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Hermeneutics Lab

Philosophy is often conceived (and practiced) as something that is done mostly by ‘thinking’ about a given subject, analysing its semantic articulations, clarifying its logical and conceptual (infra)structure. While dominant today, this is but one way of understanding what philosophy is and how one can practice it. The reason for searching for alternative approaches lies in the kind of questions one might want to ask. In some cases, semantic or logical analysis may be just fine or even necessary. In other cases, though, it may not be sufficient or even appropriate.


The fundamental question I have been pondering is: what is embodiment? Which entails a whole bunch of other questions: are there different kinds of embodiment? How does embodiment manifest? How can it be altered or manipulated? Is it possible to judge which kind of embodiment is better or preferable?


The relevance of this interrogation should be obvious. Nobody would be anything without their body. And yet, whatever one is, is not just a body, but an embodied phenomenon. Understanding embodiment is thus key to understand (and understanding comes in a spectrum of depths and nuances) the very nature of the reality we live in, enact, struggle with, love, and die for. 




My first axiomatic presupposition is that embodiment is not just a theoretical construction, a semantic entity, or a topic of speculation. Embodiment has to do with actual, concrete, individual (most often living) bodies existing in time and space, having specific physical qualities, characteristics, structures. While we can surely talk and think about bodies and embodiment, these are not (and should not be) reducible to what we think or say about them. At the same time, however, embodiment is the ‘coming into the body’ of something else, something that is not reducible to a purely physical reality. Embodiment is an act, a process, a movement through which something comes into the body, takes a bodily shape, or vivifies from within a certain physical body, somehow intermingling and even merging with it. Hence, my second axiomatic presupposition is that embodiment is not just a physical process, nor can it be explained fully by using a reductionist, materialist, or naturalist approach.


The best paradigmatic example I can picture for clarifying this phenomenon is that of meaning. We attribute meaning to words, sounds, events, facts. These are all physical entities to some extent, which exist in space and time, and are subject to the laws of the natural world. Yet, the meaning projected upon them, or elicited by them, is not reducible to just a physical entity. The experience of meaningfulness (or the fact of understanding that something has meaning) does not seem to be essentially determined by physical aspects or characteristics. It seems rather to belong to a qualitatively different domain of experience, equally real, and yet irreducible to the domain of sheer physicality. 


By ‘hermeneutics’ I understand the practice of negotiating how meaning is embodied in physical entities, and vice versa. Before being a discipline or even a theory, hermeneutics is fundamentally a problem, a question about how does embodiment work. The more I explore this area, the more I realize that I have at best some hypotheses, and know some tools that can help exploring their possible answers. But how do I find out whether these hypotheses are valid? In fact, what does it mean, in this domain, to validate or falsify a hypothesis? I do not know yet. Therefore, I concluded that I need to create a space for exploring these and related issues. This space must be a space for experimentation, research, free inquiry into the possibilities and puzzles of embodiment. This is the Hermeneutics Lab. 


To get started, I shall present here below some points that I deem particularly relevant, and which can provide inputs for further deepening.


Principles concerning methods (R-M-O)


(1) Relationality: since bodies (at least) are relational entities, phenomena of embodiment need to be studied and investigated in a way that takes into account their relationality. 


For instance, in studying embodiment we need to take into account relations between individual and group, self and other, me-you-we, micro- and macro-environment. 


To implement this principle, music is a particularly effective tool. Music itself is an embodied phenomenon, as it consists of complex vibratory patterns that evoke a sense of meaningfulness. A fundamental aspect of music is rhythm, which naturally facilitates coordination both within the individual and in a group. Depending on its level of complexity, music can also allow for different ways of entering this coordination, facilitating a division of roles and hence fostering a form of harmony-within-difference. Furthermore, due to its potential for eliciting emotional reactions, music can also create a space for unearthing, releasing, enacting and socializing different emotions. The use of music-landscapes or music-journeys can thus be helpful to create a context for exploring embodiment in its relational dimensions. 


(2) Manifoldness: embodiment unfolds in a spectrum of possibilities, in which the same ‘thing’ (whatever gets embodied) can be embodied in multiple ways, and vice versa the same body can embody multiple ‘things’. 


For instance, the embodiment of a feeling of sadness can take several different bodily expressions, and the same body can express (sometimes even simultaneously) several other emotions different from sadness.


To implement this principle, data collection is a needed tool. It is essential to keep track in an effective way of how embodiment takes shape, in order to be able to reconstruct any patterns or regularities that might emerge. While working with groups of people, using checklists might be helpful and relatively simple. Finding ways of post-processing and analysing the data gathered is a further necessary step. 


(3) Open-endedness: a hypothesis about an embodied phenomenon has to be assessed in terms of its being more or less susceptible of further deepening, development, continuation, evolution, transformation. 


Given the principles of relationality and manifoldness, embodiment does not seem to be a phenomenon to be fully captured in terms of ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ (understanding them as correspondence with a pregiven reality, or as coherence with an overarching truth). There is no clear-cut relation between an embodied phenomenon and a distinct reality that can provide a standard by which that phenomenon can be assessed. Each instance of embodiment tends to be unique in its own expression and does not seem nor need to match with a pregiven external reality or system.   


An embodied phenomenon is always in a state of becoming and its richness and fecundity are expressed in relation to its possibility for further unfolding. When trying to understand this phenomenon, thus, the hypothesis used should also be capable of opening a perspective for further inquiry, following up the unfolding of the embodied phenomenon itself. This open-endedness is different from a categorical judgment of truth or falsity, in which the phenomenon is fully exhausted and nothing in it remains to be explored further. However, open-endedness is also different from a sheer indeterminate, inconsistent, or inarticulate view, which would be incapable of picking up a specific phenomenon and deepening its specific meaning. Open-endedness does not introduce a principle of ‘all goes’, and yet it fosters the intertest for ‘going along’ with what is currently embodying itself.


To implement this principle, the use of feedback loops between the formulation of the hypothesis and the experience of embodiment is particularly helpful. Instead of being conceived as a static entity, the hypothesis itself becomes a process of progressive adjustment and increasingly stronger coupling with the phenomenon of embodiment that the hypothesis seeks to tackle. In this way the hypothesis will look more like a story than as a statement, or more like a question than like a categorical assertion. 



Substantive hypotheses on embodiment (N-T-D)


(1) Non-duality: embodiment requires the interplay of two distinct domains of reality, both of which are irreducible to each other and yet cannot be considered independently. 


The preliminary reason in favour of this non-dual hypothesis is that it is relatively more open-ended than its two possible alternatives. Here’s why.


A strictly dualist hypothesis (say Cartesian dualism, for instance) would postulate that embodiment is the result of a union between two domains of reality, each of which can be considered in its own right and is ontologically independent from the other. According to this hypothesis, thus, embodiment is a contingent phenomenon, since what gets embodied could exist also without its own embodiment, and what provides the ‘body’ for embodiment could also exist without embodying anything (in the Cartesian scenario, for instance, minds can exist without bodies and bodies without minds). Since embodiment is contingent, the only thing that needs explaining is why it occurs rather than not. Hence, any explanation that would provide a ground for the phenomenon of embodiment (dualistically understood) would also exhaust all that has to be investigated about it. 


Moreover, a dualist hypothesis is more likely to foster a judgment about the priority of one of the two realities involved in embodiment, and hence searching for ways in which one of them can master, dominate, direct the other. This, in turn, would reduce the phenomenon of embodiment to a problem of domestication and control of one component over the other. Once this problem is solved, nothing else would be left in the phenomenon of embodiment to be explored.


A strictly monist hypothesis (say, Materialist or Spiritualist, for instance) would postulate that embodiment is (at best) an epiphenomenon occurring within the one domain of reality common to all possible phenomena (matter or consciousness, for instance). Embodiment, thus, would have no intrinsic reality in its own beyond the reality of the main domain of reality, and its apparent duplicity would be a sort of trick, an illusion, or a sheer delusion. The main interest for a strict monist hypothesis of this sort would that of explaining why embodiment appears as it does, and how it can be explained away by reducing its phenomenal apparency to the nature of the only domain of reality postulated by the hypothesis (for instance, by showing how embodiment is a product of brain activity, or just a dream occurring within pure consciousness).


(2) Translatability: embodiment can be understood as involving two dimensions, which can be tentatively called ‘idea’ and ‘body’. Ideas can translate into bodily patterns of motion, and bodily patterns of motion can translate into ideas.


The body, as a physical phenomenon, can be understood as a complex interplay of processes. All processes are about change (‘motion’ in the broad sense of the term). Hence, the body can be seen as an extremely complex system built around kinaesthetic patterns. Some of these processes (necessary for moment-to-moment survival) are automatic and set by default, others are open-ended and shaped by interactions with the environment (locomotion, perception, cognition). Automatic and open-ended processes are themselves interwoven with one another and together constitute the fabric of the body. This fabric is thus shaped by certain potentiality for starting or exploring new patterns of motion, while also having to move within certain established limitations and boundaries. 


Ideas, in their most basic and fundamental sense, can be understood as templates for specific patterns of motion. As templates, they do not express actual motions, but only possible or potential ways of moving or exploring certain patterns. Ideas do not entail in themselves a form of motion (ideas do not ‘move’ in the way a body does), yet they are translatable into bodily motions. In this sense, both emotions and concepts fall within the domain of ‘ideas’ insofar as they are considered only from the point of view of how they express a certain possible pattern of motion. 


Since ideas can build upon each other, and increase in their complexity, they can appear as relatively remote from the domain of actual bodily motions. This is how certain concepts or abstract ideas are formed. However, it should always be possible (in principle at least) to reconstruct a path leading from any idea, no matter how abstract and seemingly disembodied, to an actual patter of motion that can embody that idea (and vice versa).


The domain of ‘bodies’ and that of ‘ideas’ share the common element of motion, but they do express it in different ways: ‘bodies’ express actual motions, while ‘ideas’ express potential ways of moving. The irreducibility of ideas and bodies is thus the same irreducibility of what is actual compared with what is potential. And this is also their mutual dependency: the actual could not be such if it was not possible in the first place, and the possible could not be such if it could not actualize somehow. The one is not a sheer epiphenomenon of the other, nor reducible to it (non-dualism).


This suggests that ‘ideas’ are all and always embodied already to some extent, but they can become more or less manifest at different points (or become ‘fully embodied’), depending on circumstances, occasions, and interactions. This does not necessarily mean that they are all discretely encoded in an individual body alone, but it can also be possible that they are embedded as ‘affordances’ for motion in the whole physical domain of bodies. Be that as it may, all ideas can translate themselves into actual bodily patterns of motion (and in this way they become ‘fully embodied’); and vice versa, all bodily patterns of motion can be expressed, articulated, singled out as in terms of distinctive, unique ideas.


(3) Depth: the process of embodiment moves from shallow to deep. Shallow or ‘primary’ embodiment focuses on imposing a certain pattern of motion on a given body that did not necessarily followed it. Deep embodiment explores the open-endedness of the process of primary embodiment, uncovering further potentials, possibilities, developments, evolutions, by thus uncovering new ideas. 


Primary embodiment is the process of embodying a given shape, configuration, form, structure. This appears at first as a possibility (as an idea) and it is often seemingly conveyed from ‘the outside’ (the external environment, the social group, or close people). Primary embodiment operates upon a body that does not yet move according to the given idea, which has thus to be integrated into the bodily patterns. This usually happens through enticing of the appetite for embodying that idea, and arousing sensitivity for the downsides of not doing so (reproval, censure, punishment, threat to survival). Primary embodiment is a process of hardening and scaffolding the body so that it can enter a shape it did not have before and then live autonomously in that shape with less (or no) further support for that. In this sense, the process of primary embodiment is fully accomplished when the pattern that it seeks to establish becomes so interiorized to become automatic. 


All patterns of motion admit by definition alternatives. Moving in a certain way means that it would be possible to move also in other ways. In this sense, all decisions, determinations, limitations presuppose a domain of freedom in which something else could have happened or could still happen. The process of deep embodiment consists in exploring this underling domain of freedom that remains beneath the surface of the acquired processes of primary embodiment. However, deep embodiment does not consist in a complete undermining of the processes of primary embodiment. With no form of primary embodiment, the body would simply have no shape at all, no determinate function or nature, hence it would also embody nothing. The complete cessation of primary embodiment is nothing but the return to a state of complete indeterminacy, an original ground of being perhaps, but barren and dead for as long as it remains confined to that indeterminacy (which, by the way, open up to the secondary hypothesis that absolute indeterminacy is also something that belongs to primary embodiment). 


Deep embodiment is the exploration of the freedom allowed within and by the limitations of primary embodiment, beyond the rigidity and univocity that primary embodiment might seem to attribute to itself. Without suppressing the pattern of primary embodiment, deep embodiment adds to it the exploration of all the ways in which secondary patterns of motions can take place, be explored and deepened around the primary pattern, challenging it, pushing it to its limits, but without violently suppressing or obliterating it. Moreover, as all patterns of motion are plastic and flexible, the pressure of deep embodiment can easily lead to a relative transformation of the patterns of primary embodiment themselves, an evolution of them, so that the whole embodied process enters a feedback loop between primary and deep embodiment and their mutual interplay. Eventually, as deep embodiment uncovers new patterns of motion, they make it possible for new ideas to manifest, and thus new processes of primary embodiment to take place, amplifying and expanding the scope of the embodied process.

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