Staubmann on the Body: Going Beyond Meaning and Normativity

In the introduction to his Sociology in a New Key, Staubmann writes:

The basic presupposition the essays in this book depart from is the unity of the human body and the mind. There might be good reasons for the a posteriori differentiation of this unity to which we are accustomed in our daily life understandings. However, humans enter the social world in the totality of their existence. (Staubmann, 2022, 12).

Staubmann’s emphasis on the unity of the body and the mind is directed against “the restriction of dominant paradigms in sociology to the mind” (Staubmann, 2022, 12), as Staubmann puts it. Sociology, thus, is mostly defined in terms of “meaning and normativity” (Staubmann, 2022, 4). As Staubmann writes:

Meaning and normativity gave the term ‘socius’ – literally companion or ‘fellow traveler’ – a new turn. Even when used with totally different colorations, the equations social = normative or social = meaningful became common keys for formulating the distinctive morphology of social systems. (Staubmann, 2022, 4).

What must be emphasized is that in the dominant sociological paradigms Staubmann criticizes, meaning and normativity are taken to be semantic categories. As Staubmann puts it in a summary of Luhmann’s position:

Everything that occurs in a social system can only occur in the medium of meaning, even the body as ‘a semantics of corporeality’ (1995a: 511) and love as the ‘semantics of passion’. Reality and normativity appear as ‘the semantics of ‘is’ and ‘ought to be’’ (1995a: 322). (Staubmann, 2022, 42; see also 6).

Thus, according to Luhmann, the construction of the social world presupposes meaning, and meaning presupposes “semantic structures” (Staubmann, 2022, 6), “cognitive ‘sense-making’” (Staubmann, 2022, xvii), “reason” (Staubmann, 2022, 4), etc.

Staubmann claims that this emphasis on meaning, in the sense of semantics, has created several blind spots in sociology. In particular, it has led to an exclusion of “the body and the senses as genuine objects of sociology” (Staubmann, 2022, 15). As Staubmann also puts it: “Emotions, the senses, sexuality, and the body in general became exiled to the environment of social systems.” (Staubmann, 2022, 29–30).

Staubmann’s Sociology in a New Key is an attempt to remove these blind spots and to establish the body, the senses, etc., as proper objects of sociology. Staubmann wants to develop “a more inclusive sociology” (Staubmann, 2022, 12) that makes “an understanding of sentiments or emotions themselves as social phenomena” (Staubmann, 2022, 5) possible and that does justice to the role that “impulses originating in deeper levels of a personality” (Staubmann, 2022, 8) play in the interaction between human beings.

One of the examples that Staubmann gives of bodily activities with a distinctly social dimension is making music together: “It is the playing or singing of music as such, the sensory-aesthetic coordination and interaction, that represents the genuine communication, while the ‘meaning’ captured in music sheets and other prerequisites of musical coordination are of secondary status.” (Staubmann, 2022, 7).

Another of Staubmann’s examples is body language. Thus, in view of Mehrabian’s research on the outsized role that body language and tonality play in conveying a message to an audience, Staubmann writes:

The point here is that sensory perceptions of voice and body movements are not translated into the realm of semiotics to attain a communicative status but are effective themselves. Everybody who has experience with large audiences affirms the importance of non-conscious sensory perceptions and the account for feedback loops between presenter and audience to achieve effective communication. (Staubmann, 2022, 8).

Staubmann also emphasizes the importance of eye contact in the interaction between human beings: “Mutual eye contact plays a unique sociological role. It is, Simmel writes, the most immediate and purest form of social interaction.” (Staubmann, 2022, 17). Staubmann then goes on to quote the following passage from Simmel:

The whole interaction between human beings, their empathy and antipathy, their intimacy and their coolness, would be changed incalculably if the look from one eye into another did not exist – which compared to the simple seeing or observation of the other person, signifies a new and incomparable relationship between them. (Simmel 1997a: 112) (Staubmann, 2022, 18–19).

Staubmann comments on this passage in the following way:

This quote once more clarifies the fundamental impact of sensory communication for society and it emphasizes the mutuality in the definition of social processes as interaction. At first, mutual eye contact is a simultaneous give and take – ‘the most complete reciprocity in the entire sphere of human relationship is achieved here’ (Simmel 1997a: 112). (Staubmann, 2022, 18).

In the end, Staubmann finds his vision for sociology summed up in the following quote by Mark Twain: “‘Lord, what do you want with words to express that? Words are only painted fire; a look is the fire itself …’ (Mark Twain in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court 1889: 347).” (Staubmann, 2022, 12).

Staubmann comments on this quote as follows: “A sociology that misses the fire itself in communication and interaction, misses the understanding of a decisive part of social life.” (Staubmann, 2022, 12).

Staubmann’s Sociology in a New Key and Interaction Theory: Bridging the Gap Between Sociology and Philosophy

There are striking similarities between Staubmann’s project of transposing sociology into a new key and recent developments in philosophy. In particular, I want to highlight the interaction theory of social cognition or social understanding, i.e., of understanding other human beings, developed by Gallagher, De Jaegher, Fuchs, Di Paolo, and others.Footnote 1 This theory is influenced strongly by Merleau-Ponty and his claim that “intersubjectivity is intercorporeity” (Merleau-Ponty, 1992, 166; see also, e.g., 2003, 273; 1964, 168, 173). Merleau-Ponty, thus, emphasizes that sociality is not primarily a meeting of minds but an intertwining of bodies (see, e.g., Merleau-Ponty, 1968, 49). And the interaction theorists take up and unfold this idea.

Interaction is defined by Gallagher as “a mutually engaged co-regulated coupling between at least two autonomous agents, where (a) the co-regulation and the coupling mutually affect each other …, and (b) the autonomy of the agents involved is not destroyed, although its scope may be augmented or reduced” (Gallagher, 2020, 99; see also De Jaegher et al., 2010). Interaction, thus, consists in human beings constantly adjusting to and constantly influencing each other, without ever taking away each other’s autonomy, e.g., by using force. The emphasis is on the reciprocity of the relation, on the constant back and forth, which constantly creates new opportunities for the participants to change the overall direction of the interaction.

The main intuition behind the interaction theory of social cognition can be introduced by way of an experiment conducted by Schmidt and O’Brien (1997). In this experiment, two participants were asked to swing a pendulum in a rhythm that is comfortable for them without looking at each other. Then they were told to look at the other participant’s pendulum but to keep their own rhythm. What Schmidt and O’Brien found was that the participants were unable to do so: “Although the participants’ explicit goal was to keep their own comfortable tempo while observing the other person’s movements, what was being measured was the entrainment of their movements.” (Schmidt & O’Brien, 1997, 193).

Thus, instead of keeping their own rhythm, the participants adjusted to each other’s rhythm, so that a new common rhythm emerged. This happened even when the participants were explicitly told to not adjust to each other’s rhythm (Issartel et al., 2007; see also Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009, 470; Gallagher, 2020, 103).

In the interaction theory of social cognition, this idea of adjusting to each other’s rhythm to find a new common rhythm is used as a metaphor for sociality as a whole. Thus, Fuchs and De Jaegher characterize the human ability for interaction as a “‘musical’ ability to engage with the rhythm, dynamics and affects that are present in the interaction with others” (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009, 481). And they emphasize that this ability is present long before the acquisition of language, the development of rationality, etc. Thus, according to Fuchs and De Jaegher, even infants have “a musicality for the rhythms and patterns of the early dialogue” (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009, 482). As they put it: “The dyad [of mother and infant] exhibits a finely tuned coordination of movements, rhythmic synchrony and mirroring of affective expressions that has often been compared to a couple dance.” (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009, 482).

Naturally, body language plays an essential role in the interaction theory of social cognition. Fuchs and De Jaegher write, e.g.: “Listeners coordinate their movements, however tiny, with the changes in speed, direction and intonation of the movement and utterances of the speaker. Studies on the way musicians work together while playing also show this.” (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009, 470).

Remarkably, this coordination of the movements of human beings in interaction often takes place without them having any consciousness of it (see, e.g., Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009, 470, 475; Gallagher, 2020, 103, 105).Footnote 2 In fact, participants in studies are often stunned when they are told that they have been coordinating their movements (Chartrand et al., 2006, 337).

Interaction theorists also emphasize the importance of eye contact in human interaction. And the way in which they describe this phenomenon strongly resembles the descriptions of Staubmann and Simmel:

In eye contact … the gazes of both partners enter into an often intensive dialogue, or even a ‘fight of gazes’. Just like limbs, the gazes act as extensions of the subjective bodies and form a system of mutual incorporation. I may feel the other’s gaze as a pull, a suction, or also as an arrow that hits me and causes a bodily tension; I may feel his gaze right on my face (e.g. when blushing with shame); I may be fascinated by the gaze or withstand it, ‘cast it back’ etc. My reaction to the other’s gaze already influences his next action. … The contact of gazes is certainly one of the most intense forms of social interaction and understanding. (Fuchs & De Jaegher, 2009, 474–475).

Summing up, the body takes center stage in the interaction theory of social cognition. Sociality is seen primarily as a coordination of bodily beings, guided by mutuality and reciprocity. This coordination does not presuppose semantics or reason and often takes place without any consciousness. Staubmann seems to agree with all of these claims. Therefore, I see a lot of potential for dialogue between Staubmann’s Sociology in a New Key and the interaction theory of social cognition. The two theories seem to be natural allies in their fight against the mainstream in sociology and philosophy.

“Biological Meaning” and “Norms for the Organism”: A New Perspective on Staubmann’s Sociology in a New Key

The main question I have about Staubmann’s Sociology in a New Key is how the bodily phenomena he points to, such as making music together, body language, eye contact, etc., should be conceptualized. For as we have seen, Staubmann takes these bodily phenomena to go beyond meaning and normativity, in the sense of semantics. But if they cannot be conceptualized in terms of meaning and normativity, then how should they be conceptualized?

Staubmann gives some hints with regard to this question. He writes, e.g.: “Meaning indeed is a medium of communication, however, communication is by no means confined to it.” (Staubmann, 2022, 8). And: “A more accurate solution [than the claim that corporeal differences can be processed only in the medium of meaning] is to reverse the relationship and introduce the concept of information prior to the concept of meaning.” (Staubmann, 2022, 43).

Staubmann’s suggestion, thus, seems to be that the bodily phenomena he points to should be conceptualized in terms of communication and information, rather than in terms of meaning, presumably since communication and information, in Staubmann’s view, are broader concepts than meaning. And this suggestion seems to imply that Staubmann takes making music together, body language, eye contact, etc., to be kinds of communication in which information is conveyed although meaning is missing. However, Staubmann does not go into detail about this suggestion.

In what follows, I want to make a different suggestion, drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Thompson: In opposition to Staubmann, Merleau-Ponty and Thompson do not tie meaning and normativity to language and rationality. Instead, they extend the scope of meaning and normativity beyond semantics.

Merleau-Ponty, e.g., speaks of “the orientation of the organism toward modes of behavior which have a biological meaning” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 123). And he claims that “organic structures are understood only by a norm” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 148). Other terms Merleau-Ponty uses in his characterization of living beings are “meaning for the organism” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 45), “biological value” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 15, 49, 149), “biological significance” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 11), “vital significance” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 149, 161), “significance and value of vital processes” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 156), “descriptive norms of the organism” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 28), “internal norms of [the organism’s] activity” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 154), etc.Footnote 3

Merleau-Ponty’s idea seems to be that living beings do not just react to isolated stimuli. Instead, they respond to meaningful situations. And according to Merleau-Ponty, even reflexes are such responses to meaningful situations. He writes, e.g.:

In fact, reflexes themselves are never blind processes: they adjust to the ‘sense’ of the situation, they express our orientation toward a ‘behavioral milieu’. … The reflex does not result from objective stimuli, it turns toward them, it invests them with a sense that they did not have when taken one by one or as physical agents, a sense that they only have when taken as a situation. (Merleau-Ponty, 2012, 81).

Now, the reason why situations are given to living beings as meaningful is because they are given as conducive or detrimental with regard to the target state living beings aim at. In this sense, the behavior of living beings is normative: It is guided by a norm. As Merleau-Ponty puts it in his definition of living beings: “We speak of vital structures … when equilibrium is obtained, not with respect to real and present conditions, but with respect to conditions which are only virtual.” (Merleau-Ponty, 1967, 145). Thus, living beings do not just seek to obtain an equilibrium with regard to the situation they are actually in. Instead, they are disposed toward obtaining an equilibrium with regard to situations which are not yet actualized (see Thompson, 2007, 74): Living beings flee dangerous situations in order to get to safety; they leave austere environments in order to find richer vegetations; they modify their surroundings in order to make them more hospitable; etc.Footnote 4

Merleau-Ponty’s ideas were taken up and unfolded in the autopoietic theories of living beings that Staubmann refers to in his discussion of Luhmann (Staubmann, 2022, 42; see also Maturana & Varela, 1980; Varela et al., 1992). Thus, Thompson, who is probably the main contemporary proponent of these theories, writes: “Something acquires meaning for an organism to the extent that it relates (either positively or negatively) to the norm of the maintenance of the organism’s integrity. … Biological autonomy thus necessarily includes the bringing about of norms.” (Thompson, 2007, 70). Thompson even speaks of cognition and sense-making with regard to living beings. As he puts it: “The self-producing or ‘autopoietic’ organization of biological life already implies cognition.” (Thompson, 2007, ix). And: “An autopoietic system always has to make sense of the world so as to remain viable.” (Thompson, 2007, 146–147).

Of course, Thompson does not deny that there are essential differences between the meaning, normativity, etc., that we find in the non-human realm and the meaning, normativity, etc., that we find in the realm of humans. Thompson does not want to reduce mind to life. What he does want to show, however, is that there is “a deep continuity of mind and life” (Thompson, 2007, ix) and that “the projects of understanding life and understanding mind are continuous” (Thompson, 2007, 128). As Thompson also puts it: “Life and mind share a core set of formal or organizational properties, and the formal or organizational properties distinctive of mind are an enriched version of those fundamental to life.” (Thompson, 2007, ix). In this sense, there is an “incipient mind” (Thompson, 2007, ix) in life.Footnote 5

This claim goes against the Cartesian theory of the body that dominated modern thinking for centuries and that still is highly influential today. According to this theory, the body must not be characterized in any mental terms, since the body does not have any mental aspect, dimension, or side. As Descartes puts it: “I have a complete understanding of what a body is when I think that it is merely something having extension, shape and motion, and I deny that it has anything which belongs to the nature of a mind.” (Descartes, 2005, 86).

As a result, Descartes rejects statements such as “The brain thinks, decides, etc.”, but also statements such as “Living beings respond to meaningful situations”, “The behavior of living beings is guided by a norm”, etc. For in all of these statements, concepts which, according to Descartes, belong to the realm of the mind, such as “thinking”, “deciding”, but also “meaning”, “normativity”, etc., are applied to the body. And because of this, Descartes sees all of these statements as illegitimate “spiritualizations” of the body and anthropomorphisms.

In Descartes’ view, the right way to characterize the body, as well as any other living being, is in terms of mechanisms, causality, relations between its parts, etc., rather than in terms of meaning, normativity, responses of the living being as a whole, etc. In the end, Descartes takes the body, as well as any other living being, to be a “highly polished machine” (Merleau-Ponty, 2012, 78), set in motion by external triggers, rather than an irreducible center of activity responding to meaningful situations.

Husserl famously criticized Descartes’ theory of the body by emphasizing the body’s conscious dimension. He points out that the body is more than just a physical object, more than just a Körper. For the body is also a bundle of sensations, a lived body or Leib. As Husserl puts it:

When I touch [my] left hand I … find in it … series of touch-sensations. … If I speak of the physical thing, ‘left hand,’ then I am abstracting from these sensations (a ball of lead has nothing like them and likewise for every ‘merely’ physical thing, every thing that is not my Body [i.e., my Leib]). If I do include them, then it is not that the physical thing is now richer, but instead it becomes Body [i.e., Leib], it senses. (Husserl, 2000, 152).

Husserl’s emphasis on the conscious dimension of the body contradicts Descartes’ claim that the body does not have any mental side. In this regard, Husserl goes beyond Descartes. With regard to the non-conscious dimension of the body, however, i.e., with regard to those bodily processes which are not sensed in any way and which take place below the threshold of consciousnessFootnote 6 such as metabolism, digestion, growth, etc., Husserl seems to remain committed to the Cartesian framework. For just like Descartes, Husserl seems to conceive of the non-conscious dimension of the body in mechanistic terms. This is indicated, e.g., by the following passages:

I know through experience that the parts of my Body move in that special way which distinguishes them from all other things and motions of things (physical, mechanical motions); i.e., they have the character of subjective movement, of the ‘I move.’ (Husserl, 2000, 271).

And: “Things as such only move mechanically, by being pushed, etc. But things called ‘Body members’ move by voluntary direction, in the ‘I do,’ ‘I work,’ ‘I open and close my hand,’ etc.” (Husserl, 2000, 391; see also, e.g., 159, 167, 273).

Thompson goes even further than Husserl. For he does not just reject Descartes’ mechanism with regard to the conscious dimension of the body but also with regard to the body’s non-conscious dimension: In Thompson’s view, even non-conscious bodily processes such as metabolism, digestion, growth, etc., are not just “mechanical motions” (Husserl, 2000, 271). Instead, they are endowed with meaning and normativity. In the end, Thompson takes life as such to be incompatible with Descartes’ mechanism: Life as such transcends the mechanistic universe.

Thompson bases this view on his interpretation of Merleau-Ponty. He, thus, takes Merleau-Ponty to assume meaning and normativity even in the most basic manifestations of life as well (Thompson, 2007). I agree with Thompson’s interpretation. However, I cannot defend it in detail here. Also, it must be said that there are other, competing interpretations of Merleau-Ponty. Romdenh-Romluc (2005) and Krueger (2020), e.g., interpret Merleau-Ponty and Husserl in a very similar way.

Now, where does Staubmann stand with regard to all of this? – Staubmann obviously rejects Descartes’ claim that the body is nothing but a machine that does not have any mental aspect, dimension, or side. Both his emphasis on “the unity of the human body and the mind” (Staubmann, 2022, 12) as well as his discussions of making music together, body language, eye contact, etc., make this abundantly clear. And while some of the bodily phenomena Staubmann points to do not seem to go beyond the conscious dimension of the body, Staubmann also emphasizes the importance of non-conscious bodily phenomena in social interaction. In his discussion of body language, e.g., he highlights the role that “non-conscious sensory perceptions” (Staubmann, 2022, 8) play when interacting with large audiences, as we have seen. And in his discussion of Bateson, he acknowledges the significance of “unconscious expressive signals” (Staubmann, 2022, 27) and “nonconscious expressive symbolism” for human communication (Staubmann, 2022, 119; see also 120). Staubmann, thus, does not seem to see these non-conscious bodily phenomena as mere mechanisms but rather as expressions of the human being “in the totality of their existence” (Staubmann, 2022, 12).Footnote 7 And this makes it seem as though Staubmann does not just go beyond Descartes but also beyond Husserl. In this sense, his position seems to be close to that of Thompson and Merleau-Ponty.

As we have seen, Staubmann does not entertain Thompson’s and Merleau-Ponty’s idea of extending the scope of meaning and normativity beyond semantics and taking meaning and normativity to be defining features of life. Instead, he suggests a characterization of the bodily phenomena he points to in terms of communication and information. If, however, we look beyond this difference in terminology and focus on the ideas, there seem to be numerous overlaps between Staubmann’s theory of the body and the theories of Thompson and Merleau-Ponty.

This should come as no surprise. For as can be seen in his Sociology in a New Key, one of Staubmann’s biggest influences is Simmel, who is known to be the most important proponent of Lebensphilosophie in sociology. And one of the main tenets of Lebensphilosophie is, of course, the irreducibility of life. Staubmann seems to be very much in line with this tenet when he, e.g., writes: “For the mechanistic view, life appears as a summation of its discretely and substantially describable contents. In contrast, for Simmel, ‘the entire human being […] is inherent in each separate experience’ (2005, 6).” (Staubmann, 2022, 108).

Thus, just like Simmel, Staubmann seems to take life to be an irreducible phenomenon: Life is more than the sum of its parts. This “anti-mechanistic … conception of life” (Staubmann, 2022, 108) converges with the main intuition of Thompson and Merleau-Ponty. It brings life and mind closer together. And it makes “a deep continuity of mind and life” (Thompson, 2007, ix) possible.


Despite the almost unanimous rejection of Descartes, the Cartesian idea of an opposition between the realm of mind, agency, freedom, reasons, etc., on the one hand and the realm of body, mechanism, determinism, causes, etc., on the other is still deeply entrenched in contemporary thinking. The alternative this opposition leaves us with, however, is highly dissatisfying: Put simply, either the opposition is overcome by reducing mind to mechanism, freedom to determinism, reasons to causes, etc., or the opposition is emphasized and mind and life are disconnected.

Staubmann wants to undermine the Cartesian alternative by establishing a non-mechanistic conception of the body according to which the body is infinitely more than Descartes’ “highly polished machine” (Merleau-Ponty, 2012, 78). I wholeheartedly agree with this approach. And as I have tried to show, there are countless overlaps between Staubmann’s project of transposing sociology into a new key and recent developments in philosophy. In view of this, it is to be hoped that the two disciplines enter into a closer dialogue in the future. This article is an attempt to make a first step in this direction.