Forms of subjective bodily experience


By Masa Urbancic


In our everyday lives, we experience and relate to our bodies in a variety of ways. There are moments when the body lies at the forefront of our attention, whereas in other circumstances it is at the back of our minds. In this paper, I will discuss Legrand’s (2007) differentiating modes[1] of subjective bodily experience and argue that observation of one’s own body does not always imply that the body is experienced as an object and can thus be experienced as a subject when observed. The latter experience hinges upon a different kind of observation. Essential to note is that this account does not contradict Legrand’s forms of bodily experience but adds an important point that was omitted in her account.

Firstly, I will introduce Legrand’s modes of bodily experiences. Secondly, I will proceed with my argument of different kinds of observation and show that the body can be experienced as a subject when it is observed. Lastly, the argument will be extended to the case of expert dancers, which Legrand also draws on in her distinction of different modes of subjective bodily experience.

Legrand’s (2007) forms of subjective bodily experience

Based on empirical and phenomenological explorations of self-consciousness, Legrand argues that there are observational reflective[2] and non-observational pre-reflective forms of self-consciousness. Proceeding from this starting point, she distinguishes four different ways in which the body can be experienced from a first-person stance (p. 493). On one side of the spectrum lies the opaque body, where the body is taken as the object of our attention. Here the body is observed and “one does not look through [the body], but at [the body]” (p. 500, my emphasis). On the other side lies the invisible body, which corresponds to the state where one is unconscious of the body and the latter is not experienced at all, such as in the case of loss of proprioception (p. 500). The other two modes of bodily experience lie between these two ends of the spectrum, both of which fall under the sphere of bodily pre-reflective self-consciousness and it is where most people experience their bodies in everyday life (ibid). They are divided between the pre-reflective experience of the body (the performative body) and the pre-reflective bodily experience of the world (the transparent body) (p.500).[3] Performative body is how expert dancers normally experience their bodies, where the body lies at the front of one’s experience but it is not being reflected upon or observed (Legrand 2007, 501-2). The body is thus experienced as a subject-agent (p.506) and the emphasis in this mode lies with the experience of the body in a pre-reflective, non-observational way (ibid).

The other is the transparent body, where the focus is directed at the experience of the world “in a bodily way” (p. 506, emphasis in original). In other words, the experience of the world is given through this transparent body – one looks “through it to the world” (p. 504, emphasis in original). In this mode, the body is also experienced as a subject that perceives and acts and is experienced as being in the world (p. 504), but the body is not positioned at the front of one’s experience in this mode. In both modes therefore, the body is not seen as an “object of identification” (p. 506), but is experienced as a subject on a pre-reflective level.[4]

The body as observed and experienced as a subject

In this part, I will attempt to show that the body can be experienced in a different way from the ones mentioned above. I concur with the reflective and pre-reflective division of possible bodily experiences but I argue that observation of one’s body, though it sometimes is, does not always imply the body is always experienced as an object. The attempt will be to demonstrate the body can be observed while simultaneously experienced as a subject in the world and therefore is an important addition to Legrand’s account. Legrand’s use of the word observation is not clear enough and it seems to be more associated with eyesight (e.g. she uses the word look– one looks at or through the body (p. 500)). It is my proposition that different kinds of observation are responsible for the subject or object bodily experience.

This subject-object perception, I argue, depends on the angle one takes towards the body, i.e. where the locus of attention is and what direction it takes from there. At least in our culture, observation is usually associated with eyesight. In this sense, when I look down at my body, my attention travels from my eyes onto (the surface of) my body. Hence my body is being perceived as an object, especially if I am consciously concentrating on how to move it, like in the case of a dancer learning new choreography. This is what happens in the case of the opaque body and it is a metaphor we tend to live by that only by seeing we know and understand (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 470).

However, I can deliberately shift my locus of attention from my eyes by positioning it within my body and directing it towards the world. In other words, attention commences inside one’s body, e.g. at core abdomen muscles and is being directed to the outer world. In this way, despite the attention being directed at the world, the body is held in awareness at the same time because the attention originates within one’s body and hence permeates the body and the world. Precisely this change of locus creates the experience of the body as a subject, since the body is not being observed anymore from the location of eyesight, but within itself. In this manner, the body can still be observed. I can still consciously focus on my movements, but if the attention begins within the body, it is no longer an object. This is an addition to Legrand’s view, where the body can be only experienced as a subject at the pre-reflective level, either in performative or transparent body mode.

For further discussion, let us take Merleau Ponty’s example of the touching-touched hand that Legrand also refers to in her discussion. “If I touch with my left hand my right hand while it touches an object, the right hand object is not the right hand touching” (Merleau- Ponty 2012, 95). What the touched hand is experiencing, Legrand equates with observational consciousness, whereas the experience of the touching hand is consistent with pre-reflective bodily consciousness (p. 499). The touching hand, therefore, is the experience where the body is the “subject of experience and is experienced as such” (ibid). I agree with Legrand that the touched hand is experienced as an object of observation, be it either by the touching hand or the eyes. In the case of the touching hand, I would add that the touching hand is experienced as touching because that is where the sense of agency lies in that moment, i.e. where attention commences. I am in agreement that in this case the direction of attention is not held in conscious awareness and, as such, the touching hand is experienced pre-reflectively. In everyday circumstances, the movement of bodily parts is not being done on reflection, i.e. what Gallagher (2005, 74) calls performative awareness. I do not need to specifically reflect that these are my arms that are moving (ibid). However, it is unclear why the touched hand should be experienced as consistent with observational consciousness, since in our usual experience we are not consciously observing or reflecting on our body either and still experiencing it as an object. Both the touching and the touched hand are experienced pre-reflectively in this case, so the touched hand cannot be observed if Legrand’s argument follows. That is why I claim it is the interplay between the origin and direction of attention that matter in the bodily experience of subject-object, not simply observation or reflection. Hence, although not usual, the experience of the touching hand is possible when observed as well. Here a potential objection might be raised that observational bodily experience as a subject is not applicable since it scarcely resembles the everyday bodily experience of most people. However, in the same way Legrand’s mode of performative body is experienced differently by dancers and non-dancers (p. 502), the observational bodily experience as a subject will be differently experienced by those who have practiced the skill of consciously observing their bodies in different ways and those who have not. But it is an experience of the body that can be enhanced through training (e.g. meditation or dance), not an experience people would be lacking altogether.

There are two further reasons why there is credibility the body is not necessarily always experienced as an object at a reflective level and it can be perceived as a subject. First, the term subject or agent implies action and activity in the world. It therefore appears plausible that the body is experienced as a subject at the reflective level as well, where the body is explicitly present in our conscious experience, which in turn increases the sense of agency in the world. It could be said here that focus on the body takes the attention away from the activity. But here the reply is the second reason, namely that the assertion of the body being viewed as an object at a reflective level carries with it a hidden assumption, which is that the mind is not capable of being aware of more than one thing at a time. However, there is no reason to suppose one could not be aware both of the world and the body simultaneously.

To emphasise once more, there is no denial that there exists a distinction between pre-reflective and reflective levels of bodily experience. But the subject/object dichotomy hinges upon the origin and direction of awareness and its interchange, not simply on reflection. This was demonstrated by showing the body can be experienced as a subject at the reflective level.

Dancers: Experiencing the body

For the end, I will shortly look at the case of dancers, in view of the fact they are mentioned by Legrand and deemed as being more familiar with bodily experiences than most people. In her paper, Legrand maintains that a beginner dancer or a dancer starting to learn a new choreography will need to consciously control her movements and position, hence taking an observational perspective on the body (p. 501). She is in the mode of the opaque body. An expert dancer, on the other hand, is embodying the dance, having a pre-reflective experience of the body (ibid). However, I would argue there is also the state where the body is observed and experienced as a subject, but that depends on the origin and direction of attention. When a dancer is learning the dance, she is in fact learning how the movements feel from the inside. In other words, she is moving from looking at the body from the eyes to experiencing it from the inside. As a former dancer said to me[5]: “When I’m learning the choreography and I’ve got it, I’m taking it from the outside and putting it on the body; I’m learning how it feels like.” On the other hand, when the dancer performs, her attention seems to be situated within the body:

“Where is your mind when you already know the dance? – In my body. But the attention is not on the movements because that is a separate programme that is running.”

“It’s all one [music and body]. …. You can just walk in, switch the programme on, all you do is feel the body.”

“When I am on stage, my intention will be to perform. Your focus is on how you are performing or telling the story, depending where the story needs to be for the choreography. The body just does it, it is a separate programme.” (personal interview)

In dancing, the attention is not directed towards the movements but towards the feeling of the body and performing. I would argue here that because attention is on how the body feels, it is still held in conscious awareness (whereas the sequence of movements is held pre-reflectively). Therefore, the body is experienced as a subject because the feeling of the body originates within the body. This bodily awareness is also felt in daily life:

“When I am sitting here I am feeling my pelvis and that I was too leaning forward there /…/ so there’s lots of things that while I am talking to you, I am just going around my body….So your body is always in awareness? – Yes, pretty much….not always in awareness, but a lot of times in awareness. I’d say it’s a good 50 % of my life in any day that I got one part of my mind on my body. “

“Do you experience it as a subject or an object? – Yes, it’s a subject, it’s not an object. It’s a consciousness ….my body is a conscious being that I inhabit.” Can you observe it and still experience it as a subject? – Yes.”

From this testimony it seems that the attention is still directed into the outer world in everyday life but simultaneously also encompasses the body in a reflective way, since the attention is on how the body feels. But the body is not being looked at, but felt from the inside.


The purpose of this essay was to present Legrand’s different forms of subjective bodily experience and add that observational consciousness does not imply the body always is experienced as an object. There is the possibility that the body is observed and simultaneously experienced as a subject. This was presented by demonstrating that a bodily experience as subject or object is determined by different kinds of observation, i.e. by the location from which attention originates and its direction.




Colombetti, G. 2011. Varieties of pre-reflective self-awareness: foreground and background bodily feelings in emotion experience. Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 54 (3): 293-313.

Gallagher, S. 2005. How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson. 1980. Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language. The Journal of Philosophy 77 (8): 453-86.

Legrand, D. 2007. Pre-reflective Self-Consciousness: On Being Bodily in the World. Janus Head 9 (2): 493-519.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 2012. Phenomenology of Perception. Abingdon: Routledge.

Pinku, G. and J. Tzelgov. 2006. Consciousness of the self (COS) and explicit knowledge. Consciousness and Cognition 15(4): 654-61.

[1] I use words mode and form interchangeably.

[2] Legrand (2007, p. 497) states her observational reflective self-consciousness corresponds to Pinku and Tzelgov’s (2006) notion of consciousness of the self as object.

[3]Legrand states there are three forms of experience: the body is experienced as opaque, as pre-reflective or as invisible (p. 500). Note that in terms of bodily self-consciousness, there are three forms, but the pre-reflective experience is further subdivided into the performative and transparent body (hence, four modes of bodily experience). I argue that reflective bodily experience does not always imply the body is experienced as an object.

[4] I take these two modes as corresponding to Colombetti’s (2011) distinction between foreground and background bodily feelings. The latter are both experienced on a pre-reflective level, with bodily feelings lying either at the foreground or background of our experience. In a similar way, in the performative body, the latter lies at the front, whereas in the transparent body, the body lies at the background of our pre-reflective experience.

[5] This was part of a personal interview with Chris Blagdon, who is a former professional ballet dancer and a Pilates instructor.

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