the “handmaid of consciousness”. When observing the movement of others, such as someone walking or a new dance, Merleau-Ponty claims this is the “motor grasping of a motor significance”. These thoughts on movement were developed in his First Course at the Collège de France (1953) in terms of the aesthetic encounter with movement and its traces, and expressive life.

This paper therefore attempts to bridge previous neurophysiological discoveries with the development of Merleau-Ponty’s theorization of the experiences of the motricity of one’s own and other bodies, and considers his model as a precedent for the recent fascination with “kinaesthetic empathy” (e.g. Sklar 1994, Montero 2006) in dance and the performing arts.


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