For Merleau-Ponty the body is not an object, but rather a set of possibilities for action in a given environment: an orientation toward the world that is—in essence—our very means for “having a world” as such. If our sense of space in the world around us is grounded by our “inner” sense of the body’s own spatiality, then it is important for Merleau-Ponty to describe the means by which this sense of bodily spatiality emerges. For this he posits the existence of what he called a schéma corporel, a body schema (drawn from the work of the English neurologists Henry Head and Gordon Holmes), which operates below the level of conscious awareness, even while it remains open to gradual modification to suit the particular demands of a given spatial situation.
One of the persistent ambiguities around the notion of body schema within the secondary literature on Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy—specifically in the Anglophone context—is due to the rendering of schéma corporel as “body image” in the 1962 translation of Phenomenology of Perception. The consequence of this has been a lingering confusion about the extent to which the body schema is available to conscious awareness. Recent commentators, for example the American philosopher Shaun Gallagher, have taken great pains to clarify Merleau-Ponty’s usage of the two terms. Body image refers specifically to the visual—and other, sensory—appearance of one’s own body, as available to conscious inspection and interpretation. By contrast, the term “body schema” refers to that more persistent and enduring sense of the body’s ability to act in a particular situation, and the means by which particular habits can be acquired. As Merleau-Ponty himself suggested: “Acquiring a habit (is) the reworking and renewal of the body schema” (PP Landes, 143). If a habit is a learned and emergent capacity based on repeated experience—and therefore increasingly also a predisposition to act in a certain way when presented with the opportunity—then it could be argued that our successful “gearing into” the world, as Merleau-Ponty described it, is in fact due to the development of a whole suite of body schemas, each adapted to the configuration of specific spatial and social situations. The emergence of these capacities can be explicitly informed by feedback from visual imagery during the learning process—think for example of a trainee dancer in front of a mirror repeatedly correcting a difficult manoeuvre. Merleau-Ponty also called attention to the significance of what Jacques Lacan famously labelled the “mirror stage” in child development (PrP, 135–36), suggesting that this initial recognition of the mirror image marks a pivotal moment in the integration of an independent sense of self, as well as a definitive disaggregation between self and world. At the other extreme lie the fully unconscious workings of bodily proprioception, that constant flow of biofeedback from sensory, musculoskeletal, and vestibular systems that gives us at each moment an inner sense of our bodily posture as well as the relation of one body part to another. Between these two, and, most importantly, in relation to a third term—the surrounding environment—the body schema is precisely that which allows us to cope with the worldly situations in which we find ourselves. Within this liminal, relational space of “motor cognition,” it is hardly surprising that conceptual ambiguity appears to prevail.
Merleau-Ponty’s most direct illustrations of the function of the body schema come, somewhat ironically, from examples of its various dysfunctions. Take for instance the case of Johann Schneider, a German soldier with a brain injury from the First World War. Schneider had great difficulty in moving, or even pointing to, parts of his own body when verbally instructed to do so, although he could control his body quite effectively while performing habitual movements he had learnt before his injury. Damage to parts of his sensorimotor cortex appeared to have disrupted the links between visual and motor systems, preventing the vital interaction that normally allows the body schema to be consciously modified to deal with new situations (PP Landes, 105ff). Merleau-Ponty also quoted examples of so-called phantom limb syndrome, where an amputee experiences pain or discomfort from a body part that has been surgically removed. In this situation, the person’s modified conscious body image comes into direct conflict with their underlying, and still intact, body schema which is powerful enough to override the obvious visual contradiction.
For Merleau-Ponty, the body schema forms the basis for our patterns of habitual behaviour—whether for highly skilled activities like dancing or playing the piano, or simply for comporting ourselves effectively within our everyday surroundings. More importantly, it also facilitates our ongoing perceptual “grip” on the world, by allowing us to project in front of ourselves a set of motor-cognitive anticipations concerning what we are about to experience, acting as a kind of “cognitive flywheel” that maintains our background bodily momentum. Merleau-Ponty, therefore, proposed a definition of the self based not on what it is, as such, but rather by what it can do: “Consciousness is originarily not an ‘I think that’, but rather an ‘I can’” (PP Landes, 139).
*This article was first published as:
Hale, J., “Body Schema”, In: Mildenberg, A., ed., Understanding Merleau-Ponty, Understanding Modernism, New York NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 295-296. ISBN 9781501302718.