The German language allows a distinction that does not exist in many other languages: the distinction between Leib (subjective or lived body) and Körper (objective body). Leib is the older term. It is close to the word life, as something living, lived, sensed, but also the living phenomenon, the lived bodily presence of a human being. Körper on the other hand, derives from the Latin corpus, meaning corpse. It primarily denotes the material, tangible object. We can look at our lived body like a thing among things, that is to say, as an objective body; we can see ourselves from the outside. Our lived body is connected to physical things; it is resistant, material, visible.
Lived Body and Objective Body are Different Things
Philosophical anthropology, and Helmuth Plessner in particular, has expressed the juxtaposition of being a lived body and having an objective body: I am my lived body, but I also have this lived body as my objective body. In this way, philosophical anthropology in the early twentieth century turned against the Cartesian dualism of modernity, according to which the «I» could be thought of as an incorporeal spirit in an external, objective, bodily vehicle. This is in contrast to the idea of embodiment: we are inescapably subjective bodily beings who are at home in our whole living body, even if we can bring this body to consciousness as an objective body. But this distinction between lived body and objective body is not innate. In a sense, the infant still exists in a pure lived body and the view from the outside of their objective body only becomes accessible to them in the course of the second year of life. Recognising oneself as an objective body is intimately linked to the development of self-awareness and the ability to reflect.
Our everyday experience as adults is thus characterised by a polarity in which we constantly move back and forth between being a lived body and having an objective body. At one pole, we find our lived body as the carrier of our life, mediating our perceptions and movements as a medium, but in doing so, it remains in the background itself. For example, I don’t have to pay attention to how my lived body forms the words I am about to speak. The lived body thereby relieves our consciousness. It is tacitly operative in all my expressions of life, as the basis of the self-evident accomplishment of life.
When the body emerges from this latency, however, it becomes the experienced and felt body, for example as a space of tension or relaxation, of hunger and thirst, of desire and dislike, etc., and also as a resonance space for the feelings that take hold of us. The more I step out of the immediacy of the body and use it as a tool, for example to carry out a certain movement, the more it loses its mediating character. The body becomes the instrument of my intention, but it can also elude my command and then stand in my way. The lived body therefore becomes an objective body, above all when the usual course of life is impaired, for example when I’m clumsy, when I fall, when I’m exhausted or weighed down, when I’m injured or ill. As it becomes conscious or emerges, the lived body becomes my objective body to which I am bound, which makes my existence possible, but with which it can also perish. In fear, in shortness of breath or in severe illness, I experience myself as a vulnerable, mortal creature – as a being in an objective body.
But there is another form in which the lived body becomes the objective body, namely under the gaze of others. Through this the body receives an exterior. It becomes a body-for-others, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it – in being seen, through consciously appearing and presenting ourselves to others. Becoming aware of our own appearance in front of others is associated with core personal feelings such as shame, embarrassment or pride.
So the objective body always appears where the unnoticed mediation is interrupted and attention is turned back on the lived body. Thus, the corporeality of the human being oscillates in the polarity between the unconscious and unnoticed lived body and the resistantly conspicuous, visible objective body. The lived body is ultimately not an object at all, but the movement of life itself. The objective body, on the other hand, is the lived body that has become conscious, that has been determined, stopped for a moment. Being a lived body is becoming. Possessing an objective body is having become.
Self with Others
The development that leads from being a lived body to having an objective body is a development of increasing self-consciousness. At the beginning of life, we find pure lived corporeality. It begins before birth, in the womb, namely with a core self-experience that the fetus already possesses: it is already able to distinguish whether it is touching itself or the surrounding womb. Because our own body feels different, it senses the touch. Thus the newborn also already shows a pre-reflexive self-experience, because it senses pain or hunger as its own and reacts with the expression of affect, for example by crying.
Through increasing integration of the various sensory and movement experiences, a lived bodily-spatial self is formed in the first months of life. Infant development researcher Daniel Stern speaks of a core self, which does not yet recognize itself. However, this primary self-experience cannot be separated from the relationships with the first attachment figures. It develops within the framework of primary intersubjectivity or «intercorporeality», as phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty called it. Soon after birth, babies are able to reliably imitate adult facial movements such as opening their mouth, showing their tongue, pointing their tongue, and frowning. They already have an intermodal body schema that can translate the perceived facial expressions of others into their own perceived body movements: the tongue that is seen is experienced analogously to their own tongue that is felt or moved. But this means that the body of the other and our own body are experienced as related to each other.
Through bodily imitation, an emotional resonance increasingly develops between the attachment figures and the infant. As early as six to eight weeks, so-called proto-conversations – in other words, finely tuned coordinations of gestures, vocalizations and affects – become apparent in parent-child dyads. In the course of these interactions, the child acquires specific interactive schemata. Daniel Stern describes them as implicit relational knowing. In this, the knowledge of how to deal with others, exchange feelings, attract attention, re-establish contact, etc. grows. It is a mutual understanding based on lived bodily communication and empathy. Through this affective resonance, the infant gets to know themselves in the other. Even before any self-reflection, the human being experiences themselves in the affective reflection through others, namely as perceived, valued and loved. This is how their «self with others» or their social self-experience arises.
However, before the child learns to recognize themselves and their body in the mirror, a central developmental step occurs in the eighth to ninth month of life. It involves the phenomenon of joint attention: babies start to turn towards objects together with the adults who show these to them. Soon after, babies move on to directing the attention of adults themselves to things by pointing gestures, while making sure of the adults’ attention by brief glances. Pointing gestures are the expression of a shared relationship to objects seen by both partners. This is no longer the primary, dyadic situation of the first months of life, but a triadic situation consisting of the infant, the adult and the jointly seen and intended object or the common goal of an action. Joint attention manifests a specifically human communication: the understanding about a common, external point of reference. This is also a fundamental distinction from the mental abilities of primates, which do not develop joint attention.
The pointing gesture is fundamental in still another way. The infant experiences that there is a direction of attention that they can influence themselves. They begin to understand that the world looks different through the eyes of the attachment figure but that they can communicate with the latter about it. They show the attachment figure an object because they realize that the latter does not yet see it but could see it in a moment. This reflects a fundamental new stage of intersubjectivity, which the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello also calls the nine-month revolution.
We fall from the Paradise of Lived Corporeality
The primary, lived body-centerd perspective of the first year of life is joined by an awareness of the perspective of others. This perspective is also directed towards the child itself. The adults point to the child, name it and give it a name. The child gradually internalizes this external perspective into reflexive self-awareness. It no longer only looks at external objects but also at itself through the eyes of others. From the second year of life, the reflexive or personal self gradually develops. The child becomes able to recognize themselves in the mirror, to call themselves «I» and to distinguish themselves from others who can also say «I». They are increasingly able to transcend their original central position and, as Plessner puts it, to assume an eccentric position. Thus the child is both in the centre of their world and they can also decenter themselves and see it from the outside. This is by no means merely a cognitive achievement. It includes the range of self-reflexive emotions: shame, embarrassment, pride or guilt. These emotions are based on the internalized, evaluative gaze of others.
Shame leads to freezing in the focus of the others’ gaze, to a loss of unselfconscious lived body existence. It is replaced by the objective body seen by others. A shy person often does not know what to do with their lived body and becomes embarrassingly aware of their objective body. In the paradise narrative of Genesis, too, the growth of awareness and shame are closely intertwined in their emergence. By eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve’s eyes open, it says, and they recognize themselves in their nakedness, which they now hide from God – from the omnipresent gaze of the other. Shameful nakedness means the transformation of the unselfconscious early childhood existence in the lived body into the conscious possession of the objective body.