by Louis Komjathy 康思奇

Somatology refers to discourse on, study of, and theories about the (human) body. While more conventionally used to refer to a branch of anthropology (a.k.a. “physical anthropology”) primarily concerned with the physical nature and characteristics of people or to a branch of biology concerned with the structure and function of the human body, the term may be used as a comparative and cross-cultural interpretive category. Etymologically speaking, “somatology” derives from the Greek sôma (“body”) and lógos (“study”). Thus, it may be applied to consider the embodied, enacted, and enfleshed dimensions of human being and experience, especially in terms of corporeality, embodiment, physicality, somatics, and the like. From an interdisciplinary perspective, some especially relevant—if under-consulted—disciplines include body work, dance, disability studies, feminist studies, kinesthetics, movement studies, physical education, ritual studies, “sports science,” theater, and so forth.

In terms of the Philosophy of Religion, especially as envisioned in its current “global-critical” trajectory, with an additional concern for embodiment, personhood, and subjectivity, somatology inspires deeper exploration and reflection on “the body” as a lived, phenomenological site of human being and experiencing. Here we must recognize that, while accepting certain shared, recurring morphological and structural features, there is no such thing as “the body,” especially when we engage culture-specific views, “corporeal phenomenology,” transformative body-techniques, and socio-political dimensions (see, e.g., Komjathy 2007). Thus, there is only my body and your body, and other bodies, both historical and contemporaneous. This is not to mention the assumptions often involved with categories like “embodiment.” Are consciousness and identity distinguishable from “the body?” We may consider the ways in which the mind is in the body, including the possibility of “philosophy in the flesh” (see, e.g., Lakoff and Johnson 1999) and perhaps an accompanying “philosophy of skin and touch” (see, e.g., Vasseleu 1998). Additional somatological trajectories include investigation of associated human (and “non-human”) vulnerability and the centrality of pain in the human condition (see, e.g., Scarry 1985; Good et al. 1992). We may, in turn, think of this as the “somatic turn” in scholarship and perhaps in pedagogy, and it may open up more radical possibilities with respect to organic and ecological being-in-the-world.

As herein employed, that is, as a proposed comparative and cross-cultural category, there is no known “historical usage” of somatology, so here we will focus on intersection-points and additional possibilities. In addition to more straightforward investigation of culture- and tradition-specific views and enactments, including from comparative and cross-cultural perspectives (see bibliography herein), somatology inspires consideration of the body as such. Here we may consider actual posture and movement patterns (see, e.g., Hewes 1955, 1957) as well as the anatomy of movement (see Calais-Germain 2007). One possible “thought-experiment” (“body-experiment”?) in this regard involves deeper reflection on and perhaps subversive interaction with the academic vogue of neuroimaging technology. While neuroimages are often presented as providing maps of consciousness (brain physiology), with accompanying legitimation narratives, once again mediated by technology (see, e.g., Heidegger 1977; also Komjathy 2015, 2018), a more direct engagement with human being and expression, here through the “lived/living body,” is possible. One radical counterpoint centers on mapping movement patterns. For this, we may engage and potentially employ “movement notation systems,” including Laban Movement Analysis (LMA). This includes consideration of the four dimensions of body, effort, shape, and space (see, e.g., Bradley 2008; also Komjathy 2018). Hypothetically, we can create notations of any activity or event that may become a historio-cultural record, including for potential future reconstructions (see, e.g., Goodman 1990).

Along these lines, somatology brings our attention to the ways in which human beings have transformed and can transform themselves/ourselves through “body-techniques” (see Mauss 1935, 1979; Martin et al. 1988; Murphy 1992; Hadot 1995; Komjathy 2007). While this occurs all of the time in various ways, including through cultural conditioning and architecture as mandated movement, there are intentional undertakings, whether through specific activities or larger training regimens, that result in specific, self-directed transformative effects. This may include latent and even anomalous capacities, including “paranormal” or “extraordinary” ones (e.g., extreme sports). While Philosophy and Religious Studies have tended to (over)emphasize “beliefs,” “doctrine,” and “thought,” worldview is only one dimension of religious systems and traditions. A shift towards “experience” and even “embodiment” are welcome modifications, but these should ideally be combined with “practice” (see, e.g., Komjathy 2015, 2018). This involves attention to the technical specifics of said techniques and regimens, including transformative effects. In Contemplative Studies, the latter are often discussed in terms of “states” (temporary psychological shifts) and “traits” (permanent character changes).

Another noteworthy, related dimension of somatology involves the unique ways that lived, embodied experience may inform one’s perspective and even writing. Here I am specifically thinking of Écriture féminine (“women’s writing”), which is usually traced to the article “Le Rire de la Méduse”/“The Laugh of the Medusa” (1975) by the French feminist and literary theorist Hélène Cixous. This “movement,” which involves writing in/as/through female embodiment and a more radical “femininity/feminism,” also includes Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva as key members (see, e.g., Marks and de Courtivron 1981). Interestingly, and perhaps adding another layer of gender complexity, Cixous’ writing is highly influenced by the German philosopher and culture critic Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and by her lifelong friendship with the French philosopher and post-structuralist Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Comparatively speaking, one might consider nǚshū 女書 (“women’s script”), which apparently was first developed between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as a pre-modern Chinese precedent (see, e.g., Foster 2019). Like the late imperial Ruist (“Confucian”) influence on the European enlightenment via Jesuit Catholic Latin translation, one also wonders about indirect influence on this modern French movement.

The scholarship on “the body” and “embodiment” is vast (see bibliography herein). Partially drawing upon Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) “archaeology of knowledge” via Nietzsche’s “genealogy of morals,” Michel Feher and his collaborators have published the three-volume Fragments for a History of the Human Body (1989). For individuals interested in “body-techniques” and associated “transformative practice” there are a number of relevant publications (see above; bibliography herein). Summaries and syncretic theories appear in Louis Komjathy’s various publications (2007, 2015, 2018). Komjathy also has advanced a theory of embodiment and transmission, wherein different communities and traditions become manifest as unique presences and movement patterns in the world. This relates to his larger theory of (religious) praxis, involving the interrelationship among views, methods, experiences, and goals. Finally, just as there is a need for deeper engagement with “neurodiversity” in Consciousness Studies and philosophy of mind, my proposed Somatic Studies needs to consider assumptions about and claims rooted in “able-bodiedness,” especially in concert with perspectives from Disability Studies. 

Related terms: anthropology, embodiment, experience, personhood, pneumatology, psychology, 氣 (“subtle breath/energy”; Chinese), shēn 身 (“body/self”; Chinese), subjectivity, xīn 心 (“heart-mind”; Chinese)


Bermúdez, José Luis, Anthony Marcel, and Naomi Eilan, eds. The Body and the Self. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

Bradley, Karen. Rudolf Laban. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

Calais-Germain, Blandine. 2007. Anatomy of Movement. Rev. ed. Seattle: Eastland Press.

Coakley, Sarah, ed. Religion and the Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Cottai, Thomas, and June McDaniel, eds. Perceiving the Divine through the Human Body: Mystical Sensuality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.

Csordas, Thomas J., ed. Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Feher, Michel, with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, eds. Fragments for a History of the Human Body. 3 vols. New York: Zone Books, 1989.

Foster, Nicola. “Translating Nüshu: Drawing Nüshu, Dancing Nüshu.” Art in Translation 11:4 (2019): 393-416.

Good, Mary-Jo, Paul Brodwin, Byron Good, and Arthur Kleinman, eds. Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Goodman, Felicitas. Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Translated by William Levitt. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977.

Hewes, Gordon. “World Distribution of Certain Postural Habits.” American Anthropologist 57 (1955): 231-44.

_____. “The Anthropology of Posture.” Scientific American 196 (1957): 123-32.

Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London and New York, Routledge, 2000.

Johnson, Don Hanlon. Bone, Breath, and Gesture: Practices of Embodiment. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1995.

Kasulis, Thomas P., with Roger T. Ames and Wimal Dissanayake, eds. Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Komjathy, Louis. Cultivating Perfection: Mysticism and Self-transformation in Early Quanzhen Daoism. Leiden: Brill.

_____, ed. Contemplative Literature: A Comparative Sourcebook on Meditation and Contemplative Prayer. New York: State University of New York Press.

_____. Introducing Contemplative Studies. West Sussex, England and Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

Laing, R.D. 1967. The Politics of Experience. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Law, Jane Marie, ed. Religious Reflections on the Human Body. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Marks, Elaine, and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms. New York: Schocken, 1981.

Martin, Luther, Huck Gutman, and Patrick Hutton, eds. Techniques of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Mauss, Marcel. “Les techniques du corps.” Journal de Psychologie Normale et Pathologique 35 (1935): 271-93.

_____. “Body Techniques.” In Sociology and Psychology, translated by Ben Brewster, 95-123. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.

Murphy, Michael. The Future of the Body: Explorations into the Further Evolution of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1992.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Un-Making of the World. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Vasseleu, Cathryn. Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau Ponty. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.