Somaesthetics’ is a term coined by Shusterman to denote a new philosophical discipline he has invented as a remedy for the following problems:
According to Shusterman our culture’s growing preoccupation with the body has not yet found an appropriate response in the realm of philosophy which simply neglects the somatic or textualizes it or reduces it to gender or racial difference, and thus is unwilling or unable to counteract the negative aspects of the current body boom (such as the tendency that “contemporary aesthetic ideals of body remain enslaved by shallow and oppressive stereotypes that serve more to increase profits for the cosmetics industries than to enrich our experience of the varieties of bodily charms”).
Despite the relative abundance of humanist disciplines devoted to the body they lack
a conceptual framework that could integrate their efforts (and also allow for their better cooperation with natural sciences and various somatic methods);
“a clear pragmatic orientation, something that the individual can directly translate into a discipline of improved somatic practice”.
Philosophical aesthetics has paid very little attention to the body as a result of “the willful neglect of the body in Baumgarten’s founding text of modern aesthetics, an omission reinforced by subsequent intellectualist and idealist theories (from Kant through Hegel and Schopenhauer and on to contemporary theories that emphasize disinterested contemplation)”.
The above mentioned conditions have determined the nature of somaesthetics as a grounded in philosophical aesthetics yet interdisciplinary project of theory and practice which can be defined as:
“the critical, meliorative study of the experience and the use of one’s body as a locus sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning […], devoted [also] to the knowledge, discourses and disciplines that structure such somatic care or can improve it.”.
To clarify the terminological issues one needs to mention that Shusterman has intentionally put the term ‘soma’ (instead of the more familiar ‘body’) in the name of his disciplinary proposal to emphasize one important feature of his conception of corporeality. For Shusterman, who is a true disciple of Dewey in this regard, bodily and mental (as well as cultural and biological) dimensions of human being are essentially inseparable and to signify this unity (this “sentient perceiving «body-mind»”) he prefers to use the term ‘soma’ which, unlike ‘body’, does not automatically connote passive flesh contrasted to dynamic soul or mind.
Although Shusterman’s project may at the first glance seem utterly innovatory and even iconoclastic, its various elements, as Shusterman himself admits, can be traced to many respected traditions: ancient Greek philosophy and the later Western philosophies (Michel de Montaigne, John Dewey, Michel Foucault), but also East-Asian wisdom such as Confucianism. Somaesthetics divides into three fundamental branches:
analytical somaesthetics which is a “descriptive and theoretical enterprise devoted to explaining the nature of our bodily perceptions and practices and their function in our knowledge and construction of the world. Besides the traditional topics in philosophy of mind, ontology, and epistemology that relate to the mind-body issue and the role of somatic factors in consciousness and action, analytic somaesthetics also includes the sort of genealogical, sociological, and cultural analyses advanced by Beauvoir, Foucault [and] Pierre Bourdieu”;
pragmatic somaesthetics which (in “contrast to analytic somaesthetics, whose logic is essentially descriptive”) “has a distinctly normative, often prescriptive, character because it involves proposing specific methods of somatic improvement or engaging in their comparison, explanation, and critique”;
practical somaesthetics which “involves actually engaging in programs of disciplined, reflective, corporeal practice aimed at somatic self-improvement”.
Shusterman himself works in all three somaesthetic subdisciplines:
within the analytic field he theorizes body’s status as the basic medium of human existence and the fundamental role it plays in the realm of cognition, ethics, politics and aesthetics;
in pragmatic somaesthetics he analyzes different somatic disciplines (e.g., Feldenkrais method, Alexander Technique, Bioenergetics);
criticizes different thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, William James, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault, for either neglecting or misconceiving the value of various forms of somatic care;
scrutinizes the issue of Asian erotic arts;
discusses the value of somaesthetics for education in the humanities;
As a certified practitioner of Feldenkrais Method and a somatic therapist he gives workshops on somaesthetics that include practical exercises and demonstrations, but also has experience in treating different cases of somatic disabilities.
While undeniably a new phenomenon, somaesthetics, which by now forms the center of Shusterman’s philosophical inquiries, has already influenced many scholars working in fields as diverse as philosophy, art education, dance theory, health and fitness studies