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Freedom From All Sides Research Seminar - Prof. Stavroula Glezakos (Wake Forest)

What the Body Knows

Stavroula Glezakos Feb. 22, 2020

I am pretty sure that one of the reasons that I was drawn to philosophy – in particular, to the way of doing philosophy that I encountered as an undergraduate– is because it gave me a principled and effective means of containing and disregarding and avoiding certain kinds of experiences.

As a student, I was encouraged to work on the theory of direct reference in analytic philosophy of language, and to take on board a certain model of belief and knowledge, on which the proper objects of both are propositions: abstract objects that we grasp with our minds and whose structures can be analyzed and represented symbolically. It is by means of our mind’s grasp of propositions that we access and connect to truth.

My attraction to this mode of inquiry was, I now realize, connected to my distrust in and dislike for and dissociation from my body. I judged my body to be a disaster and a disappointment, and I found the invitation to detach from it irresistible. Come, do philosophy, transact in what is abstract and precise and valuable, gain knowledge and security and value, leave the pain and mess behind…. Ha ha ha.

In recent years, I’ve begun to change my ways. In my work life, I now teach and think about less abstract philosophical issues, like the possible tension between self-compassion and self-evaluation, how certain environments might allow for empowerment through meaning change, and how to assign responsibility for consensual unwanted sex. And in my non-work life, I have been guided and supported by teachers1 in a process of befriending and reconnecting with my body- learning how to be in my body, to attend to it, and to appreciate it. Now, with this (very draft-y!) paper, I am trying to bring these two parts of my life together, and allowing what I have learned and experienced in somatic investigation and practice to enter into my philosophical reflections.

There are certain descriptions of the body as a knower and a testifier that that I have been both drawn to, and puzzled by. I am going to share with you some of these descriptions, and then ask you to consider with me how we might understand or work with or question them.

Examples of claims/descriptions about the body

Here are some examples of the kind of claims that I want to understand:

Experience has taught me that my own body is the source of all the vital information that has enabled me to achieve greater autonomy and self-confidence…Genuine feelings are never the product of conscious effort. They are quite simply there, and they are there for a very good reason, even if that reason is not always apparent…[the body] knows exactly what it needs

(From the book The Body Never Lies, by Alice Miller, p. 22)

1 of: yoga, meditation, modern dance, Alexander Technique, massage, healing touch, Rolfing, intuitive eating, and breathwork, to name a few (ha).

Do you listen when your body talks to you? Are you available to hear what it says?

(From an article titled “The body remembers what the mind forgets,” by therapist Jean Campbell2 )

The body is shaped, disciplined, honoured, and in time, trusted. The movement becomes clean, precise, eloquent, truthful. Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul's weather to all who can read it. This might be called the law of the dancer's life — the law which governs the outer aspects.

(From an article titled “I am a Dancer,” by Martha Graham3 )

Your body knows what it needs in order to keep running efficiently—it needs the fuel of vitamin and nutrient-rich foods from a variety of food groups. That’s why it’s important to listen to your body and respond to its natural hunger. It will tell you what it needs. And if you don’t listen, it will find ways to keep reminding you—like headaches, a growling stomach, and obsessing about food.

(from a National Eating Disorders Association handout titled “Listen to Your Body”.4)


In the Hakomi process the therapist pays close attention, not only to the content of the client’s story, but to the body experience as well… Together [client and therapist] discover what the body knows or remembers about the origins of the problem and loss of support. Including the body, they work together to provide the missing nourishment and bring the self back to wholeness, new perspective and possibility.

(from an online description of the Hakomi therapy method.5)6


3 Reprinted in The Routledge Dance Studies Reader, pp. 66-71, pp. 66-7.


Epicurus: the things that the body really finds pleasing are good for it. (but we get this wrong a lot- e.g. abundance of alcohol, giant sugary treat.)



6 Another possible source: Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear.

How is this knowledge?

Knowing, testifying, telling the truth: according to these and other authors, these are things that the body does.7 If they are right, then we need to make sure that our philosophical models of knowledge and testimony are able to accommodate the body as a knower and testifier.

The philosophically informed conception of knowledge and testimony that I have so far accepted brings with it the following commitments: knowledge of or that involves thinking/cognition; typically, it involves accurate representation of what is the case. Testifying involves an intention to convey information.8

Here are three options that I see for moving forward:

Option 1: a body can know, and can testify to that knowledge. A body does not think, represent, or have an intention to convey content. Thus, knowledge and testimony do not necessarily involve thought and intention. Thus, I need to adjust my theoretical understanding of knowledge and testimony.

7 A huge issue to clarify is: is this knowledge exclusively about oneself, the state of one’s body, one’s feelings, reactions, well-being, choices, etc? Or can this also be knowledge about the world? (e.g. de Becker: “that person means you harm, is not telling the truth about their background.” Could the body “tell” me that a certain mathematical conjecture is provable? That a proof is sound?)

Also: I will need to distinguish a situation in which the body is testifying that             from a situation in which bodily sensations or responses are evidence that                                 is the case.

Finally: maybe there will be epistemic states in which an emotion or bodily sensation might be one of the constitutive elements- e.g. not trusting someone might involve having a certain sensation or emotion.

8 An interesting observation that someone (I can’t remember who) made when I told them about my paper: “It sounds like you are saying that Western/analytic philosophy doesn’t pay attention to the body. My experience is that Western (allopathic) medicine only pays attention to the body. But now am thinking that, even though my doctor is focused exclusively on my body (taking scans, measuring cholesterol levels, blood pressure, etc.), they are not actually listening to my body.”


Option 2: Knowledge and testimony necessarily involve thought and intention- and the body does, in fact, think, represent, and intend to convey content.

Option 3. Knowledge and testimony necessarily involve thought and intention. The body does not think, represent, or have an intention to convey content. Thus, the body does not know, and cannot testify.9

My own experiences of “listening to my body, and being guided by what it tells me,” as well as the narratives of many authors and teachers and fellow practitioners of body-focused work, have provided me, I think, with something like prima facie evidence that a body can provide valuable, and veridical, testimony. Thus, I am positively motivated to accommodate such testimony in my philosophical framework of knowledge and testimony.10

But perhaps I should consider some other options: perhaps we can assimilate bodily knowledge to our models of knowing-how, or of acquaintance knowledge. Or perhaps we should recognize that talk of bodies knowing and testifying is (merely) metaphorical. So, for example, in an article titled “Knowing what the body knows” Gerald Siegmund, a Professor of Applied Dance Studies, writes:

The body conceals knowledge which, under certain circumstances, is revealed in dance. This is certainly not factual knowledge which can be passed on and made discursively

9 Here I might want to reflect on Plato and others who seems to have held that the body is actually an impediment to knowing (we are “at war” with our bodies in our attempt to grasp the truth).

10 I will need to give a clear explanation: what is the difference(?) between saying: “the body knows”, “the mind knows”, “I know”, “the encyclopedia knows(?)”…accessible in symbol systems such as language. What we are talking about here is rather knowledge gained through experience. While it often remains vague and amorphous, it should still be regarded as knowledge. After all, we have no problems in tapping it in everyday situations without noticing it. Strictly speaking, however, it is misleading to speak of bodies having knowledge. According to neuroscientific research findings, what is regarded as the body’s knowledge cannot be found in parts of the body, but is transmitted to the brain or the spinal cord via nerve paths. Thus, the body’s memory, too, is an activity of the brain, not of the muscles.11

In addition to taking the position that allusion to “bodies having knowledge” is misleading, this passage hints at one last element that I think is important to consider: the way that this ‘ultimately-not-bodily-knowledge’ can be “revealed through dance”. That is: whatever it is - whether in the body, or the nervous system, or the brain, that should be regarded as knowledge – it can, in principal, be publicly accessed.

I find this suggestion both promising, and potentially worrisome.

Promising: because if it is possible for bodies to reliably and publicly ‘testify to’ what they know, then people whose verbal testimonies have previously been ignored or rejected may have a new means of demonstrating what is true. I am thinking that this could be analogous to the way that cell phone videos have provided a new kind of evidence to people who previously just did not believe that


In writing “the body conceals…”, the author may be pointing to the way that “the body,” in these contexts, is a means of referring to a part of ourselves that we don’t have conscious access to, and/or rational control over.

certain kinds of things really happened, even though the people to whom these things were happening had provided ample testimony. Oppressed and marginalized people have always recognized and spoken about the various means by which they are oppressed and marginalized; if the bodily testimony to these experiences is recognized to be a reliable and measurable indicator of their occurrence, perhaps it will no longer be possible to deny their existence and significance. (So, for example, the growing recognition of how experiences of racism have measurable effects on people’s bodies, and how such effects accumulate.)

Worrisome, because historically assessments of the bodily responses of marginalized people, and those people’s own accounts of what their bodies are telling them, have been used as evidence that they (those people) are defective in some way.

Finally, of course, any account of what the body knows would have to make it clear why not all ‘messages from the body’ should be trusted.12  A recent example of someone appealing to such a message and identifying it as reliable is worth thinking about:

The horrors that have played out with lightning speed [in Northern Syria] were clearly not anticipated by Mr. Trump, who has no fondness for briefing books and meetings in the Situation Room

12 I will want to look more closely at claims that “the body is always right about x, y, and z,” or that “the body never lies”. I will also want to give a more detailed taxonomy of cases where things go wrong: (1) two experiences might be qualitatively identical (or indistinguishable by me), but only one involves knowledge; (2) some bodies are unreliable testifiers (trauma, other reasons);

(3) some people are unskillful recipients/interpreters of message from the body (Trump?)…intended to game out events two or three moves ahead. Instead, he often talks about trusting his instincts.

“My gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me," he said late last year. He was discussing the Federal Reserve, but could just as easily have been talking foreign policy; in 2017 he told a reporter, right after his first meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, that it was his “gut feel” for how to deal with foreign leaders, honed over years in the real estate world, that guided him.13

In addition, Bessel van der Kolk, the author of a seminal book on the somatic manifestations of trauma called The Body Keeps the Score, describes how the body can become an unreliable testifier as a result of traumatic experience (and how it can regain its accuracy):

This is not about something you think or something you figure out. This is about your body, your organism, having been reset to interpret the world as a terrifying place and yourself as being unsafe. And it has nothing to do with cognition — you can say to people, ‘You shouldn’t feel that way,’ or, ‘You’re not a bad person,’ or, ‘It wasn’t your fault.’ And people say, ‘I know that, but I feel that it is.’…Really feeling your body move and the life inside of yourself is critical…we have to feel safe and … that has to be a bodily perception, not just a cognitive perception. And that somehow everything comes back to that.14

13 syria.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share

14 Here I will want to explore how trauma work can be linked to virtue epistemology. To heal your traumatized body is to increase your epistemic virtue.

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