Research Group in Analytic Philosophy

Bodily awareness: feeling or merely knowing?

    Frederique de Vignemont (CNRS Research Director, Institut Jean-Nicod, Paris)

Date: 18 October 2017

Time: 15:00

Place: Seminari de Filosofia (UB, Barcelona)


We are aware of our bodily posture, of our temperature, of our physiological balance, of the pressure exerted on our skin, and so forth. Insofar as these properties are detected by a range of inner sensory receptors, one may conceive of bodily awareness on the model of perceptual awareness. However, there are other features of the body that are of a higher level and that cannot be directly extracted at the sensory level. They characterize what may be described as the fundamental state of the body, that is the enduring relation of the body with the world and with the self. We are aware that the body is here in the external world, that it belongs to us, and that it has two arms and two legs that can do some things but not others. Low-level bodily properties fluctuate all the time: you feel cold and then you do not; you are thirsty, you drink, you feel better until next time, and so forth. By contrast, the fundamental core of bodily awareness is relatively permanent, and thus rarely at the forefront of consciousness: it does not attract attention because it normally does not change. One may even ask: do we actually ever feel the body that way, or do we merely know those fundamental facts?

Advocates of the liberal view reply positively. They claim that we have a primitive nonconceptual awareness of bodily ownership and agency (Bayne, 2011; Billon, 2017; Peacocke, 2014; Vignemont, 2013). However, according to a general principle of phenomenal parsimony, it may seem that one should avoid positing additional phenomenal properties into one’ s mental ontology as much as possible (Wu, forthcoming). If, for instance, one grants that there are feelings of bodily ownership, there is a risk of an unwarranted multiplication of feelings: feelings of a tanned body, feelings of a well-dressed body, feelings of a body in a train, and so forth. Advocates of the conservative view thus reject a distinctive experiential signature.

This debate has recently turned to cognitive science to find answers, and more specifically to illusions and pathological disorders of bodily awareness. The difficulty, however, is that there is room for interpretation in the analysis of these empirical cases and where the liberals see feelings, the conservatives see cognitive attitudes. Here I will determine what reasons— if any— there are to posit bodily feelings.