Jan Halák and Petr Kříž - ‘Phenomenological physiotherapy: extending Merleau-Ponty’s interpretation of bodily intentionality’

Season five of our podcast continues with another presentation from our 2020 annual conference: ‘Engaged Phenomenology’ Online. This episode features Jan Halák and Petr Kříž as co-authors and co-presenters. Halák is from Palacky University Olomouc, Czech Republic, and Kříž is from Charles University, Prague, and Palacky University Olomouc, Czech Republic.


ABSTRACT: This paper clarifies the significance of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account of the body for physiotherapeutic practice. Physiotherapists are trained to approach the functioning of the body from an objectivist perspective, but their therapeutic interaction with patients is not limited to an application of natural-scientific explanations. Analogically, they often perceive mechanistic models of bodily functioning as insufficient, yet they generally lack an appropriate theoretical framework to formalize and systematically describe their experience. We argue that physiotherapists’ practice well corresponds to Merleau-Ponty’s theorization of the body as the bearer of an original bodily intentionality and makes it possible to elaborate it further. On the one hand, the practice of physiotherapy corroborates Merleau-Ponty’s critical arguments against objectivist interpretations of the body. For example, norms of optimal corporeal functioning are highly individual and variable, and thus do not depend on generic physiological structures in a direct way; correspondingly, objectively measurable physical deviations rarely correspond to specific subjective difficulties; and similarly, a patient’s reflexive insight into his or her motor deficiencies does not necessarily produce significant motor improvements. Physiotherapeutic procedures can therefore be understood neither as an expert mechanical manipulation with a patient’s machine-like body nor as a process of instructing the patient’s consciousness to manipulate it in that way. On the other hand, physiotherapeutic practice can draw on Merleau-Ponty’s positive suggestion to understand motor disorders as modifications of bodily intentionality. Conceived in this way, physiotherapy approaches motor disorders as bodily mis-understandings or failures to optimally deal with motor requirements of a situation. Correspondingly, the therapeutical process itself becomes an inter-corporeal dialogue or bodily empathy. In the course of this process, a richer motor intentionality of the therapist takes up the patient’s limited, less adaptable, and more laborious intentionality, and guides it to discovering better ways of grasping a situation as meaningful through particular postures and movements.




Jan Halák, Ph.D., works as assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy, Palacky University Olomouc, Czech Republic. His scientific interests are in phenomenology, enactivism, and philosophy of embodiment. He has published several papers on Merleau-Ponty, with a special focus on Merleau-Ponty’s Collège de France period, his interpretation of the concept of body schema, and the corporeal infrastructure of higher cognitive processes. Jan Halák also published several translations of Merleau-Ponty’s works into Czech language (e.g. Resumés de cours). Dr. Halák is now working on a monograph on Merleau-Ponty’s ontology based on the concept of flesh.


Petr Kříž is a physiotherapist, doctoral student of philosophy at Charles University, Prague, and research associate at Palacky University Olomouc, Czech Republic. His thesis aims to develop a new theoretical framework for physiotherapy on the basis of a phenomenological interpretation of bodily intentionality. His scientific interests are in motor intentionality and its pathologies, differentiation of body schema, bodily empathy, and the expressivity of the body. Apart from several papers written in Czech, Petr Kříž has recently published an English paper on “Merleau-Ponty’s Discovery of the Pre-objective Body and Its Consequences for Body-Oriented Disciplines” (Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 2019).


This recording is taken from the BSP Annual Conference 2020 Online: 'Engaged Phenomenology'. Organised with the University of Exeter and sponsored by Egenis and the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health. BSP2020AC was held online this year due to global concerns about the Coronavirus pandemic. For the conference our speakers recorded videos, our keynotes presented live over Zoom, and we also recorded some interviews online as well. Podcast episodes from BSP2020AC are soundtracks of those videos where we and the presenters feel the audio works as a standalone: https://www.britishphenomenology.org.uk/bsp-annual-conference-2020/


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The British Society for Phenomenology is a not-for-profit organisation set up with the intention of promoting research and awareness in the field of Phenomenology and other cognate arms of philosophical thought. Currently, the society accomplishes these aims through its journal, events, and podcast. Why not find out more, join the society, and subscribe to our journal the JBSP? https://www.britishphenomenology.org.uk/

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