Preparation A3 – Reality experience and embodied meaning


My research so far left me with an unsettling feeling that all theorists from Plato to Deleuze, the structuralists and post-structuralists were very much looking from a logocentric perspective. The tradition was based on the concept that language and writing followed ideas, other as the structuralists were taken the positions that meaning is the effect of language (Belsey, 2002, p.78)

But altogether, reality was represented through language. Either by relational verbal signs (Saussure, Barthes, Peirce) or as a conception of difference (Deleuze) and traces of the others (Derrida).

But where is the human embodied experience in the world? How do we learn language? How do we make meaning?

Wittgenstein noted that we name and indicate (thus index finger) the objects i.e. we learn to relate one word with a specific object (Wittgenstein, 2013).

Magritte applied this approach and challenged the arbitrary relationship in his work The Interpretation of Dreams, 1927 and Key of Dreams, 1930. Blackboard illustration of objects with arbitrary words that do not match conventional relation. On top a kind of wooden window frame, reference to Alberti’s notion of the window onto the world, but here the opaque blackness preventing a look through.

Embodied Meaning and Knowledge

I think I need to go back on how children learn after being placed into the world. The book by Mark Johnson (2008) is a great book and overview about cognitive approaches in acquiring knowledge and meaning, with strong references to phenomenological and Gestalt approaches with relevance to aesthetic experience and art. The book is kind of conglomeration of different sources and thought all related to overthrow the dualistic conception of separation of body and mind. It builds on infant development psychology.

Infants, not equipped with language skills yet, learn in steps, Discovering the world after release form the mother’s body, through attention, bonding, and constant temporal spatial exploration of the near world around it. This gestural discovery is experience as movement in a temporal-spatial environment. According to Johnson one can separate the following four qualities of movement of the infant’s movement as a felt experience:

  1. Tension
  2. Linearity
  3. Amplitude
  4. Projection

Those qualities are being expressed by the bodily movement of the child and is as such prepared and developed and stored in our non-conscious bodily perceptions (ibid, p.25). Movement of objects in space and time are bodily experienced and mapped by conceptual metaphors.

What Johnson describes is a Theory of Embodiment in contrast to theories of Representation e.g. semiotics. He is referring to Jerry Fodor (b. 1935), an American cognitive scientist, who stated that ‘dualistic metaphysics and epistemology, cognition and thought consists of symbolic representations inside an organism’s mind-brain the refer to an outside world’ (p.117). Further, Johnson relates to John Dewey (b. 1859 – 1952) and his principle of continuity (from Dewey’s book Experience & Education, 1938). The principle of continuity is based on the concept that cognitive knowledge derives from bodily experience and previous experiences that do continue being meaningful into the present.

According to Johnson meaning obtained through language is rather of symbolic interaction with discriminated and ‘objective’ meaning. Whereas, meaning through organic experience is direct and builds on potentiality.

Organic embodied experience is based on:

  • Image schema:
    A concept derived from Shaun Gallagher (b. 1948), an American philosopher focusing on embodied cognition and a philosophy of psychopathology. He describes it in his book How the Body shapes the Mind, 2005 as a preconscious capacity for bodily movement.
  • Qualities: (see above)
  • Emotions:
  • Vitality-affect contours:
    A concept derived from Daniel N. Stern (1934 – 2012), an American psychologist who described this in his book Forms of Vitality, 2010 as felt qualities, shifts in arousal, feeling, energy, feeling, rhythm and flow. He relates this back to the interpersonal world of the infant. Examples are how time is perceived either as ‘flies by’ or as ‘dragging along’.
  • Conceptual metaphors:
    Described as a concept that goes beyond language by George Lakoof and Mark Johnson in their book Metaphor We Live By, 2003. Conceptions do define our everyday realities. They state that all of our daily activities and abstract reasoning are based on sensorimotor experience and metaphorical concepts. Cultural differences of comprehending experience via conceptual metaphors is reflected in different linguistic expressions.

Eugene T Gendlin (1926 – 2017), an American philosopher and psychotherapist, articulated the embodied meaning through the expression of felt sense as the way how thoughts and emotions are held and experienced within the body as an inner knowledge. He conceptualized this with the felt sense and felt shift in his book Focusing, 1982 (see video Nada Lou Productions Canada, 2017).

Language as a vehicle has limiting ability to understand and reconstruct our experiences. Johnson provides us with the example of ‘red’ and ‘redness’. As a word ‘red’ it is arbitrary and has no intrinsic meaning, it becomes meaningful only when related to other signs. But in our experience eg. blood, lips we do find intrinsic meaning, Either as an index for a wound, pain and further as an icon or symbol. Whereas compared to semiotic symbolic signs the organic experience creates its own symbolic and subjective meaning.

One can see Johnson’s critique of reasoning and abstraction as a critique of Platonism (ibid, p.270).

“a continued process of abstraction …  do not always bring us closer to the fullness of a situation, they may take us further away from its full meaning”

He severely criticised philosophies of ontological and epistemological dualism (e.g. mind/body, cognitive/emotive, fact/values, knowledge/imagination) that ‘gave us a picture of human thought as cut off from the world’ (ibid, p.271). Johnson further rejects the structuralist perspective of arbitrary signs as beholders of meaning against an embodied meaning.

Johnson describes as a summary the function of the human body between the dualistic poles of being a pure organism and being a socially constructed entity with five aspects (ibid, pp.274-78):

  1. Body as biological organism: body in the world as flesh
  2. Ecological Body: environmental context of the body in the world
  3. Phenomenological Body: our body as we live and experience it, the tactile-kinesthetic body
  4. Social Body; intersubjective relations
  5. Cultural Body: institutions, practices that constitute culture and influence our bodily behavior

New approaches with technology:

Sarah Kenderdine researches new interactive and immersive experiences for museums and galleries. In her explorations she builds on phenomenological and embodied experiences as described by Mark Johnson. She shows how his fivefold embodied framework is been applied in the project  Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang. Those buddhist ancient caves, UNESCO world heritage in China, are now under thread by mass tourism, as the human exposure of humidity and carbon dioxide deteriorates the fragile fresco. The project dealt with recreation as digital augmented reality those caves (Schreibman, Siemens and Unsworth, 2016; CyArk , 2013).

Fig. 1: Pure Land AR  – produced by: ALiVE/ACIM, School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong

She sees this as new way of embodied and social experience in a museum style space. This full flesh simulacrum seems to support Baudrillard’ notion of hyperreality as well as Plato’s notion – literally – living in the cave with shadows. The question does it matter? And what would be the alternative? Shutting down the original caves, keep photographic records and keep tourists away from this place.

Kenderdine and her team are exploring new embodied and social practices in context of art and aesthetic value and applying AR as a mean for new human experience, not as a replacement for actual realty or mere illusion of reality.

Looking at the Kenderdine’s presentation (CyArk, 2013) it also shows another aspect. The group of visitors as object of scientific and behavioural investigation, kind of puppets in a cave. The provided reality seen through a double screen: the visitor looking by AR at a concealed reality. And the presentation of the surveillance of the visitor’s behaviour. The presentation was given in another ‘cave’, a conference room, the audience got a different experience and connection with reality. The reality of the Mogao Grottoes, mediated through AR and staged as a behavioural experiential reality mediated through images and Kenderdine’s speech acts. This might sound a bit cynical, but I think it depends on which perspective ones takes. I am aware that, while I writing this, I am at a remote point without having my own experience neither of the Mogao Grottoes, nor for the AR setup of Pure Land AR, not of the life presentation.  Thus my own perception is heavily mediated through nearly endless removes from reality.


Knowledge and meaning is not restricted or related only to the intellectual side of human mind. The traditional separation of body and mind, intellect and emotion is not valid any longer. Embodied experiences as outlined by Mark Johnson and based on cognitive science and developmental psychology shows that the human being is making sense in a pre-lingual framework through a spatio-temporal bodily movement. The project Pure Land AR shows how meaning is acquired through movement and interaction.

One open questions is how postmodern notions of simulacra and hyperreality, ignorance of seeing reality is related to embodied experience. Considering that the human body in a physical real environment makes sense through movement and organic embodied experience. Images as representations are one aspect, sensing and awareness in space and time is another.

And the question of intention and power, of self-experience versus mediated other experience. Language is used to transmit meaning and understanding, but does it support real experience?


  • Belsey, C. (2002) Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction, Very short introductions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • CyArk (2013) Session 3: Sarah Kenderdine iGLAM at City University of Hong Kong, [online video], Available from: [accessed 09 Aug 2017].
  • Johnson, M. (2008) The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, 6th [Reprint] ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) ‘Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language’, in: The Journal of Philosophy. [Online]. 77(8 (Aug., 1980)), pp. 453-486,  Available from: [accessed 08 Aug 2017].
  • Nada Lou Productions Canada (2017). (2017) Focusing with Eugene T. Gendlin Ph.D., [online video] Available from:[accessed 05 Aug 2017].
  • Schreibman, S., Siemens, R. G. and Unsworth, J. (2016) A new companion to digital humanities, Blackwell companions to literature and culture, 2nd ed.
  • UChannel (2010) The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, [online video], Available from: [accessed 04 Aug 2017].
  • Wittgenstein, L. and Schulte, J. (2003) Philosophische Untersuchungen, Bibliothek Suhrkamp. Berlin.

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