our bodies think and know in ways that precede cognition

In Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane gives a gripping account of knowing with our bodies (in comparing the writings of French philosopher Merleau-Ponty and Scottish writer Nan Shepherd).

[Merleau-Ponty] argued that knowledge is ‘felt’: that our bodies think and know in ways that precede cognition. Consciousness, the human body and the phenomenal world are therefore inextricably intertwined. The body ‘incarnates’ our subjectivity and we are thus, Merleau-Ponty proposed, ‘embedded’ in the ‘flesh’ of the world. He described this embodied experience as ‘knowledge in the hands’; our body ‘grips’ the world for us and is ‘our general medium for having a world.’ And the material world itself is therefore not the unchanging object presented by the natural sciences, but instead endlessly relational. We are co-natural with the world and it with us–but we only ever see it partially.

…‘Place and mind may interpenetrate until the nature of both are altered. I cannot tell what this movement is except by recounting it.’ ‘The body is not … negligible, but paramount,’ she elsewhere declares, in a passage that could have come straight from Phenomenology of Perception. ‘Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.’

…‘This is the innocence we have lost,’ she says, ‘living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.’ Her book is a hymn to ‘living all the way through’: to touching, tasting, smelling and hearing the world. If you manage this, then you might walk ‘out of the body and into the mountain’, such that you become, briefly, ‘a stone … the soil of the earth’. And at that point then, well, then ‘one has been in’. ‘That is all,’ writes Shepherd, and that ‘all’ should be heard not diminutively, apologetically, but expansively, vastly.

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