Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 3, pp 223–230 | Cite as

Bodily Basis of the Diverse Modes of the Self

  • Shogo TanakaEmail author


Bodily experiences encompass and underpin all types of experiences of the mind, ranging from pre-reflective to self-reflective, from subjective to intersubjective, and from collectivistic to individualistic. Moreover, the self is shaped into diverse modes of being as a result of different focuses on bodily experiences. This paper describes the experiences of one’s body-as-subject, one’s body-as-object for oneself, and one’s body-as-object for others, as they relate with the self. After theoretical considerations, we take up the experience of wearing clothes as a concrete example. The author’s personal experiences adequately show that clothes portray the complexity and dynamism of the self in its relation to the body.


Self Body-as-subject Body-as-object Subjectivity Intersubjectivity Individual Collective 

The Body as the Pre-reflective Subject

In viewing the body as an intersection between subjectivity, otherness, and intersubjectivity, the first step is to distinguish the phenomenal aspects of one’s body into two: (a) the body-as-subject and (b) the body-as-object (e.g., Gallagher 2012; Ichikawa 1992; Sartre 1943/1956). Our ordinary experiences, such as walking, breathing, and listening to music, are underpinned by our own body-as-subject. I act in the world through and with my body, and I perceive the world through and from my body. My body does not appear to me as an object of action or perception. Rather, as Husserl (1952/1989) described, the body in its fundamental aspect constitutes the absolute “here,” from which I perceive things with a spatial orientation such as near/far, up/down, and left/right. The body is also the only thing that moves spontaneously and immediately according to my will. Thus, Husserl also states, the “body … makes up a fundamental component of the real givenness of the soul and the Ego” (p. 165). The body-as-subject is what constitutes “I” as a subject of action and perception in the world.

As is well known, Merleau-Ponty was the most notable figure to emphasize the importance of understanding the body-as-subject. In Phenomenology of Perception (1945/2012), he wrote, “I can only understand the function of the living body by accomplishing it and to the extent that I am a body [emphasis added] that rises up toward the world” (p. 78). Needless to say, this sort of phenomenological discourse emphasizing the body-as-subject has played an important role in critiques of the Cartesian notion of disembodied subjectivity, which was represented in “I think” (Descartes, 1642/1984). In contrast to “I think,” both Merleau-Ponty and Husserl used the term “I can.” The embodied “I” is composed of numerous bodily skills that enable “I” to cope with different situations, and the “I” appears in the world with the mode of “I can.”

The pre-reflective “I” that operates in the mode of “I can” is well analyzed within the concept of body schema. Gallagher (2005) clarified the concept of the pre-reflective “I” by differentiating it from body image, stating “body schema is a system of sensory-motor capacities that function without awareness or the necessity of perceptual monitoring” (p. 24). As an example, let us consider the act of walking. Although “I can” walk in the street without any deliberation, there are numerous potential procedures of bodily movements to be performed in this action—how firmly to kick off the ground to step forward, how to keep the trunk straight while moving, how far to make one’s strides, at what tempo to swing the arms, and so on. In addition, all of these procedures must be adjusted according to environmental changes such as hills or ramps, curved paths, slippery surfaces, other pedestrians, and traffic signals. Implicitly, the body schema unifies the necessary movements of all the body parts into an integrated action directed toward the environment. It also adjusts the whole bodily action in correspondence to the ongoing environmental changes (which implies that the body schema is also operating as a perceptual system). And thus, as a body-as-subject, “I” appears in the world with the mode of “I can” before “I think.”

Body-as-Object for Oneself: the Reflective Subject

My body appears to me as an intentional object, as well as a subject of action and perception. For instance, I look at my body when I put on clothes, touch a spot where I feel pain, and rub my fingers when they are numb with cold. In all cases, the same body appears on the one hand as “body-as-subject” and on the other hand as the “body-as-object.” Let us consider how both are experienced through different modalities.

First, my body appears as an object of visual perception because it is opaque, not transparent. The body-as-object has a surface, because of which it stands out as a perceptual figure from the ground. I can look at my own left hand situated “there,” like many other objects in space, though I can feel it “here” through proprioception. In its spatiality, my body appears in the split between the “proprioceptive here” and the “visual there.” The capacity of mirror-self cognition is based on this spatial split between the proprioceptively felt body and the visually perceived body (Tanaka 2017). When I act in a self-directed manner in front of a mirror, such as when grooming, I presuppose that the mirror-image is the visual representation of my body viewed from the opposite end, even though it is felt through proprioception as being located “here”. My body-as-subject visually encounters my body-as-object through the mirror.

Second, because of my body’s shape and volume, I can touch, scratch, massage, seize, and tap it. As Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012) argued, when I touch my own body, the body appears in two ways: the touching and the touched. The so-called double sensation occurs on the spot where the body appears as both a touching subject and a touched object, as is seen in the case of the left hand touching the right. While being touched, the right hand reversely appears as the touching subject (Fig. 1). This reversibility embedded in self-touching is a sort of self-reflection that clearly distinguishes the body from other material things as “a thing of a particular type” (Husserl 1952/1989; Waldenfels 2000). In terms of subjectivity, the touching hand that appears as “I” could be converted into the touched (“me”), as occurs in self-reflection when thinking “I” is objectified as “me” by a higher cognitive process. Ichikawa (1992) also states that “the double sensation is, so to speak, an externalized reflection” (p. 23). The experience of corporeal dissociation between the touching and the touched genetically precedes and prepares the internal experience that “I” think of “me.”
Fig. 1

Touching a material object (left) and touching one’s own hand (right). When one touches one’s own body, the double sensation occurs on the spot

Third, the voice also appears as an object of perception. I am able to listen to my voice as an auditory object during speech. In relation to reflective thought, it is important to note that I am able to do so even if I do not speak aloud. I listen to my inner speech as a monolog, through which “I think.” As Vygotsky (1934/1987) showed, in its developmental origin, thinking is realized through internalized conversation with the self. If I were not the body-as-object that can be listened to, I would not be able to appear as a thinking subject. Regarding this point, Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012) states that “The Cogito that we obtain by reading Descartes and even the one that Descartes performs … is thus a spoken Cogito, put into words and understood through words” (p. 423). In other words, the thinking “I” requires “me” and its spoken words as audible objects. At minimum, it must be embodied as an inner voice.

Therefore, my own body appears to me as an object through multiple modalities of sensation. The body functions in a reflexive way, such that the body-as-subject perceives the body-as-object. This reflexivity is the corporeal basis of the classical distinction of the self proposed by William James (1890/1950), which is “I” and “me”: “I” is the self as the knowing subject, and “me” is the self as the known object. In the developmental process, the reflexivity inherent within the body would be initially shaped into the body image, which corresponds to “me” but is still heavily dependent on corporeality. However, as is seen in the case of the inner voice, the dialog between “I” and “me” gradually achieves its abstract dimension, until it culminates in the form of “I think of me.” At this stage, the “me” that initially started as a body image may have developed as an abstract self-concept. Nonetheless, it is important to add that the “I” is never realized as the Cogito that Descartes thought could exist without a body (Tanaka 2018a). Unlike Descartes, James also identified the “I” not as a transcendental ego, but simply as a thought. As such, “I” cannot exist if it loses its connection with the empirical “me.” This structure corresponds to that of the body-as-subject and the body-as-object.

Body-as-Object for Others: the Opening of Intersubjectivity

My body is experienced as an intentional object not only for myself but also for others. It is clear that my body-as-object for myself and that for others are experienced differently. The experience of tickling seems to be the easiest example with which to illustrate this difference (Ichikawa 1992). No matter how ticklish I feel when tickled by others, I can never elicit this response by tickling myself. My feeling of being ticklish is made possible only by the other body that is not mine. The ticklish feeling in my body cannot be elicited by the body that appears with a sense of ownership.

This is not the entire point. Consider the difference between touching oneself and being touched by others. In the latter experience, it is impossible to have double sensations because the intentionality of touching cannot be reversed within my body. Instead, through my tactile perceptions I feel a variety of intentions that are not precisely predictable before I am touched, such as tickling, patting, slapping, pinching, scratching, and rubbing. The other body that touches my body as an object is accompanied by various intentions that are not mine. The other body appears not only as a body lacking my sense of ownership, but as one inhabited by an agency other than mine (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Touching one’s own hand (left) and being touched by another (right). Being touched by another, one directly senses an agency other than one’s own

As Gallagher (2012) points out, the minimal sense of self comprises two fundamental senses: the sense of ownership and the sense of agency. Through the experience of being touched, I know that it is not “I” but another subject who is touching, because the experience itself lacks the sense of agency (but is accompanied with the sense of ownership). What appears as the touching is another body inhabited by another agency. Moreover, this experience is not limited to that of being touched. I am open to experiences in which my body is looked at, listened to, smelled, and even tasted by others as an object. These experiences are given to me as an opening to intersubjectivity: I experience my body, which is treated as an object by the other subject. Through my body-as-object, I directly experience the presence of the other subjectivity beyond the limit of my subjectivity (Tanaka 2017).

In relation to this point, Sartre (1943/1956) introduces the concept of “the third ontological dimension of the body,” through which “I exist for myself as a body known by the Other” (p. 460). For its structural feature, this dimension of the body is the fundamental source of social tension. On the one hand, I experience my body as a perceivable object for myself. On the other hand, however, it is impossible for me to know exactly how the same body is perceived and evaluated by the other. Although I experience the presence of the other subjectivity, it is not possible for me to know its content. In this regard, the other subjectivity is simply beyond my own. Even though it is my body, my body as object escapes from me into the realm of otherness. Sartre also writes;

With the appearance of the Other’s look I experience the revelation of my being-as-object; that is, of my transcendence as transcended. A me-as-object is revealed to me as an unknowable being, as the flight into an Other which I am with full responsibility. (p. 461)

Thus, the body-as-object becomes a place of intersubjective negotiation related with social tension between the self and the other. Regardless of whether I am conscious or unconscious, I attempt to adjust and modify the perceivable aspect of my body so as to be perceived by others in a positive manner. Bodily interfaces such as makeup, clothing, perfume, hairstyle, accessories, and tattoos may be interpreted as the means of intersubjective negotiation through the body-as-object.

Individualistic and Collectivistic Modes of the Self

As is seen above, body-as-object is the primary source for the self to be social. I can perceive my own body in diverse ways, but the same body can also be perceived and worked upon by others. This means that “I” have diverse experiences of “me” in relation to others. From a genetic perspective, the experience of self-reflection between “I” and “me” is possible only after having experiences of “me” being mediated by others. Mead (1934) summarizes this as follows:

The individual experiences himself as such, not directly, but only indirectly, from the particular standpoints of other individual members of the same social group, or from the generalized standpoint of the social group as a whole to which he belongs. For he enters his own experience as a self or individual, not directly or immediately, not by becoming a subject to himself, but only in so far as he first becomes an object to himself just as other individuals are objects to him or in his experience; and he becomes an object to himself only by taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself within a social environment or context of experience and behavior in which both he and they are involved. (p. 138)

In this regard, the body-as-object is the common source for both individualistic and collectivistic modes of the self (Tanaka 2018b). As we have seen already, the body-as-object has two different aspects: (a) the body-as-object for oneself, and (b) the body-as-object for others. When one’s bodily experiences are organized with its focus on the body-as-object for oneself, the self is constituted on the basis of self-reflection between “I” and “me.” This bodily experience shapes the self as monological, autonomous, and individualistic.
However, as Mead emphasizes in the above-quoted passage, this “me” has its origin in viewing oneself from the standpoint of other members of the same social group, or from the generalized standpoint of the group. This experience of “me” has its corporeal basis in the body-as-object for others. Thus, when this aspect of the body is focused on in one’s experiences, the self would be constituted in the presence of others in an interdependent manner. The relation between “I” and “me” is not given through self-reflection, but is mediated by the presence of others of the same social group. This bodily experience would shape the self as being embedded in the group in an interdependent manner (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Constitution of the individual self and the interdependent self in its relation to bodily experiences

In addition, what Mead calls “the generalized standpoint of the social group” has its basis in its cultural and historical background. The social group in which one’s body is situated is constituted by way of diverse bodily habits, language use, rules, norms, and values. Behind each concrete bodily experience that would shape the self as interdependent, the generalized standpoint that regards my body as “me” represents the social codes that allow or prohibit acting in a certain manner. In this regard, each of my actions are not only conducted according to my personal will, but also potentially affected by the collectivistic dimension of the society in which “I” am located.

A Case Study in Wearing Clothes

In order to “embody” the above theoretical considerations, let us consider the experience of wearing clothes. This is a suitable topic, since clothes appear alongside the human body in almost all scenes in the lifeworld. Valsiner (2014) points out that “the most profound aspect of human uses of objects in relation to their body is that we are wearing clothes” (p. 170). In what follows, as a case study, I will describe my own experiences of wearing clothes.

Like everyone else, I wear clothes. If my body appears as an object for only myself (body-as-object for oneself), it would be possible for me to be naked. But this is not a practical option for me unless I stay in a private place. Even in places that I regard as private, such as my own room, I keep my body clothed for functional reasons. There are clothes that make me feel more comfortable and that allow me to complete tasks more smoothly. Being incorporated into the body schema, clothes support my body-as-subject in order to operate effectively, in the mode of “I can”.

I become aware of the particular meaning of wearing clothes as I move from a private place to a public space. Before dressing myself, I choose an ensemble of clothing according to the image of the body that I would like to show in public. In selecting these items, I am slightly aware of the diverse codes that affect my choice, though I do not deliberate on them, for example, my gender (as a male, I do not wear a skirt), prevailing cultural norms (as a contemporary Japanese citizen, I do not usually wear a kimono), the climate and weather (I do not wear a coat during summer), current trends (I am influenced by such trends to a certain degree), and various other factors. The public space I enter with clothes is a place characterized by diverse natural, social, historical, and cultural conditions. What I wear is an indirect expression of these conditions.

While selecting clothing, what I do contemplate is the actual scene that I will take part in when wearing those clothes. Concrete scenes such as going out for a walk in the park, working in the office with colleagues, giving a lecture in front of students, having dinner with close friends in a restaurant, or conducting an experiment in the laboratory would each present a different image of myself, and I select clothes accordingly. My decision seems to be made somewhere in the middle of two images: (a) the body image with clothes that I would like to show in the public space, and (b) the body image with the same clothes as I would like to be viewed by the people I meet. My body image that comes to mind when selecting clothes seems to be the connection between my body-as-object for myself and my body-as-object for others. My clothes constitute a part of my “semiotic skin”, on which my own gazes and those of others intersect.

Examining this in greater detail, the selection process is a sort of negotiation between myself and the imagined others. I might choose a brightly colored jacket to draw my students’ attention. I might choose a conservative suit for a job interview to avoid a showy appearance. I might choose loose clothes to conceal my body shape. I might combine contrastive colors to make my visual appearance more salient. I might choose clothes that give neutral impressions to research participants in order to avoid stimulating their unconscious. All of these choices are negotiations between my intention of showing the body and how others would look at my body, that is, between my body-as-object for myself and that for others. The negotiations take place on the body, which Sartre (1943/1956) called “the third ontological dimension of the body.”

Several topics of discussion may be drawn from the foregoing case study. First, at the most basic level, clothes support my mobility as a living organism. They enable me to regulate my body temperature and afford me the ability to comfortably walk, run, sit, sleep, and engage in many other routine activities. They constitute an extended part of my body-as-subject. Second, my various clothing choices are an expression of the natural, social, historical, and cultural conditions of the lifeworld that I am living in. Although I myself may not be aware, my choice of clothing expresses many norms and codes that were internalized over the course of my development. My clothes are the index that shows the social, historical, and cultural backgrounds of my body. Third, through the practice of selecting clothes, I am potentially communicating with others in diverse ways, such as defending myself, deceiving others, producing a familiar atmosphere, cloaking myself in anonymity, and showing myself off. Clothes are a rich source of communication for gazes between the body-as-object for oneself and the body-as-object for others.


As we have seen in this paper, bodily experiences encompass and underpin all types of experiences of the mind, ranging from pre-reflective to self-reflective, from subjective to intersubjective, and from collectivistic to individualistic. Moreover, the self is shaped into diverse modes of being as a result of the different focuses on the bodily experiences described above. Clothes portray the complexity and dynamism of the self in its relation to the body. They express all aspects of one’s body-as-subject, one’s body-as-object for oneself, and one’s body-as-object for others. In this regard, the clothes that I wear show who I am, that is, who is in the reflection of “I” and “me,” who makes a choice between personal will and collective norms, and who appears in public while taking others’ gazes into consideration. By covering the body with clothes, the self maintains a realization of the balance of diverse powers received through the body.



An earlier version of this article was presented at the symposium of the 17th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Theoretical Psychology. I would like to thank Luca Tateo, Pina Marsico, Mette Jensine Ingerslev Nedergaard, Zack Beckstead, and Jaan Valsiner, with whom I shared the valuable panel discussion.


This research was financially supported in part by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science [KAKENHI grant nos. 15H03066, 17H00903].

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Conflict of Interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.

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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Liberal ArtsTokai UniversityHiratsukaJapan

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