chapter  6
Merleau-Ponty, medicine and the body
ByNICK CROSSLEY
Pages 17

Of all areas of sociological enquiry medicine most clearly involves ‘the body’. Medical practices address the body in sickness and, increasingly, also in health, and they are themselves embodied: through the sensory experience and physical interventions of medical professionals. Medical knowledge is knowledge of bodies gleaned by way of embodied intervention; that is, intervention by a ‘body’ on a body. And medical practice is embodied practice; again practice upon bodies by bodies, involving an ensemble of (body) techniques of looking, listening, touching, manipulating, etc. The importance of the work of Merleau-Ponty for medical sociology stems

from this fact. He is, above all, a philosopher of embodiment. Specifically, his work is important for medical sociology in four key respects. First, he offers a detailed philosophical account of ‘the body’ that, I will suggest,

challenges the biologically reductive accounts sometimes found in medicine and allied disciplines, but without falling into the problems of idealism and relativism sometimes incurred by constructionist approaches in the social sciences. Second, although he insists that we are our bodies and that our embodiment is

the key to our experience, he argues that our embodiment is in some ways a blind spot for us, escaping our perception and reflection – a thesis further developed by Leder (1990). I will suggest that this observation sheds light upon bodily and specifically health-related activities and omissions that are otherwise difficult to account for from a sociological perspective, especially given the heightened body and health consciousness that we are supposed to be experiencing in late modernity (Giddens 1990). Third, the absence of the body from everyday experience also provides an

important backdrop for understanding illness experience. As Leder, building upon Merleau-Ponty, notes, illness lifts the body from the background of our experience to the foreground; the body dys-appears, with significant consequences in terms of both our personal identity and our capacity to engage with the world. Finally, Merleau-Ponty offers an account of embodied practice that could form

a useful basis from which to reflect upon and analyse medical practices. Even in the world of hi-tech medicine, medical intervention is a craft and involves embodied work. As such it can be illuminated by Merleau-Ponty’s reflections upon embodied knowledge and understanding.