A&O READING EXCERPTS – Johnson (2007) The Meaning of the Body


excerpts from 

The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding

Mark Johnson (2007) 

(Univ Chi Press) .



“Human meaning concerns the character and significance of a person’s interactions with their environments. The meaning of a specific aspect or dimension of some ongoing experience is that aspect’s connections to other parts of past, present, or future (possible) experiences. Meaning is relational. It is about how one thing relates to or connects with other things.” (p. 10). …  “Sometimes our meanings are conceptually and propositionally coded, but that is merely the more conscious, selective dimension of a vast, continuous process of immanent meanings that involve structures, patterns, qualities, feelings, and emotions. An embodied view is naturalistic, insofar as it situates meaning within a flow of experience that cannot exist without a biological organism engaging its environment. Meanings emerge “from the bottom up” through increasingly complex levels of organic activity; they are not the constructions of a disembodied mind.”


There is no radical mind/body separation. A person is not a mind and a body. There are not two “things” somehow mysteriously yoked together. What we call a “person” is a certain kind of bodily organism that has a brain operating within its body, a body that is continually interacting with aspects of its environments (material and social) in an ever-changing process of experience. (Johnson p. 11).



In Mark Johnson’s book, he outlines important implications for thinking about body and minds as a unified entity, and body-based meaning:

    1. Meaning is grounded in our bodily experience. If there is no disembodied mind—no transcendent soul or ego—to be the source of meaning, then what things are meaningful to us and how they are meaningful must be a result of the nature of our brains, our bodies, our environments, and our social interactions, institutions, and practices.  (Johnson p. 12).
    2. Reason is an embodied process. Our “body” and “mind” are dimensions of the primordial, ongoing organism-environment transactions that are the locus of who and what we are.” (p. 13).
    3. Imagination is tied to our bodily processes and can also be creative and transformative of experience. (p. 13).
    4. There is no radical freedom. Most people believe that human will possesses absolute freedom, which is why we think we can hold people responsible for their actions. But if there is no transcendent self, no disembodied ego, to serve as the agent of free choice, then what sense can we make of real choice, or of moral responsibility for our actions? This problem has plagued all naturalistic accounts of mind, from David Hume to William James to Antonio Damasio. We need a view of choice that is consistent with cognitive neuroscience and its insistence on the embodiment of mind and yet which doesn’t make a shambles of our notions of moral responsibility.” ( 13-14)
    5. Reason and emotion are inextricably intertwined. This claim directly challenges the received wisdom that reason and emotion are separate, independent capacities, one disembodied (i.e., reason) and the other embodied (i.e., emotion).
    6. Human spirituality is embodied. For many people, their sense of spirituality is tied to notions of transcendence—of the soul, of spirit, of value, of God. The traditional notion of transcendence is what I call “vertical transcendence,” because it requires rising above one’s embodied situation in the world to engage a higher realm (p. 14).




From Mark Johnson (2007) The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding  (Univ Chi Press)