Richard Shusterman's recent collection of essays is a real treat for all readers interested in traditional and contemporary aesthetics of both Eastern and Western descent. His essays, written in an clear and engaging style, explore the philosophical foundations of his somaesthetics and discuss contemporary issues in topics ranging from consciousness studies, education thought sexuality and arts. Roughly speaking, somaesthetics is the idea that is built on the pragmatist insistence on the body's central role in artistic creation and appreciation. This idea (developed through the years by Shusterman in a number of his interesting books) draws also on the ancient idea that philosophy itself should be embodied as a way of life rather than treated in terms of abstract theory. Interestingly, the pragmatic aspect of somaesthetics consists in the fact that it consists also of practical exercises rather than mere philosophical discourse.
Thinking Through the Body consists of 14 chapters divided three main parts, focused on topics connected with education (Part I: Somatic Being, Knowing and Teaching), culture (Part II: Somaesthetics, Aesthetics and Culture) and the arts (Part III: The Arts and the Art of Living) accordingly. Throughout all of them the author provides his readers with eloquent argumentation while yet again proving that he is immensely well-read scholar. In the first chapter of this collection, Shusterman argues that because of the fact that the body is an essential and valuable dimension of our humanity it should be recognized as a crucial topic of the humanistic study and experiential learning. In this particular chapter, the author provides an abridged historical overview of philosophical critique of the body (which he dubs "antisomatic bias"), while introducing also the distinction between different branches of his theory of somaesthetics. In the following Chapter 2, Shusterman examines the body's role as structuring unreflective background to conscious mental life and purposive actions, arguing against the views of philosophers like Immanuel Kant, William James and Maurice Merleau -- Ponty. Chapter 3 is focused on self-knowledge and somatic self-consciousness, providing interesting overview and comments to the historical philosophical standpoints related to both topics. Chapter 4 is devoted to in-depth examination of the concept of muscle memory from the perspective of studies in somaesthetics. By "muscle memory" Shusterman understands the sort of implicit embodied memory that helps us perform various motor tasks. In this chapter, the author interestingly refers both to classical works of William James and to the examples of various somatic pathologies (for instance: post traumatic stress disorder), showing the variety of topics to which his research program may be applied. Chapter 5 ("Somaesthetics in Philosophy Classroom: A practical approach") is focused on experiential somaesthetics. The author aims to show how exercises for improving somatic awareness can be taught in an academic philosophical classroom.
Part II of this collection opens with an essay (Chapter 6) on the philosophical origins of somaesthetics, theories that inspired Shusterman. In this chapter he also introduced the reasons that motivated his turn to pragmatist philosophy. Chapter 7 examines E. Burke's concept of sublime, pointing out the somatic aspect of Burke's aesthetics. Chapter 8 examines somaesthetics as an expression of broader field of contemporary pragmatism and its challenges (posed, for instance, by philosopher R. Rorty), while focusing on the issue of cultural politics. Interestingly, in Chapter 9 ("Body consciousness and performance: Somaesthetics East and West") Shusterman argues that we since we acquire bad habits as easily as good ones, the reflective (body) consciousness is necessary for correcting bad habits. He thus moves into the practical realm of somaesthetics, while analyzing in-depth the Confucian, Daoist traditions in comparison with works of William James and John Dewey, among the works on human mirror neuron system and the writings of Antonio Damasio.
In the opening chapter (Chapter 10) of the Part III of his book, Shustermann turns to the analysis of architecture in the light of somaesthetics. Here he discusses the centrality of the body in architecture, while arguing that architecture itself should be critically attentive to body's multiplicity of senses. Chapter 11 focuses on photography as performative process. Shusterman limits his analysis to the photography of someone who is aware and willing to be photographed, providing variety of interesting insights. In the next chapter (Chapter 12), the author tackles the issues of Asian Ars Erotica, moving into the field of sexual aesthetics. Here, he critically examines the works of Shaftesbury, Kant, Schopenhauer, Burke and Foucault among others and their insights on sexual attraction in the context of aesthetics. Following his interests in Eastern aesthetics, Shusterman turns also to Confucius and his insights on healthy and unhealthy sex life and Kama Sutra. Next chapter of the book (Chapter 13) is focused on the art of living. The author analyses and comments on works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The leading idea of this chapter is that to live philosophically means living in a waking rather than sleeping. Shusterman focuses on the ways in which Emerson and Thoreau applied this idea and analyses other major expressions of throughout the history of philosophy. Here, interestingly, he also draws upon his own personal experience of awakened living in Japanese Zen cloister. The final chapter of this collection (Chapter 14) the author turns to examining the role of body in (influencing) style of producing works of art. Interestingly, Shusterman moves to constructing the notion of "somatic style" -- a bodily expressions that is formed and expressed through the body's various elements and is appreciated through our bodily senses.
To conclude, Richard Shusterman's collection of essays provides interesting insights into variety of topic. Both academics and laymen interested in the way in which body influences our perception and production of art will find this book enriching and especially interesting. Written in an engaging and neat style Thinking Through the Body is highly recommended.
© 2013 Jakub Matyja
Jakub Matyja, currently a PhD student in Philosophy at Polish Academy of Sciences, works in embodied, enactive and extended music cognition. His research is financed by the resources of the National Science Centre (NCN), granted under decision number DEC-2011/03/N/HS1/01703.