Bodily Phenomenology

How does Young’s account of the ‘feminine bodily experience’ relate to, and possibly criticise, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the human body?

Iris Marion Young’s account of the ‘feminine bodily experience’ relates to the work of Merleau-Ponty by establishing a gap in existential phenomenology. She then attempts to fill it by investigating ‘the manner in which each sex projects her or his Being-in-the-world through movement’ (Young, 1980, PP 137). The three modalities of feminine motility demonstrate key differences between the two phenomenological approaches. These modalities, when applied to feminine motility in Young’s work, don’t undermine the ideas of Merleau-Ponty. Rather, they establish that his work lacks an approach that distinguishes gender experience, which Young criticises him for.

To establish how the work of Young relates to and potentially criticises that of Merleau-Ponty, an explanation of his phenomenology is needed first. The central claims of Merleau-Ponty’s investigations into the human experience are ones of perception. Perception is, for him, not a mental phenomenon but essentially a bodily phenomenon that explores “the simple idea that we don’t so much ‘have’ as ‘inhabit’ our bodies” (Nixon, 2020). His approach to phenomenology described perception as an aspect of our bodily being in the world; hence, he rejected the traditional dualistic approach. This meant contesting the traditional dichotomy, which referred to the contrast of two things that are represented as entirely different. Perception as a bodily phenomenon meant challenging understandings such as interior vs exterior or mental vs physical. Mind and body, before this approach, were recognised as ontologically distinct substances that might interact, as described in the writings of Plato and Descartes. Instead, the body should not be conceived from a detached third-person point of view because ‘I am not in front of my body, I am in it, or rather I am it’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2002, PP 173). The body is the self, and the structure of perception is the structure of the body.

Developing his ideas of perception and bodily phenomena, Merleau-Ponty explores our bodily engagement with the world and how we move through it. This movement includes how we interact with and perceive objects. Our body is the ordinary point of view on the world; hence, we have to take this first-person point of view. ‘Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system’ (Merleau-Ponty, 2002, PP 236). This conveys the idea that our body is in the world as part of a complex kind of network of relations through which we can perceive objects, but never in an objective way. Every time we look at objects, we inhabit them, which means we establish a relationship with them through our own bodily nature. This approach Merleau-Ponty labels as ‘subjective thought’. Through the movement of the body, we can perceive objects. More significantly, perception and movement are not weakly related to one another as causes and effects, but instead, they coexist in a complex and interrelated whole. To explain this theory of ‘subjective thought’, we can use the example of a cube as Merleau-Ponty does. “The object cannot be detached from the conditions under which it presents itself to us. Think of a cube: ‘It is a question of tracing in thought that particular form which encloses a fragment of space between six equal faces” (Merleau-Ponty, 2002, PP, 236). The ‘conditions’ that he refers to involve the understanding that we can only observe an object from a certain perspective and not from an infinite number of points of view. Merleau-Ponty’s understanding is that we view the world from a first-person point of view, and so when we move through the space we exist in, we are just able to see one perspective at a time. We can’t be at the same time all around the object seeing it from all the perspectives, hence why we can’t see all six sides of a square at once. Another element of the ‘conditions’ is how the object interacts with the system of objects that are around it. We are not able to view all six sides of a cube at the same time, yet we are still able to establish that it has six sides. In short, we are able to establish that a cube has six equal faces as we can use the system of objects that are around the object as spectators that construct the completed idea of the object itself.

The work of Merleau-Ponty draws our attention to our embodied existence which aims to provide a neutral and universal description of it. This means he discusses bodily phenomenology without acknowledging the details of different experiences, and so he refers to all human bodies as the same. In contrast, Simone de Beauvoir insisted on the specificity of a woman’s embodied existence, although she seems to have a negative approach to it. She argued that a woman’s body is a burden and one of the main means for her objectification. She also, to a large extent, fails to give a place to the orientation of the woman’s body as relating to its surroundings in living action. The contrast of these approaches is significant as Iris Marion Young attempts to combine Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Beauvoir’s ‘feminist’ existentialism in order to avoid both of these shortcomings. The ‘body’ Merleau-Ponty talks about and presents as universal is actually the male body; a body without breasts, without the capacity to become pregnant, menstruate, etc. The rehabilitation of the body that MP was able to operate must be problematised; we have to overcome this issue of identity. This leads to Young’s work which tries to rely on phenomenology and existentialism to give value to the body experience of women in their specificity. Her approach is on ‘situated phenomenology’, which means the embodied consciousness is always socially situated, so although it can have a certain generality, it is never universal. This is a key difference as Merleau-Ponty discusses classical phenomenology, which is the study of the a priori necessary structures of any embodied consciousness and so is universal.

Young establishes that her work is beginning to fill a gap that exists in both existential phenomenology and feminist theory. To make her approach clear, she defines ‘feminine existence’ as “a set of structures and conditions which delimit the typical situation of being a woman in a particular society” (Young, 1980, 140). With this definition, the work looks at the existence of feminine body comportment, how women move and their movement’s relation to the space around them. She develops her account to “describe the modalities of feminine bodily existence for women situated in contemporary advanced industrial, urban, and commercial society” (Young, 1980, PP139). As the scope of bodily experience is broad, Young concentrates on the limited activities which relate to the orientation of the body as a whole.

In her first section of the essay, Young reflects on feminine comportment and bodily movement when performing actions. In a comparison of the body’s orientations between men and women, Young recognises a typical difference in body extension even in simple movements. She argues that women typically are not as open with their bodies as men, and so have shorter strides and sit with their legs crossed, for example. This movement also refers to the performance of tasks requiring coordinated strength. Women tend not to put their whole bodies into engagement in a physical task with the same ease as men. Often this is due to the perception that they are not capable of having enough strength. Women have more of a tendency to decide beforehand that the task is beyond them, thus giving less than their full effort. The three modalities of feminine motility are that feminine movement exhibits an ambiguous transcendence, an inhibited intentionality, and discontinuous unity with its surroundings. Approaching these terms individually will demonstrate key relations between the work of Young and that of Merleau-Ponty.

The approach Merleau-Ponty takes to phenomenology means that subjectivity is located not in the mind but in the body. Thus, this gives the body ‘the status of transcendence as being-for-itself’. The most basic intentional act is the motion of the body, orienting itself through movement within its surroundings. According to Merleau-Ponty, for the body to exist as a transcendent presence to the world and the immediate enactment of intentions, it cannot exist as an object. While the feminine bodily existence is a transcendence to the world, it is an ambiguous transcendence, which is, at the same time, laden with immanence. As subjectivity and transcendence are to be in the lived body rather than consciousness, all transcendence is ambiguous because the body is natural, and material is immanence. It is also ambiguous as the feminine bodily existence is overlaid with immanence ‘even as it moves out toward the world’ (Young, 1980, PP 145). Young’s understanding of women being overlaid with immanence connects with the woman’s ability to carry and feed a child. For this reason, they are capable of creating a condition of being entirely within something. The idea of women being laden with immanence and the condition of being entirely within something prevents their full capabilities as they are “weighed down” by it. The approach to transcendence demonstrates one way in which Young’s account relates to the phenomenology that Merleau-Ponty develops. This distinction in the understanding of transcendence offers a potential criticism of Merleau-Ponty’s approach from Young as he does not establish these differences in his own work. Women can live both as free subjects participating in transcendence and denied their subjectivity and transcendence by their socio-historical situation. The relation of transcendence to women in comparison to men is significantly different. Hence, it can be seen as a criticism of Merleau-Ponty’s work that he discussed the two genders as if they were the same. 

Merleau-Ponty locates intentionality in motility, meaning “our ‘possibilities’ depend on the mode and limits of our bodily ‘I can’t “(Young, 1980, PP 146). His understanding is that how we move in space and interact with objects in that space depends on our ability and limitations of motility. Uninhibited intentionality picks an aim to be accomplished and puts the body into motion in order to achieve that aim. It achieves it in an unbroken directness that organises and unifies the body’s activity. Such intentionality directly links to Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of our movements. He states, “to understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance” (Merleau-Ponty, 2002). This demonstrates that he thinks all bodies must experience harmony and fluid movement to achieve their aim. He, however, fails to make a distinction of the limitation that each gender may have in motility and instead approaches this issue encompassing women and men as the same. Young makes a distinction which claims feminine existence is an inhibited intentionality, and so, it underuses its real capacities in physical size and strength and as the real skills and coordination which are available to it. It still reaches towards a projected end with an “I can” approach but withholds its full bodily commitment in achieving the end due to a self-imposed “I cannot”. Women frequently fail with the motions which require coordination and directedness of the whole body to be performed properly to achieve the intended end. The woman’s body carries her towards the intended aim, but often not directly. Instead, motion is wasted from the effort of testing and reorientation due to the women’s hesitation when performing the task. So, when the woman enters a task, she has a presumption of the possibilities of that task. The “I can” that she projects is merely the possibilities of someone and not always her own possibilities. Hence, she projects an “I cannot” for her capabilities, presenting herself as weaker or smaller than men. By locating intentionality in motility, Merleau-Ponty is establishing the potential for inhibited intentionality. If our motility is not moving towards the aim with ease, then this may lead to questions of our bodily limits and abilities. If the body is not fully committed to achieving the end, this can impose an “I cannot” Therefore, Merleau-Ponty should recognise the possibility of inhabited intentionality. 

The third modality of the feminine bodily existence is that it stands in discontinuous unity with both itself and its surroundings. A woman tends only to use one part of the body and to leave the rest relatively immobile, thus failing to unify both her body and the world through its movement. Merleau-Ponty’s approach gives the body a unifying function allowing it to perform towards its aim. As mentioned previously, there are many motions that require coordination of the body as a whole for the task to be properly performed. The unifying function means that by projecting an aim which the person moves towards, the body unites itself with its surroundings and brings about unity. This allows the body to move fluidly and as a unified component, allowing the aim to be brought about with greater ease. It demonstrates how in Young’s approach, women are less able to use their bodily capacity due to a lack of unity between their bodies and surroundings. This approach to women’s movements does potentially complement the work of Merleau-Ponty as it agrees on the need for unity of the body to achieve an aim. His work does not distinguish between male and female phenomenology; however, it does seem to agree with Young’s ideas about the need to use the body as a whole unit. He talks of experiencing harmony and a network that connects our perception, body, movement and the world. Hence, if a being was not to experience the unity that allows them to use their body as a whole towards a project, which Young argues is the case for women, arguably Merleau-Ponty would agree with the work of Young and recognise the limitations of a self-imposed ‘I cannot’. Young builds on the work of Merleau-Ponty by offering situations in which uninhibited intentionality doesn’t occur. I would recognise this approach as building on his work instead of criticising it, as many of the ideas presented align or agree with the other.

The work of Merleau-Ponty offers a different approach to phenomenology compared to the traditional views posed by Plato and Descartes. Arguably, it provides a clear understanding of our nature of being as he places perception in our bodily experiences. This seems significant as our body provides our point of view and dictates how we observe and interact with the world surrounding us. A flaw in Merleau-Ponty’s work criticised by Young concerns phenomenology with no distinction between genders. This does not undermine or change the ideas of Merleau-Ponty, but it suggests that he only offers a limited approach to phenomenology. Young presents strong arguments for her understanding of the feminine bodily experience, and she suggests that Merleau-Ponty’s work lacks the key distinction of the effects that gender has on our bodily movements.


Merleau-Ponty, M, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. C. Smith (Routledge, 2002) 

Nixon, D (2020), The Body as Mediator, Aeon,

Young, I (1980) ‘Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality,’ Human Studies

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