We have a very peculiar and even eccentric relationship with our bodies. Sometimes we experience ourselves as being our body in a very straightforward sense. Just like a horse is its body or an amoeba is its body, we are our body. However, more often than not, we experience ourselves as something more mental than material. We then become beings who are not their body but that have their body at their disposal. So vivid is this experience that we can even dream of uploading ourselves to the internet, leaving our mortal bodies behind and like angels, eternally inhabiting the clouds, only with no wings, no arms, no legs and no body. But can we exist without a body?

Our body hides itself to give us the world as a gift.

Strange as it may seem, this peculiar eccentricity is a gift from our own body to ourselves. When we touch, smell, see, hear or taste the world around us, our body hides itself so that it doesn’t interfere with whatever we’re doing. In this way, our attention is placed on the task at hand and not on our body. Our body performs numerous tricks to remain in the background. In order to hear others as we speak, our own voice is softened for us. When we walk and look around our movements are cancelled out to stabilise our vision. And, it certainly feels very different to touch than be touched. This is why you can’t tickle yourself. Our brain continuously remasters our senses to bring the environment in and move our body out into the background, to render it almost invisible. It usually takes conscious effort to feel our body and not the environment.

When we draw with a pencil we sense the surface we’re drawing on, not the actual pressure of the pencil on our fingers. When we drive a car we sense the road we’re driving on although we’re not even touching it. This is because our body isn’t interested in itself or in the raw sensations of the world it touches. Feeling the pressure of the pen on our fingers usually doesn’t help much with our drawing. Sensing the texture of the surface we’re drawing on is much more relevant. From the moment we start moving until the day we rest in peace, our body is always trying to make sense of its surroundings, always reaching out for meaning. In so doing, our body creates the meanings through which we engage with the world. Those meanings are relational, they connect body and environment. But, because our body wants to remain hidden in the background, we fail to see the strings that move those meanings, that give them life. We only see half of the story, meaning and environment without a body. Let’s try make those strings visible.


At the very beginning we’re one with the universe. Our body has no end, the world is our body. Out of our mother’s womb we continue moving, crying, squirming, sucking and kicking. We’re in an intense journey to make sense of ourselves, a bundle of raw feelings. Through movement, we discover that we have fingers that fold, arms that extend, and knees that flex. Through movement, we also make sense of the environment we live in. Body and environment emerge as the body touches the world and the world touches 
it back. 

We make sense of the world with and through our body.

All these early discoveries are soaked with the feelings that go together with our movements. The tension we feel in our body as we try to lift our torso from the ground. The feeling of amplitude as we expand our arms and legs, and the feeling of tightness when we squeeze ourselves up. Moving in a straight, curved or jagged line feels distinctly different. Just as it feels different if our moves are smooth or explosive. 

The feelings that pervade our experience as moving bodies are present in every encounter we have with ourselves and the environment. As we push, drag, pull, lift, drop, cross, bump into, slide or hold, the feelings that go with every action are both qualities of our movements and qualities of the world. These qualities are an essential ingredient for making sense of our surroundings. Even basic organising forces such as cause and effect are built up through feeling and movement. As the philosopher Mark Johnson writes, “feeling what it takes to cause an object to move from one place to another is a core part of our basic understanding of physical causation”. 

A well-known experiment that helps illustrate how our own movements are key to how we perceive the world, was performed in the 60s and it involved two kittens. Both kittens were kept in the dark when born and only allowed to see the light once harnessed to a carousel. One of the kittens was allowed to walk at will around the carousel while the other moved around it while inside a basket. Both enjoyed similar visual input, the only difference was that one kitten could walk, while the other remain inside a basket. The kitten that walked the walk, naturally learned that as it comes closer to an object, the object becomes bigger. The kitten that was passively contemplating the world from a basket didn’t learn this principle. It didn’t blink when objects approached its eyes. What this experiment reveals is that the changes of patterns in the visual field only have spatial meaning if the movement is done and felt by our body. “Static vision does not exist”, says the writer Arthur Koestler, “there is no seeing without exploring”. We need to move and we need to feel.

Up-down, in-out, near-far, balance-imbalance... What would we think without them?

As we move, touch and feel the world around us, we discover numerous recurring patterns. We discover that to lift something requires strength and when we release it, it falls. We also discover that there are things we can grasp, hold, move or raise while other things we can’t. We learn that we can put things inside containers and that we can take them out. That a table may be above us, or below us. Through movement and sight we gradually develop a notion of front and back as well as near and far, up and down, and on and on and on. These and many other recurring patterns “constitute the basic contours of our lived world” says Johnson. “They are one of the primary ways we are in touch with our environment. They are one of the primary ways we are in touch with our world, understand it and act within it”.

These are our baby steps that introduce us to our physical world. At this stage, the interaction with our environment gradually becomes more structured and meaningful. Every action we take already anticipates a reaction. We know what to expect when we push, drag or pull. We know what it takes to lift this or that object, and we know what it takes to move ourselves from here to there. In short, we understand the world around us. This engagement with the physical world naturally reaffirms our body. It’s the more mental world that brings this sense of independence from our body. It’s our capacity for abstraction that allows us to think from a distance, to contemplate the world from the position of a detached observing eye. Yet, as we’re about to see, abstraction is as physical as our own weight.

Our world is a large one, we don’t only care for the near and practical. The sight of a majestic mountain may move us profoundly even if it rises far in the distance. This same sight however, produces no impact at all on other apes. Chimps, baboons or bonobos couldn’t care less about a faraway mountain. But we do, we care. The world we live in, the world we care about, is not only physical, it’s also social and cultural. It is a world with majestic mountains. In the meeting with our environment, our body aims to make sense of all that matters to us, whether it’s tangible or intangible. Whatever is tangible our body can directly perceive with its senses, it can be pointed at with our finger, it can be named. This is a book, this is a dog, this is a hug, this is a path, this is running, this is hunger, this is a smile and these are tears. The world of the intangibles however, is completely invisible to our senses. To bring the intangible into our lives we must ourselves give it some form or shape and possibly a name. It is only then that we can say, look! This is justice, this is knowledge, this is respect and this is love. 

What our body has to offer to make sense of this invisible world are our feelings, our movements, our senses and the “contours of our lived world”. That is, the up-down, near-far, in-out, warm-cold, rough-smooth, and a very, very long etcetera. These are the essential materials with which our body gives shape to love, justice or quantum mechanics. So what’s the shape of love?. Love, as most abstract concepts, if not all, has many shapes, all of them derive from the meeting between body-environment. Let’s dive into the physicality of love. One can be  in  love or  out  of love. As if love were a box. Let’s take that box and place two pencils together. These two pencils are  in  love. If we now move the box the two pencils travel together, one next to the other in a beautiful romantic journey. Love is a journey. When you want love to end, you take the pencils out of the box. Of course, traveling together is not enough, you need a certain warmth inside that box. If that warmth is like a nice big hug, you have a good friendship. If the box is on fire, you’re in a passionate relationship. Of course if the box is cold, you may still be in a relationship, but one without love, and that box may become a place you would rather leave. 

The abstract is the work of the very concrete.

With a box, a couple of pencils and a matchbox we’re able to give a tangible existence to something so ethereal as love. Such is the amazing work of our body and our brain. Making visible the invisible. We can expand our love affair as much as we want, incorporating many other qualities brought in from our encounter with our physical environment. For example, the box may be moving smoothly along a straight line, or not so smoothly along a jagged line. If the movements become rough the pencils may hurt each other and one of the pencils may even fall out love, while the other remains with a broken heart. The pencils may undergo a bumpy ride with ups and downs in their relationship. They may be moving forwards or backwards in their relationship. And of course, if we add some magnets to them, we can increase their physical attraction.

The point isn’t so much that we can talk about love using a box and couple of pencils. The point is that we can say very little about abstract concepts such as love, morality or Hegelian philosophy, without using the concrete and tangible. That is, without using the qualities our body has experienced in its meeting with its physical environment. These qualities are the building blocks with which we construct most, if not all, our abstract concepts. Thus, if you want to feed your mind with abstract concepts you had better feed your body with physical experiences first. Or in the words of the physician and educator Maria Montessori “Give nothing to the mind until you first give it to the hand”.

How would we understand justice if we lacked the sense of balance? How would we understand freedom if we couldn’t experience the amplitude and tightness of our bodies? Or how would we understand something so fundamental as categories if we couldn’t put things in and out of a boxes? It doesn’t mean that without a sense of balance we couldn’t have a sense of justice. It means that we would construct our notions of justice very differently. It would have a different shape.

Because most of us share similar bodies and similar environments, with patience and will, we’re able to understand each other across very different cultures. Of course we sometimes encounter peculiar divergences. For example, most of us think about life as if it were a journey. Life has a beginning and an end. It has paths to choose from, directions, destinations and we make plans to overcome difficulties. But not all cultures share this view of life as a journey. Thus, if you were to tell them something along the lines of, “look, I’m in a moment in my life where I’m lost”. This would make no sense to them. How can one be lost in life? You are life! Other cultures, for example, don’t share our view that time is a limited resource. For them, time doesn’t have the shape of an hourglass, where small falling grains of sand depict how time is irreversibly consumed. So rather than saying “I didn’t have  enough  time for that” they would say something more like “I couldn’t find a path to that”. The Aymara of South America, point backwards to refer to the future and to the front to talk about their past. It makes perfect sense, they can see their past, but not their future. In the West, we are ill because something is attacking us. To get better we have to kill or expel that something. In traditional chinese medicine, we’re ill because we’re out of balance. To cure ourselves we must restore that balance.

When we say that life is a journey we’re not just decorating our concept of life with poetic words. Life-is-a-journey is central to how we understand life, at least for those of us that can get lost in life. There are numerous experiments that show how deep these associations go into our corporeal relationship with the world. For example, people who were induced to tell a lie in an experiment, usually preferred cleaning their hands as a reward rather than getting a small gift. Immoral acts are dirty and if you do bad things, you’d better clean yourself. People who read a description of a fictional character while holding a warm coffee, judged the described person as more caring, generous and friendly than those who held an iced coffee while reading the exact same description. The warmth of the coffee fused with the character’s qualities. A political issue was deemed more important in a survey made on a heavy clipboard, than on a light clipboard. There are heavy-weight issues and there are light-weight issues, and if I feel their weight it’s because they are important. These experiments reveal the hidden strings that connect meaning and body. They reveal that meaning is not only a mental affair. As Mark Johnson argues, “[meaning] reaches deep down into our corporeal encounter with our environment.”

Without a body there is no meaning.

The world we know, with all its physical, cultural and social qualities, with all that is visible and invisible, is a product of our body interacting with its environment. Where would meaning come from if not from this encounter between body and environment? What this means is that if our body or our environment were different, all our mental life would be different. What if we didn’t have gravity? Could we have developed concepts such as “up”, “down”, “basic”, “fundamental”, “flow” or “balance”. What would our mental life be if we had completely different bodies? If, for example, we were more like octopuses. No bones, floating in the sea and with eight arms, each with a mini brain able to carry independent actions. Octopuses are amazingly intelligent creatures who are dramatically different from us. If they could only live more than their miserable two year lifespan, who knows, they might be able to develop cultures as sophisticated as ours. But their cultures would be so alien to us that it would be a real challenge to make sense of whatever concept they developed. How could we ever make any sense of their abstract concepts if we have no way to connect them to our own bodily experiences?

Meaning is both environment and body dependent. We cannot remove body or environment from the equation, and expect meaning to be preserved. More simply than that, one cannot have an environment without having a body and one cannot have a body without an environment. They mutually define one another. Remove one and you take down the other as well. What’s interesting about this story, is that the possibility to imagine ourselves as purely mental beings, with no material substance, is actually nourished by our own body. First, by its desire to remain in the background and second, by its capacity for having this detached view of the world that comes with abstraction. So can we exist without a body? My guess is no. We are our body. If we change it, we change with it. If we remove it, we’re gone with it. In the words of Mark Johnson, “no brain, no meaning; no body, no meaning; no environment, no meaning”.