I’ve decided to spend some time this summer considering the question, “how big is my body?” I like this question. It strikes me as sounding peculiar, and I think it’s a good thing for philosophers to consider peculiar questions.
One way it seems peculiar is that, from a certain overly literal and physicalist standpoint, there is a very simple series of answers that puts an immediate end to the question. I am just over six feet tall and weigh something in the neighborhood of 160 pounds. That’s how large my body is. (To these I could add various other data like the length of my reach, my inseam, the circumference of my chest or my head, or the size of my hands. My head and my hands are both notably largish.)
Phenomenologically, answers of this sort miss the point pretty much completely. I may be, in an objective sense, six feet tall, but to leave it at that does not address the experience of my body size. For a start today, I want to name several dimensions of the experience of embodiment that I believe are relevant for fully answering the question of how large my body is.
(1) I experience my body’s size as varying. In different conditions – rest, movement, health or illness, different postures, even different mental moods – my body feels taller, shorter, heavier, lighter, longer, etc.
(2) I experience my body’s size and limit variably. That is to say, my experience of embodiment is sometimes focally about the limit of my extension – when I can’t reach far enough, e.g. – and other times is so diffuse that the limit is indefinite to me. This particular aspect opens a number of phenomenological considerations related to perception and sense experience. In so far as my body is a seeing body, its extension is in fact indefinite, because there’s no definable limit to the distance I can see, just the acuity with which I can see at that distance. The size of my phenomenal body is related to what can affect my senses, and many of them are affected by things far away from the core of my body. I certainly don’t have to be touching the crow squawking outside my window to be bodily aware of it. (Some difficulties here with wording: in a literal physical sense I am contacted by the air which vibrates with the waves produced by the crow’s vocal apparatus…)
(3) Experiences of varying body size have affective dimensions. I prefer almost always to feel tall and very light. I tend to feel heavier when I am physically tired or sick, or under stress. I tend to feel shorter when I’m in poor spirits. When I am at my peak of physical and mental condition, when I look down at the ground it seems further away, my head feels open to the sky, I am nearly unaware of any sense of my body’s weight.
(4) Experiences of varying body size occur relative to others, objects, and the world. I would not have an experience of my body size without these relations – I feel my body’s size always correlatively to something. I take the measure of my body from the street I walk down, even while I take the measure of the street by my stride. As my body moves with yours, both our bodies size one another up.
(5) My experience of my body size can be at odds with another’s experience of my body size. To some people, my body most likely is experienced as tall, even when for me my body may feel short at that moment. This is a fairly common experience, I believe: people comment on how tall or short they feel relative to one another, even people they’re accustomed to being near. Also, depending on what we’re doing together, our experience of relative body size could vary between us. How far I can reach, or how large my hands are, for instance, could not only vary between us but make a significant difference for us. I’m inclined to say, further, that my body’s size has a public dimension, meaning that my body’s size is experienced by whoever happens to be near enough for my body’s presence to matter. My body can also contribute to the mass of a crowd, and in that situation my body and the crowd’s body are intertwined or enjoined such that I take on some of the largeness of the crowd.
(6) My body’s size can also be considered from the standpoint of its impact on others, objects, and the world. I do not carry all of my weight myself. I do not reach only myself. That I take up space in the world and with regard to others means that my body’s size is part of the world itself. I don’t know how far I can phenomenologically clarify this, but part of what this aspect addresses is how my body’s size affects the world. Asking how much of the world I occupy is asking, among other things, how much noise I’m making (and where), how much of the world I’m consuming (and where), etc. So, a phenomenological inquiry into the size of my body has an ethical and political dimension.