Review of La Corporéité entre Orient et Occident. Théories et pratiques du corps. Ostéopathie qi gong calligraphie méditation. Jean-Claude Gens (ed).

1 That it is necessary to consider the body as a “relational reality” (p. 8) rather than as a substantial entity; that it is, in other words, necessary to contest “the idea of a body that would exist separate from a mind as well as from nature” (p. 12. Emphasis added): these are important achievements today, at a time when the ecological requirement particularly invites us to disqualify the thesis of a “fundamental heterogeneity between Man and nature” (p. 66). The specificity of this collective work is to deepen this non-substantialist questioning of the body by confronting and crossing certain paradigms at work in the East and in the West and, moreover, by examining bodily practices, both Western (osteopathy) and Eastern (qigong, calligraphy, meditation).

2 In one of the book’s twelve texts, Emmanuel Roche, an osteopath himself, proposes that osteopathy reconciles “two opposing philosophical and cultural conceptions” (p. 30) but “profoundly complementary” (p. 36) of the body: the one, in the West, would be atomistic, “dualistic and materialistic”, and “the other, in the East, would be more holistic, ‘energetic’, monistic and vitalist…” (p. 30). In “Corps et tracé en Chine”, Yolaine Escande, a specialist in the practice and theory of Chinese graphic arts, proposes to develop a bodily reading of the drawing itself: “It is thus a question of blood (the ink), of breath (its energy), of flesh (its thickness), of bone (its structure), of nerve or tendon (its tension)” (p. 85). Everything happens, then, as if, deprived of any substantial autonomy, the human body of the calligrapher had to be understood from the body of the drawing itself (in which it would be “embodied”, p. 101) or from the “movement of nature” by which it must “let itself be carried away” (p. 95), in accordance with one of the lines of force of Chinese thought.

3 Most of the texts thus establish the heterogeneity of two visions of the human body. According to the first, dualistic view, the body is, one might say, in front of nature, in front of the soul or, in medical practice, in front of the doctor – a patient/doctor face-to-face relationship that Marjolaine Bouaissier, who is also an osteopath, particularly critiques in “Le corps en Orient et en Occident : une mise en dialogue nécessaire pour les thérapies alternatives ?”. According to the second vision, which is very present in Eastern thought, the human body, far from establishing itself in front of an authority (whatever it may be), positions itself in the “movement of nature” or in the “cosmic process” (p. 119) as Huang Kuan-Min puts it. In his work on the Confucianism of Zhang Zai (1020-1078), Stéphane Feuillas develops in particular this thought of the body in or within: [1] he thus proposes to think the “body-form” (that of Man but also that of a table) as what “happens at the end of a process” (p. 124), that of the breath: “In reality, it is not my body at all, it is breath that has become form” (p. 125). Consequently, far from being an autonomous instance, “my body occurs in a process of densification or condensation of breaths and will end up undoing itself” (p. 127).

4 Body within: undoubtedly the dominant motif of the work is indeed from this point of view the breath. Reinscribing the human body in the dynamics of the universe means being attentive, on the conceptual level as well as on the practical level, to its breaths, through which it joins the breaths of the universe: “qi designates [...] all the constitutive elements of the human body insofar as they are related to (the) breath(s)” (p. 59) thus affirms Alberto Rodriguez in his text “Le corps énergétique du qi gong. Eléments de médecine chinoise”. In “Puissance et signification du chiasme corporel dans la philosophie antique chinoise”, Huang Kuan-Min also writes: “As the original condition of health, the circulation of breaths is formed and transformed according to the rhythm of the seasons. The delicate inspection of the systematic functioning of the body’s breaths is essential in this respect” (p. 110-111).

5 Body within or body in front of: let us specify finally – and the point is important – that this duality is not superimposed, in the work, on that of the East and the West. The work indeed puts forward a Western philosophical perspective freeing itself from the primacy of the body in front of: phenomenology. Or at least it highlights what, in phenomenology, exceeds this primacy, and first of all Merleau-Ponty’s thought, insofar as it thwarts the face-to-face of the subject and the object (which is still at work in Husserl’s work) and positions the human body in a situation (in Phenomenology of Perception) or in the flesh of the world (in The visible and the invisible). It is remarkable from this point of view that a text of the book, written by Kwok-ying Lau, exploits this Merleau-Pontian concept of flesh – or of “cultural flesh” (p. 153) – to think about the inter-culturality that is likely to be established, for example, between phenomenology and “philosophical texts of ancient China” (p. 155).

6 Perhaps one will consider that all of the texts proposed here are somewhat disparate, or even that one or two of these texts tend to neglect the problem, however central in the work, of corporeality as it is attested between East and West. Isn’t it also problematic that these twelve texts are simply positioned one after the other, without any particular structure linking or organizing them – even if it turns out that the book is strongly anchored in the questioning of these singular practices that are osteopathy, qigong and calligraphy (objects of the first five texts)?

7 In any case, one will recognize the collective effort thus deployed to identify a way of thinking that is indeed established between East and West. Certainly, the work critiques well, as regards the body, the “knowledge” and “more broadly” “the thought which is deployed in the West from the seventeenth century” (back cover). Does it therefore propose an overly monolithic vision of Western thought about the body? Still, the contribution of the book seems to us to consist in this invitation to put forward, between East and West, a non-substantialist thought of the body (or of the body within). The stake is thus less here, it seems to us, to bring out the Western unthinking [2] than to establish the motives which, on the Western side, can join the requirements of Eastern thought. No doubt such a perspective could also be deployed in relation to other themes likely to give rise to non-substantialist thoughts (such as, for example, the question of life, which would summon up other types of Western thought, in particular, in France, the philosophy of the post-Bergsonian movement). This perspective seems in any case particularly important and fruitful when it comes to the body.

8 Indeed, by placing the human body in cosmic processes, the book comes, it seems to us, to meditate, beyond the human body itself, on the corporeality of this within, and in particular on the corporeality of breaths – as if, discreetly perhaps, the book was progressively moving the stake of the body from its human site to another site, which could perhaps be described as atmospheric. In line with the last Merleau-Ponty thematizing the “flesh of the world”, Jean-Claude Gens considers that “osteopathy as well as qigong encourage the development of the sensation of the thickness or the density of the space in which we move, as airy and light as it may be nevertheless” (p. 70), the sensation in other words of “this concrete density which envelops us and which is like the medium thanks to which we are in relation with other living beings” (p. 70. Emphasis added). Huang Kuan-Min evokes a “cosmic body” (p. 112), formula taken up by S. Feuillas in a text where it is also question of a “body without obstacle” (p. 124) or of “a body which is pure breath” (p. 125). This approach of an atmospheric corporeality perhaps culminates in the last text of the book, by Alexis Lavis, devoted to “Approches du corps dans le bouddhisme du grand véhicule”. He distinguishes two regimes of corporeality: a) the regime of the “body of flesh” or of the “rupakaya” (p. 193), whose egological logic (as flesh, the body is my body) can be drawn from Husserlian phenomenology, and b) the non-egological regime of the “body of Dharma” or of the “Dharmakaya” (p. 205). Privileged by Buddhism as being “free from egological illusion” (p. 205), this corporeality of Dharma is endowed with a consistency that raises questions. Recalling “the French expression ‘avoir du corps’” (p. 206), the author proposes to think this bodily consistency “as an eminent (i.e. whole) mode of presence” (p. 206) and, finally, endeavors to bring it closer to the concept of il y a forged by Levinas’s phenomenology. [3]

9 One will not neglect the importance of this atmospheric corporeality, at the crossroads of the East and the West. There is, first of all, a reason to renew our reading of the fecundity of phenomenology. Didier Franck and Gunnar Declerck have already deepened the phenomenological question of a non-substantial body, beyond and even against the Husserlian remarks. [4] But in both cases, it is a question of establishing a body (or a flesh) between: a carnal relation between myself and others (D. Franck) or the resistance of a body to my projects (G. Declerck). However, far from being able to be confined in a between – or in a situation (intersubjective or of action) – atmospheric corporeality also unfolds around. Atmospheric corporeality, between and around: don’t Merleau-Ponty’s flesh and Levinas’s density of the il y a announce here, from phenomenology, what exceeds the very regime of phenomenology? Beyond phenomenology: we think for example of the body without organ of Deleuze-Guattari, whose consistency seems also atmospheric. [5] From then on, we will take care to recognize the diversity of the forms that this singular corporeality can take according to whether it is carried by breaths (in the East), whether it is of a mundane or ontological content (Levinas, Merleau-Ponty) or even vital (Deleuze-Guattari).

10 It is quite possible that this corporeality can also be questioned beyond philosophy, at the crossroads with science and painting. We know the meditations which, in the history of the physical sciences (from Newton to Einstein, including Faraday or Maxwell), try to question the singular consistency – neither material, nor immaterial – of the ether. [6] Can’t this atmospheric corporeality also define a certain tradition of painting, from Dutch painting dedicated to the atmosphere of everyday life (de Hooch, Vermeer), to the enigmatic atmospheres of Hammershoi, [7] including certain impressionists (Sisley, Monet, Pissaro)?

11 This atmospheric corporeality invites us, finally, to problematize the contemporary ecological stakes. To question this corporeality, is it not, in fact, to gesture towards a dimension which withdraws itself from western anthropocentrism, without deconstructing it in the name of a nature or an impersonal life? Is it not an invitation to meditate on the collective medium which, between and around us, thwarts the–probably non-ecological–primacy of man, the world, or life?


  • [1]
    It is we who propose to qualify thus – body within – the body as it proceeds from a cosmic process or, at least, as it no longer institutes itself in front of x.
  • [2]
    As proposed by the singular research deployed by the work of François Jullien. Regarding the body, see François Jullien. Le Nu impossible. Paris: Seuil, 2005.
  • [3]
    Let us recall that Levinas establishes the relationship with others as something that comes to break with the anonymous and obscure il y a. To our knowledge, Levinas does not thematize as such the corporeity of the il y a; rather, he insists on its “materiality” (De l’existence à l’existant. Paris: Vrin, 1993, p. 97) or on its “density” (ibid., p. 104): density of an “atmosphere itself of presence” (ibid., p. 104) which, indeed, closely evokes the descriptions of the body of Dharma proposed by A. Lavis.
  • [4]
    See Franck, Didier. Chair et corps. Sur la phénoménologie de Husserl. Paris: Minuit, 1981; Declerck, Gunnar. Résistance et tangibilité. Essai sur l’origine phénoménologique des corps. Paris: Le Cercle Herméneutique Editeur, 2014.
  • [5]
    See for example G. Deleuze et F. Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 149.
  • [6]
    See V. Petit. Histoire et philosophie du concept de “milieu” : individuation et mediation. Doctoral Thesis in Philosophy, Paris 7, 2009; F. Balibar. Einstein : 1905. De l’éther aux quanta. Paris: PUF, 1992.
  • [7]
    See Hammershoi. Le Maître de la peinture danoise. Paris: Jacquemart-André Museum, Institut de France, Culturespaces, Fonds mercator, 2019.