Embodiment and Experience

Willemijn Ruberg, Utrecht University


Historical approaches to the notion of ‘experience’ must take account of the body. In one way or another, the body is involved in experiencing, either as an object sensing physical pain or joy, as a medium through which the surrounding world is taken in, or as a subject mentally constructing the experience of life, individual identity or emotions.

Whereas social history in the 1970s often unproblematically seemed to reconstruct the life experiences of workers or women, cultural history, influenced by poststructuralist theory from the late 1980s, was focused on the textual and discursive construction of experience. Poststructuralist historian Joan W. Scott famously dismissed the notion of experience as simplistic, since it was often portrayed by historians as unmediated by language.[1]

In this article I will discuss two interrelated approaches or concepts – embodiment and (historical) phenomenology – that may help historians keep an awareness of the cultural and discursive construction of experience, while at the same time taking into account the embodied aspects of that experience, and thus the role of the body in making sense of oneself and the world.

Those body historians who study body experience use the notion ‘embodiment’ or the lived body. This includes both cultural norms of the body, and the ways individuals incorporate or reject those norms. Historian Kathleen Canning regards the notion of embodiment, which approaches bodily practices as contextual, as ‘a far less fixed and idealised concept than body’, encompassing ‘moments of encounter and interpretation, agency and resistance’.[2] The concept of embodiment here functions as a bridge between seeing the body as purely constructed by cultural norms and taking the individual body as an unproblematic source of experience.

The notion of embodiment dovetails with phenomenology. In 1940s Paris, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) joined the existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in developing phenomenology. They were interested in a concrete philosophy of daily life. In Phenomenology of Perception (1945) Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the role of the body in human experience and focuses on the ‘body image’, our experience of our own body and its significance in our activities. Merleau-Ponty thus rejects the traditional Cartesian separation of mind and body, making the body the primary site of knowing the world and locating subjectivity in the body, instead of in mind and consciousness. For Merleau-Ponty, our bodies are our way of being-in-the-world.[3] The body is thus no longer an object, but a body subject.[4] In being at the same time perceiver and perceived, the lived body is an ‘intertwining’,[5]  and experience is therefore located midway between mind and body.

Some scholars have criticized Merleau-Ponty’s thinking for being too universal and not paying sufficient attention to gender and race.[6] However, phenomenology has also been welcomed by some historians.

One of the first books in body history that reconstructed bodily experience was Barbara Duden’s The Woman Beneath the Skin. A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany (1987), in which she noted that historians had failed to take the ‘life inside the body’ seriously.[7] Duden studied more than 1,800 case histories recorded by the German doctor Johannes Pelargius Storch around 1730, including female patients’ letters to him. In their letters to Dr Storch, these German women described the movements of their bodies, perceived via sensations and understood via analogies linking these different perceptions. This early modern body was seen as permeable via different orifices and the skin, as internally undifferentiated and as strongly interactive with the environment. The body was not yet measured against a norm of health or illness as in modernity. Duden traces a shift from an early modern sensation-based bodily self-knowledge, in which women were the authorities on their own bodies, to a modern, visually directed, bodily self-knowledge, in which the body is an object looked at from the outside by (male) medical experts with the help of medical technology like a microscope or ultrasound.[8]

Given the ‘otherness’ of the early modern body, it is perhaps no surprise that phenomenological approaches to the body have been applied most often by historians of the early modern period, especially by a number of literary scholars studying early modern drama.[9] It was in this field that the notion of ‘historical phenomenology’[10] was coined, at the intersection of sensory history, the history of emotion, and the affective turn within the social sciences. Focusing on relationships and the troubling boundaries between intrinsic and extrinsic, subject and object, historical phenomenology is described as embracing ‘the dynamism and nebulousness of feeling and sensation by thinking in terms of ecologies rather than artifacts [sic], experiences rather than objects, and by abandoning net distinctions between persons and things.’[11]

Historian Joanna Bourke’s view of pain as ‘a way of being-in-the-world’ dovetails with the phenomenological emphasis on lived experience and embodied consciousness.[12] Bourke proposes conceiving of pain as a life event, a way of perceiving an experience. Regarding pain as ‘a way of being-in-the-world’ implies that people ‘do’ pain, they construct pain.[13] Conceiving pain as an event allows Bourke to highlight that pain can be affected by environmental interactions, as well as by interactions with other persons, and that it can be learned and communicated, and is thus social. Bourke also emphasizes that the act of naming influences bodily responses, thereby breaking down the dichotomy between body and mind.[14]

Furthermore, Bourke highlights how metaphors used to describe the body change over time. In the eighteenth century these metaphors stemmed from humoral theory, in which pain was regarded as the result of an imbalance and circulated in the whole body.[15] Bourke concludes that ‘eighteenth-century bodies-in-pain felt different to modern ones. The figurative languages of humoral bodies reveal different ways of being-in-the world’.[16] She shows how pain metaphors were drawn from everyday encounters. For instance, the construction of railways in the mid-nineteenth century impacted directly on the metaphorical language of pain, including the imagery of arteries as railway tracks and throbbing inflammations as railway engines. Similarly, electricity featured widely in pain metaphors from the early nineteenth century. During the industrial age the humoral metaphors started to disappear, and pain was decreasingly depicted as a demon.[17]

Poststructuralism criticized phenomenology for its simplistic notion of experience as pre-discursive or single. Yet this critique, as Silvia Stoller also argues, is mostly unfounded. [18] Phenomenology as formulated by its first philosophers already paid attention to the historicity of experience and to ideology. Moreover, phenomenologists never posited a simplistic notion of experience as pre-discursive or single; rather, they emphasized experience as situated and based in the body with the subject as active participant. Poststructuralist and phenomenological approaches thus seem complementary. Historical phenomenology with its attention to how an embodied subject navigates culture, at the same time making sense of herself in interaction with the environment, is a very helpful approach for the historian of experience.


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 770402). This entry is based on Chapter 5 ‘Experiencing the Body’ in: Willemijn Ruberg, History of the Body (London: Red Globe Press, 2020).

[1] Joan W. Scott, ‘The Evidence of Experience’, Critical Inquiry, 17 (1991): 773-97.

[2] Kathleen Canning, ‘The Body as Method? Reflections on the Place of the Body in Gender History’, Gender & History, 11:3 (1999): 505.

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Colin Smith (London: Routledge, [1945], 2005) part I.

[4] Nick Crossley, ‘Phenomenology and the Body’, Routledge Handbook of Body Studies, ed. Bryan S. Turner (London: Routledge, 2012) 135.

[5] Drew Leder, ‘A Tale of Two Bodies: the Cartesian Corpse and the Lived Body’, Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Donn Welton (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998) 124.

[6] Iris Marion Young, ‘Throwing like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality’, Human Studies, 3 (1980): 137-56; Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, [1952] 2008) 91.

[7] Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany, translated by Thomas Dunlap (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, [1987] 1991) vii.

[8] Isabel V. Hull, ‘The Body as Historical Experience. Review of Recent Works by Barbara Duden’, Central European History, 28 (1995): 73-9, here 77.

[9] Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).

[10] Bruce R. Smith, ‘Premodern Sexualities’, PMLA, 115:3, (2000): 325. See also Bruce R. Smith, Phenomenal Shakespeare (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

[11] Kevin Curran and James Kearney, ‘Introduction’, special issue on ‘Shakespeare and Phenomenology’, Criticism, 54:3 (2012): 354.

[12] Joanna Bourke, ‘Pain: Metaphor, Body, and Culture in Anglo-American Societies Between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries’, Rethinking History, 18:4 (2014): 475-98, here 476-7.

[13] Joanna Bourke, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 6-8.

[14] Bourke, Story of Pain, 16-8.

[15] Bourke, Story of Pain, 486-87.

[16] Bourke, Story of Pain, 488.

[17] Bourke, Story of Pain, 488-93.

[18] Silvia Stoller, ‘Phenomenology and the Poststructural Critique of Experience’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 17:5 (2009): 707-37.