Malte Brinkmann, Berlin
The Reflective Body – Phenomenological and Pedagogical Thoughts on Learning and
Keynote at the 4th International Phenomenology and Pedagogy Conference. “Circumstance of
Phenomenology and Pedagogy: Self-consciousness and Reflection”, Oct. 10, 2018, Capital
Normal University (CNU), Beijing, China
Phenomenology as philosophy of experience and corporeality requires a reflection of processes of
learning and educating. These occur in relation to oneself, to others and to the world.
I would like to present two theses. The first thesis proposes that self-consciousness is embodied.
Phenomenology, following Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Nancy and Waldenfels shows that
the self-consciousness of the lived-body (Leib) is proto-reflective, social and responsive. In this
tradition, consciousness is being defined as a relational practice of judgment and decision, my
second theses: as a corporal, social and pathic practice of positioning and responding in relations
to world, self and others.
1. Phenomenological Educational Studies
Phenomenological educational studies as a traditional scientific branch consists of a nearly 100
year-old history, during which it established as a branch of educational science and pedagogy and
differentiated further (cf. Lippitz 2003b). Today, phenomenological approaches are found within
classroom research, social pedagogy, rehabilitation studies, childhood research, aesthetic and
cultural education, adult education, philosophy of education and different teaching methodologies
(cf. Brinkmann 2018). In the Anglo-American scope, phenomenology is a branch of philosophy of
education. It has found wide renown in Scandinavia, the Benelux states, the US, Canada and a
number of Asian countries.1 Regarding its content, methodology and disciplinary orientation,
phenomenological educational science concerns itself with the term experience as coined by
Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty.
As a philosophy of experience (cf. Waldenfels 1992), phenomenology aims at qualitatively
describing and defining the temporal, corporal, sensual and mundane dimensions of experience as
they occur. Experiences constitute themselves in the intentional acts of perception. These are
1 Cf. http://www.husserlpage.com/hus_orgs.html
defined as processes between an active act of ‘laying-in’ sense and a passive act of perceiving sense,
whereby passivity is not to be confused with receptivity. The phenomenon is not resolved in
intention. The horizon of perception contains a surplus of sense rather, transcending the present
of perceiving. Husserl defined this horizon more thoroughly in his temporal-phenomenological
analyses. It comprises of prior experiences, memories and schemata as well as anticipations and
Phenomenology has developed a methodology based on description, reduction, epoché and
variation. It assumes that a scientific and objective quality can be achieved by a focus on the thing
itself rather than on method alone: The exclamation, ‘To the things themselves!’ does not imply a
positivistic but a sceptical and reflexive approach to the phenomenon as that which shows itself in
itself (cf. Heidegger 2001, pp. 27 ff.). Aligned with it is a general scepticism towards unscientific
dogmatisms and universalized methods and concepts (cf. Hua VI). As anti-reductionism,
phenomenology insists on the diversity and complexity of sense and experience. Reductionism,
psychologism, de-contextualization and rationalization of life-worldly, pre- and unscientific forms
of sense and experience are recognized as threats and problems to the diverse nature of experience.
As a fringe-science of experience, phenomenology addresses ambiguities, phenomena of
deprivation, transgression and experiences of the other and alien.
In Germany, the hermeneutic-phenomenological theory of learning and Bildung is mainly
influenced by four lines of thought (Brinkmann 2010): by Husserl’s meditations on intentionality
of temporal consciousness (Husserl 1939, 1950), Heidegger’s ontology of the in-order-to-structure
(Um-Zu-Struktur) of life-worldly actions (Heidegger 2001), Gadamer’s thoughts on the temporal
horizon-structure of experience (Gadamer 1990) and, less well-known, Günther Buck’s theory of
learning through experience (Buck 1989).
Hermeneutic-phenomenological theories of experience focus both on the active and the passive,
painful elements of experience. These painful elements or elements of “negativity” are described
by Gadamer as substantial to experience:
The assumption that experience is first of all a painful and uncomfortable experience does not
represent a distinctively pessimistic view, but refers to its very nature. Only through negative
instances you get new experiences. Every experience, which really deserves this name, is countering
und thwarting an expectation. (Gadamer 1960, p. 338)
2 Cf. EDMUND HUSSERL/LUDWIG LANDGREBE (Eds.): Erfahrung und Urteil. Untersuchungen zur Genealogie der Logik. Prag:
Referring to Husserl, he shows that experiencing is an active, intentional process guided by
expectations and anticipations while at the same time being a receptive, passive process. Experience
is structured in a twofold way: Through repetition experience can result in routines, automatisms
and dogmatisms. Experience is thus conventionalized, habitualized and sedimentialized and
manifests itself in types (Schütz & Luckmann 2003) and habits. The experiencing process can entail
an opening, a reframing and a transformation of existing experiences, which transcends existing
elements. Negative experiences play an important role in this process, which Günther Buck
describes as “changing the person as a whole” (Umwendung des ganzen Menschen) (Buck 1989, p. 7).
Within the process of learning, experience is directed at prospective elements, which are anticipated
in the mode of intentionality. At the same time, experience points back to former knowledge and
habits, which pre-form present experience. These two paths are put into focus in the process of
learning, as I will point out in the following.
2. Lived Body, Reflection,
The question of how reflexivity and consequently formative experiences can occur is a difficult and
highly debated one. While cognitive psychology and classical philosophy of consciousness define
learning as a cognitive process, phenomenology in the wake of Merleau-Ponty favors the concept
The relation between corporeality and reflection, or lived body and thinking, is a central problem
of pedagogical theory and practice, as well as it is a problem of the European human sciences.
Within common philosophical concepts and theories of Bildung, it is determined as a hierarchical
relation of subordination, or submission, of the lived body to reflexive, critical and autonomous
reason (cf. Koch, 2015). Since Plato and in Christianity, and especially with Descartes and Kant,
the ego has been determined as a reflexive, conscious subject. Descarte’s geometrization of nature,
which Husserl critically reviews in his Crisis-paper (Hua IV), is followed by the instrumentalization
of the lived body (cf. Meyer-Drawe 2004). Kant’s basic dictum, which says that “The ‘I think’ has
to accompany all my ideas” (Kant 1977, KdrV, B132) guarantees a kind of knowing-oneself, in
which being and knowledge, self-consciousness and world are connected in the mode of
representation. The ego as fundamentum inconcussum can only find itself in self-conciousnes because
thinking and being, reflection and world, subject and object are first intellectualistically divided.
The relationship between corporeality and reflection is thus one of friction, which is found in the
pedagogical tradition as “disregarded sensuality” (Rumpf 1981) or obscurity of the lived body (cf.
Schütz 1995) in theories of Bildung and is given proof by the exploitation of the lived body by the
“cunning nature of pedagogical reason” (Meyer-Drawe 2004) in manifold theories, practices and
institutions. Seemingly unchallenged the principles ‘self-reflection guarantees self-control’ and ‘self-
confidence guarantees realization’ persist. In the educational scope this translates to the consequent
marginalization, disciplining and normalization of the lived body (cf. Zirfas 2004).
3. Corporeality – From a Phenomenological Perspective
In contrast, phenomenology and phenomenological educational studies (cf. Brinkmann 2016a,
2016d, 2017b) focus the fundamental dimensions of embodied experience and life-world. This
dimension, which Husserl misleadingly termed “natural attitude” (Hua III, p. 55), is structured pre-
predicatively and pre-objectively. At the same time, Husserl hints at what is substantiated by Fink,
Plessner and Merleau-Ponty – the lived body can be experienced as an object as well and can be
‘used’ as such, meaning that making-oneself-the-object is part of corporeality. The dual structure
of body and lived body, of objectification and experiencing, is part of corporeality. However:
Objectification is just one possibility of self-relation. It fundamentally contains the relation to the
lived body, not the relation to a thing.
This duplication or ambiguity (Merleau-Ponty) between objectification and experiencing raises a
number of questions and issues the phenomenological ascertainment of the lived body and
corporeality answers to. In a next step, I would like to give a summarizing account of the
phenomenological ascertainment of the lived body, highlighting five aspects (a-e).
a. Lived Body as Transfer-Point
Early into the Ideas II, Husserl determines the lived body as “transfer-point” (Hua IV, p. 161). In
a different passage, he calls it the “starting point of all orientation” (ibid. p. 158). The lived body is
neither spatial-body nor transcendental body-subject, it is that which accompanies every experience
and every movement. It is the medium of experience, which enables a temporal, spatial, social and
worldly experience. Only within and through it here and now, up and down, right and left, sooner
and later can be experienced. Concurring with Merleau-Ponty, Waldenfels (2000) assumes the
structure of the transfer-point to be a chiasm of self-relation and relation to the other in embodied
experience and inter-corporeality, which allows him to take pathic and passive aspects of embodied
experience as a starting point as opposed to Husserl’s solipsism.
b. Withdrawal in Embodied Experience
The lived body evades experience in a twofold way. On the one hand, it evades the immediate self-
perception: I neither see the back of my head nor my back. I do not hear myself speak as others
hear me speaking. “The same lived body which enables all perception prevents me from
experiencing it” (Hua IV, p. 159). The lived body cannot be perceived in the immediateness of
personal experience. This is the reason I feel like looking at a stranger when I glance at myself in
the mirror or watch myself on video and why it feels strange hearing myself on tape (cf. Waldenfels
2002). On the other hand, the lived body evades intentional and reasonable availability. These
moments of deprivation become embodied in the experiences of falling asleep, waking up, aging,
laughing, crying, in feeling shame, disgust or pain. Phenomenology has done a large number of
substantial studies on this topic (cf. Brinkmann 2016a, 2017b).
The lived body thus appears as a phenomenon of deprivation. It can become an object as body,
but as a medium of experience it can never be fully grasped (Rölli 2012, p. 159). This is the reason
for the inevitable failure of objective and scientific recognition (ibid.).
c. “Silent Experience” of the Lived Body
The character of deprivation, aforementioned from an experience-theoretical standpoint, is based
on a problem of representation of the lived body from a methodological standpoint. The sense
that is constituted in embodied expression presents itself as deprivation in the reflective relation.
Husserl already accentuated the difference of embodied experiencing and its retrospective linguistic
specification in the second Cartesian Meditation: “The beginning is the pure and still silent
experience, so to speak, which now has to be brought to the pure articulation of its inherent sense”
(Hua I, p. 77). Merleau-Ponty subsequently shows that the retrospective articulation of experiences
is not a simple translation. The linguistic expression articulates something, which evades the same.
This marks the circularity of expression (cf. Waldenfels 1993, p. 7). Embodied experience is thus
the pre-objective and pre-predicative form of experience in its execution, which can only be
detected, explicated or signified as experience later (Merleau-Ponty 2004, p. 162). The embodied
expression has thus to be distinguished from symbolic expression, which means that lived body
and language have to be distinguished. Embodied expression and linguistic expression are not to
be equated (Brinkmann 2015, 2017a).
d. Lived Body as Medium of Expression in the Mode of “I can”
The lived body is furthermore “expressing body” (Hua IV, p. 247), which articulates itself in mimics
and gestures as well as in movements (cf. Hua XI, pp. 13 f.). In expressing oneself, we do not
simply add the intellectual to the physical, rather the lived body expresses itself. In his late work,
describes this phenomenon with the term “ ‘movement-sensations’, which occur in moving the
eyes, the head and so forth while perceiving” and which express themselves in the mode of “I can”
(Hua XI, pp. 13 f.). These kinaesthetic expressions do not point to an essence of what it is to be
human, but to an inherent difference in the embodied relation.
Merleau-Ponty follows Husserl, but not his solipsism, in determining the kinaesthetic unity of the
lived body inter-corporally. “The conscience in its original sense is not an “I think to …”, but an
“I can” (Merleau-Ponty 1966, p. 166). Knowledge is first incorporated, implicit knowledge in the
body schema, not intellectual, cognitive knowledge. The self-knowledge of the ego is thus mainly
a practice in the “mode of being able to” (Loch 1980). This results in the primacy of practice, of
movement and action, a primacy of being able to before knowledge.
e. The Difference of Body and
The given characteristics of embodiment – lived body as starting point, as deprivation in experience
and discourse, as medium of expression in the mode of “I can” – can be subsumed under the
theorem of the body-lived body difference. Lived body is not body but medium. Embodiment is a
mode of entanglement of the physical and the intellectual, whose pre-objective and pre-predicative
“silent experience” (Hua I, p. 77) can only be determined retrospectively.
The genealogy of the body-lived body difference points back far beyond Husserl, to the philosophy
of life, which leans on the Middle High German word Lip and its unified meaning of life and lived
body (cf. Krüger/Lindemann 2006; Neschke/Sepp 2008). Plessner subsequently determines this
difference as a “radical dual aspect” (Plessner 1928, p. 295) and as an entanglement in the mode of
a de-centred, eccentric self. Eccentricity according to Plessner hints at an elementary “fracture”
and a “fragmentary character” (ibid. p. 293) of human existence. The difference between being-
lived body and having-a-body under conditions of an eccentric fracture creates the human task of
“first making himself into that which we already are, leading the life we live” (ibid. p. 321). Living
under the condition of eccentric fracture enables humans to take over a self-reflective perspective
by “relating to the relations we live in” (ibid. p. 246) and also enforces ‘embodiment’ and Bildung.
Bildung can be understood as an embodied formation of the self in relation with others.
In the following, the specific ‘fractured’ reflexivity of the lived body is questioned, in and with
which the lived body can refer back to itself in a non-objective sense.
4. Embodied Reflexivity
Husserl exemplifies the pre-predicative and pre-objective dimension of corporeal experience (as
starting point, deprivation, expression and entanglement of the lived body) in presenting the
phenomenon of self-touch (Hua IV, pp. 142 f.). If my left hand touches my right hand, not only
do both hands feel something (namely the other hand), each hand also feels itself. The other hand
can be perceived in its tactile qualities (surface quality, humidity etc.). However, it can also be
perceived as surprising, strange and alien. The sensation of the hand as object and living “bearer
of sensations” (Alloa/Depraz 2012, p. 20) illustrates the entanglement of subjective and objective
moments of experience as well as the entanglement of own and other in the self-presence of the
Husserl thus presents a model of embodied reflexivity which springs from the entanglement of
body and lived body and thus opens up the possibility for the ego to become a stranger to itself in
self-touch. Self-perception is determined kinaesthetically as moving and movable expression of life,
i.e. as gesture (Heidegger). Husserl exemplifies the pre-predicative and pre-objective performance
of the lived body as well as the individual inherent sense of embodied experience. Every touch of
the lived body expresses a specific individual style and temperament, which is in no way
In conclusion: Embodied reflexivity is
• Pre-predicative and pre-objective
• Tactile-embodied, kinaesthetic
• Embodied in gestures
• An entanglement of the spheres of own and other
• Self-affection and self-reflection
b. Touching the Other: The Handshake
Husserl’s solipsism (cf. Derrida 1967) has been criticized frequently. His concept of empathy and
his orientation towards the transcendental and thus the objective have been criticized early on (e.g.
by Fink, Heidegger, or Merleau-Ponty). The expansion of the perspective towards contemporaries
(Heidegger, Plessner), co-existentiality (Fink) and inter-corporeality (Merleau-Ponty) as well as
adapting motives from the ‘genetic phenomenology’ of the 20’s and its focus on passivity and
unfamiliarity, can be illustrated by presenting a further prominent example: the handshake.
If the lived body constitutes itself in movements and kinaesthetic acts but retracts from the
subjective fact, it is medium of experience and an absent fact (Derrida) at the same time. In it and
with it a border constitutes itself, because the lived body surpasses itself in its movements and acts.
Within the act of shaking one’s hand, the surpassing-of-the-self and the liminality of the lived body
become prevalent. Merleau-Ponty states, that the other becomes present and evident through my
lived body. When we shake each other’s hands, our own body “incorporates itself into the lived
body of the other” through a specific “type of reflection, which, paradoxically, is situated in our
own lived body” (Merleau-Ponty 1959, p. 246; cf. Bedorf 2012, p. 73).
In the same way both hands are present together in self-touch, the other becomes “incorporated
through that ‘type of reflection’”, which is structured corporeally: “The other appears through an
expansion of this ‘compresence’, he and I are like organs of one singular inter-corporeality”
(Merleau-Ponty 1959, p. 246). The same inter-corporeality constitutes inter-subjectivity, which is
earlier than the self and its self-reflection. The ontology of the lived body we encountered in self-
touch and which eludes the phenomenological reduction to consciousness is expanded to the inter-
corporeal sphere. The aforementioned five characteristics of embodiment we found in self-touch,
self-affection and self-reflection, in the unity of experiencing and thinking, are transferred to the
social sphere in the act of the handshake.3 This leads the analysis to a model of inter-corporeal
To be concluded at this point: The handshake as a gesture surpasses the lived body and points to
the other. In the handshake
• Self-perception and perception of the other, reflection and alterity coincide.
• An inter-corporeal reflexivity. In this relation, one part is my lived body and the other the
lived body of the other. However, the body of the other is marked by withdrawal.
• I can only answer to the gesture of the other. However, what exactly I am answering to in
this gesture lies beyond my control. It is withdrawn from me the same way the claim of
the other, which in our example could be a firm or a weak handshake, evades me.
3 From here, it is a small step to the late philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, which assumes to find that mundane and
diacritic “structure” of non-coincidence in the chair (flesh), which can only describe the certainty of the lived body
negatively (cf. Merleau-Ponty 2003, 2004). Levinas considers the essential aspect of the handshake to be a normative-
ethical moment. In offering someone your hand, Levinas assumes a “moment of giving” which points to a pre-
ontological difference from the other rather than to an inter-subjective connection. In the face of the other, a
vulnerability and an exposure of the embodied self becomes present (cf. Levinas 1961): A pre-ontological, ethical
dimension of the other human being, which, according to Levinas, assumes subjectivity and reflexivity as abduction in
the face of the other, i.e. as substitution for the other and in the direction from the other (cf. Bedorf 2012, pp. 73f.;
Waldenfels 2012). In this, however, one leaves the life-worldly, inter-subjective sphere of the sensual and factual as
well as the worldly-spatial sphere.
It is Heidegger, who has a more radical approach to presence, sociality and materiality of the lived
body, thus to embodied reflexivity, following the example of the handshake. In his work, ‘What Is
Called Thinking?’ he postulates a fundamental correlation between lived body and thinking in the
sense of giving and expressing:
“Each movement of the hand in each of its works carries itself through the element, expresses itself
in the element of thinking. Each work of the hand rests upon thinking. This is why thinking itself
is both the easiest and hardest human hand-craft, if it wants to be accomplished in a timely manner”
(Heidegger 2002, p. 19).
Thinking is a matter of action, a matter of situating the lived body and a matter of relation to being.
Hand, acting and expressing coincide, thinking and expressing coincide insofar that they point to
a language which is not restrained by grammatical and symbolical rules, a silent language before its
discursive articulation(cf. Schütz 2016b). However, this language is not free from meaning and
“The work of the hand alone is richer than we commonly assume. The hand grabs and not only reaches, it
squeezes and not only thrusts. The hand passes and receives, not only things, but it passes and receives itself
in the other. The hand holds. The hand bears.” (Heidegger 2002, p. 19)
In his readings of Heidegger, Derrida also points out that the hand in giving something is also
giving itself (Derrida 1987, p. 67).
The handshake as an inter-subjective event points to an embodied reflexivity, which is not only
owed to the self but to the other and the others. On the one hand, the handshake as a gesture is
an intentional act. On the other hand, it is based on a pre-intentional openness and vulnerability of
the lived body, in which the play of closeness and distance can initially occur. The materiality of
the lived body in its pre-predicative reality enables this presence, which only thereafter can be
specified and decoded as something, e.g. as something symbolic. At the same time, the gesture of
the lived body creates an incident in the immediateness of expression, which evades symbolic
decoding but demands an answer.
In conclusion: Embodied reflexivity
• Materializes itself in the gesture.
• Embodies itself in presence, materiality and performance.
• Gives itself a gift in giving, in the play of proximity and distance.
• Shows something, which eludes the symbolical order.
• Is marked by passivity.
5. Embodied Judgment
In the following, I would like to raise the question of pedagogically relevant practices, in which
embodied reflexivity manifests itself. I would like to expand on the thesis that embodied reflexivity
becomes relevant as an existential and social practice in the act of judging. This adds a new focus
to the initial question of the relation of corporeality and reflexivity and relates it to practice, which
from a rationalistic and cognitive angle marks the priority and superiority of the mind, of cognition
or thinking, over the lived body or the body, for judging is conventionally determined as
subsumption under rules in the mode of reason, logic and identity (cf. Koch 2015).
Against this anthropocentric and logocentric determination of the so-called power of judgment, I
will argue that judging is less tied to logic and rule than to an event of experience and perception,
which functions in a pre-predicative antagonism of own and other (cf. Brinkmann 2012, pp. 271-
298, 385 ff.). Pre-predicative and pre-objective reflexivity as self-experience does not become
relevant in the experience of the other and alien in the mode of empathy, as Husserl conceptualized
it, but in an active-passive mode of responding to something which approaches me, distances itself
from me in the gesture and constitutes itself in the play of closeness and distance and evades the
grasp of the subject in the embodied-pathic space of experience. This form of deprivation is one
in the face of the other and in the experience of the lived body of the other. The approach of the
other’s gesture and its response are not to be confused with receptiveness. The self, which is already
in the active-passive mode (on passive synthesis see: Brinkmann 2012, pp. 266-297), does not
become receptive due to a personal activity, but is situationally constituted in an entanglement with
Being able to judge is an ability to separate (cf. Kant 1977, KdrV, p. 173). Judging (Greek: krinein)
rests on a passive experience of deprivation. Separating in judging refers back to the distinction of
things and people the self responds to in perceiving and showing. I have shown how this distinction
becomes thematic as a difference within the self in self-touch (4. I) – as a distinction of body and
lived body, own and other. Here, the judgment is not primarily an intellectual and logical judgment
of clarity and enlightenment in the mode of an ocular-centric metaphor of the Western world but
an embodied-tactile judgment towards oneself in the mode of attentiveness. Self-perception is
fundamentally and kinaesthetically bent back on itself. It does not warrant self-confidence but
ability and knowing-how, which can be formated through practicing (for more detail see:
Brinkmann 2012, pp. 381-392).
The inter-subjectively mediated corporeality in the example of the handshake can provide a model
for a socially dimensioned reflexivity. The social sense of the judgment rests on the distinction
between people, on the difference of ego and others. The elementary distinction becomes insofar
prevalent in the handshake that the ‘clasp of hands’ indicates an asymmetry and impossibility of
mediation with the other. The existential dimension of the handshake becomes evident in the
refused handshake: The asymmetry of the refused gift in giving becomes evident. This judgment
also relies on a demeanor, which one is unable to react to but only able to respond to.
Both forms of judging as reflective forms of coming-back to oneself through the other (of the own
lived body) and the other one (in the handshake) presuppose the non-representativeness of
judgment (and thus its posteriority) (cf. ibid. p. 289). Judging in this sense in neither contingent (it
is rather concrete and situational) nor executed in absolute unavailability..
Embodied reflexivity in the form of judging is a prerequisite to forming logical judgments. At the
same time, it is a decentralizing instance to logical judgments, insofar as the dispositions of reason
are related back to the unavailability of embodied experiences in the claim of own and other. With
this model of inter-corporeal reflexivity it is possible to theoretically frame embodied-sensual
processes as practices of judging. This would allow to avoid a normative distinction between higher
processes of Bildung and minor processes of learning, commonly rendered as simply accumulating
information (cf. Koller 2012; Meyer-Drawe 1996; Dörpinghaus 2015). Furthermore, it becomes
possible to correlate practices of judging with embodied gestures, which is not only relevant for
inclusive pedagogies, such as special needs education and rehabilitation studies, but for the
assessment and determination of aesthetical Bildung and education. Finally, this form of judging
does not need to exclude forms of critique. This is the political conclusion, I will draw. Judith
Butler claims that this judging is an embodied positioning in the political field – a positioning under
conditions of the vulnerability of the lived body.
In conclusion: Embodied judgment is
• An intercorporal practice
• Pre-predicative, pre-objective, pre-representative,
• A prerequisite for the possibility of logical judgment and – at the same time – its
• A response to the other (of the own lived body) and the other one (in the handshake) as a
reflexive form of coming-back to oneself
• A political practice of critique
• and finally: embodied judgement can be seen as a process of Bildung
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