a state of dance
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LEAD ARTICLE: Intersensory/intersubjective aspects of motion – or a renascence of “sensus communis”

by Katalin Vermes


This paper refers to the wonderful and manifold integrating capacity of movement.
I chose this theme because my approach to movement is many-sided as well. I mean my main profession is philosophy, I research on the phenomenology of the body. But when I wanted to compensate the one-sidedness and sufferings of theoretical work, I began to practice different body-mind techniques and postmodern dances, and discovered that the spirit of these practices is very close to phenomenology. Finally I got to know psychodynamic dance and movement therapy, which was brought to existence in Hungary by an excellent psychotherapist, Márta Merényi(1). It was about fifteen yeas ago, and now I’m a movement and dance therapist and trainer, working with psychodynamic method. Using this method I noticed that the evenly floating attention of the psychodynamic therapist resembles the special attention of the phenomenologist who has carried out reduction. So in theory I try to connect the philosophical and the psychological approaches of corporeity and motion.

I was happy to get the information about this conference, since the program shows me that I’m not alone with my special interest. I’m sure that our different approaches of movement are possible just because the human movement itself has a high integrating capacity.

The motion of a lived body is a vehicle of manifold integrations: joins the inside and the outside experiences, passivity and spontaneity, affection and comprehension. Movement connects various sensorial modalities and at the same time creates unconscious vital attunement of different persons. Every single motion is an event of integration.

But this integration capacity of corporeal motion is possible because our movements are not isolated, but they can connect different aspects of reality, since they are moving parts of a larger dynamic system.

In this paper I would like to think not about one or other type of motion, but about that dynamic system, or phenomenological network which embraces and organizes these motions; about that intersensory and interpersonal tissue which constitutes an internal and external horizon for every movement.

Human motion is inseparable from perception, and (as we’ll show later) plays an important role in the transfer of sensorial modalities. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty demonstrated motion and perception are the two sides of the same thing, as right side and reverse side of a leaf. Every perception comes to life through motion, and our motions realize different perceptions.

Nevertheless, motions and perceptions occur in an interpersonal tissue. They belong to an intercorporeal, or interpersonal situation, not merely to a single person. So there is a dynamic system of movements, which is a vehicle of intersensory and interpersonal integrations.

Now I attempt to outline this dynamic system of movement from phenomenological point of view.

First let’s go back to the things themselves, let us see an example. Let’s pay attention to our very present situation. We are sitting now in this conference-hall (perhaps I’m standing). It seems to be a static position. But if we become more attentive, we can perceive a lot of little movements in our own bodies and in the room around us, as well.

For example we can feel the flow of perpetual inhalation and exhalation of bodies (ours and the others), the little motions of body-parts, the fingers, the shoulders, little rock of the heads, continual changes of the faces. We can feel even the motion of our eyes, when we change the focus… We sense our body position, which is never static. If we are attentive, we feel small balancing movements by which our bodies are struggling with the power of gravitation …It is the ‘small dance’ of body. (Small dance – this expression was used by Steve Paxton, the founder of contact dance.)

I suggest you relax, and just feel these fine balancing movements of your body – this ‘small dance’: a flow of various small motions and perceptions.
If we have felt it, we can perceive those minimal motions and perceptions too, which appear around us. A ‘small dance’ takes place in this room between us, since we are interconnected here by innumerable invisible relations:

We feel the little motions of our neighbors, we sense the rhythm of their breath, the special, invisible changes of their body positions, and we answer to it unconsciously by our little motions. We produce together an interpersonal ‘small dance’, although we don’t realize it.

This tacit attunement is created through interpersonal and intersensory dynamics.

While I’m speaking, I feel the expiration of the air from my body, sense the resonance of my vocal cords, but at the same time I hear my voice filling the room. You are listening to this sound, and – perhaps according to the rhythm of my speech – change your attention and body-position. Simultaneously I’m looking at your facial expressions. The visible traces of your interest or your tiredness change the rhythm of my speech and my intonation … You are looking at me, seeing my body-motions from outside, what I can never see in such a way. But your glance confirms me in the feeling of my corporeal reality. Usually we don’t perceive the operation of this tacit constitution. We perceive it only when it stops living up to our expectations. But this living network of small motions and perceptions gives us the feeling of our multidimensional reality.

This intertwining of intersensory and intercorporeal aspects of motion and perception has become a central theme of several contemporary theories, such as the new phenomenological philosophy since Maurice Merleau-Ponty, or the psychological model of self-development created by Daniel Stern. Both Merleau-Ponty and Stern claim that higher forms of consciousness and personal development have their roots in the work of our original intersensory-intercorporeal capacities.

These thoughts are in opposition to a long-lasting tradition of the so called perceptual atomism, which determined the main theories of psychology and philosophy from the 17th until the 20th century. According to the theory of ‘perceptual atomism’ we perceive reality originally in separate sensorial modalities. The complex, intersensory and interpersonal quality of movement experience is a result of a subsequent integration. Our first perceptions are individual and atomic ‘_sense data_’.

The first discipline in the 20th century which opposed psychological atomism, and understood motion and perception in their totality – was Gestalt psychology. This theory considered every motion as an integral part of a moving system, every perception as an integral part of a holistic intersensory perceptual reality, and movement and perception – as different aspects of the same Gestalt. A ‘Gestalt’ itself means “ a living complex of forms, a concrete structure of constituents that mutually support and determine one another and not something added to sense data.” (Embree, Lester 1997, 277) This Gestalt theory influenced the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, whose phenomenology built up a complex theory of perception.

After the Second World War when the Gestalt School declined, main psychological theories returned to a form of sensory atomism: for example Piaget thought that babies aren’t born with intersensory capacities, but they have to accomplish it later through an integration of haptic and visual scheme. It is the so called reciprocal assimilation.

That time it was only the philosopher and psychologist M. Merleau-Ponty, who – in spite of the dominant contemporary psychological theories – maintained a theory about the original multimodality of perception, and connected it to the experience of the moving body. He – following Husserl’s suggestions – unfolded a complex philosophy of the living body.
Merleau-Ponty as a psychologist was ahead of his time, because the psychological experiments showed the operation of original multisensoriality of perception only in the seventies.

Movement: a uniting force of senses
For Merleau-Ponty there is an original stratum of perceptions, a ‘couche originale’, which is more original than the separation of the senses. He wrote in the Phenomenology of Perception: “My body is a ready-made system of equivalents and transpositions from one sense to another. The senses translate each other without any need of an interpreter, and are mutually comprehensible without the intervention of any idea.” (Merleau-Ponty 1992, 235) The unity of the body scheme creates the unity of the senses. But this scheme itself is organized by the operating intentionality of the moving body, by the ‘intentional arch’. Our perceptual intentions and movements towards the world have common origin. To perceive means to step into the world. Our motions and perceptions have a common style, common quality of Étre-au-Monde or Being-in-the-World. The blind man begins to see the world through his moving stick. The insect deprived of one leg buzzes louder. As Merleau-Ponty says: ”a projection towards movement or ‘potential movement’ forms the basis for the unity of the senses.” (Merleau-Ponty 1992, 234.)

The depth of motion
All together the complexity of intermodal-intercorporeal experiences gives us the depth of our reality. If I look at the world by one eye, I perceive only one picture about the outside world, and I can’t see the real depth of the horizon. But when I see with both eyes, a slight difference arises between the two pictures I perceive. This very difference gives me the impression of the depth of visual reality.

But the lived depth of our world experience is not only visual: it comes to existence through the differences of sensory modalities. I move into the picture. I touch, listen and smell the world – I have different ways into the world. There are gaps between the sensory dimensions. Although this hiatus doesn’t prevent us grasping the perceptual modalities together. It doesn’t give us the job of a subsequent integration. These gaps themselves are constitutive elements of perceiving the depth and richness of reality.

But there is another hiatus, another gap, much deeper, than the difference of modalities: this exists between different persons. Each of us perceives reality from different aspects and in different ways. I can’t step into the other’s place, while he is standing there. I can never present exactly the other’s viewpoints. But the very depth and complexity of our world experience can be constituted only through the conflicts of these incompossible points of view.

The space we move into is not a three dimensional space of physics. This homogenous space is a subsequent abstraction. Our motions move originally into this intersensory, intersubjective depth, when different senses and different subjects work together, but they can’t be presented, or translated from one to another. Nevertheless this multidimensional pregnancy forms the vivid unity of our reality: “We function as one unique body” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 215)(2)

So, our corporeal movement means not only a physical change of place. We can’t detect the complexity of body-motion in the system of coordinates. It has special depths, it is pregnant with references. The very depth of reality is built up by the moving body, which moves through chiasms of different modalities and different persons.

If we are attentive, if we open our senses we can feel this richness of our body-motion. We can feel how our movement bridges gaps between senses and persons, spanning opposite sensual and affective dimensions. Merleau-Ponty called this sensual openness “wild perception” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 212.)

But this new way of perception is not confined into the world of philosophy. The body-mind techniques adopted by postmodern dances and dance-movement therapies use the emancipating capacity of “wild perception” as well. The body-mind practices try to wake up the dormant sensibility of movement. In a moving meditation – in the meditative openness of body-work – we can perceive this interplay of various relations. We can discover the intercorporeal “small dance” – of living bodies.

In the seventies and the eighties the new psychological investigations confirmed Merleau-Ponty’s theory about the original intersensory capacity of moving body: a lot of experiments proved that newborn babies can transform visual, audile, tactile, kinesthetic information from one to another. For example the experiments of Meltzoff and Borton, in 1979, demonstrated that the newborn babies have intersensory or transmodal capacities, they can transfer tactile information into visual. For example they blindfolded three-week-old infants and gave them two different pacifiers to suck. The one of pacifiers had nubs, the other was simple smooth. Later they showed the two pacifiers to the infants. Babies looked much longer on that pacifier, which they sucked before.(Stern 1985. 48)

In 1982 Field reported (Stern 1985. 50) that newborn infants, age two days, can imitate an adult model – they can smile, frown, or show a surprise face. But how babies ‘know’ that they have a face or facial features? How do they ‘know’, that the face they see is anything like the face they have? And how can a baby realize that the seen, the heard, the touched can be one and the same thing? We don’t know exactly, but infants “appear to have an innate general capacity, which can be called amodal perception, to take information received in one sensory modality and somehow translate it into another sensory modality.” (Stern 1985.51)

It is not our job to think about the neurological background of original amodality or multimodality of perception. But we are interested in the phenomenological understanding of the experience itself. We ask with Stern: what is the medium, the phenomenological vehicle of this transformation? Can we grasp that experiential stratum, which connects different modalities?

Stern referred to the theory of Werner, who claims that affections are responsible for the modal transformation. Our affections usually do connect different modalities at the same time. There are special colors and sounds and rhythms of sadness or happiness. Just a simple two dimensional line can express affections: happy (), sad (), or angry (). It is evident, that affects can be the channels of the supra-modal currency. (Stern 1985, 53)
Stern agreed with Werner about the supra-modal work of affections, but he found that this explanation is not enough. (Stern 1985, 53)

We don’t feel affects very often, while our intermodal capacities work continuously. So D.N. Stern suggested to extend the traditional category of affections, and introduced the concept of ‘vitality affects’, in opposition to the so called ‘categorical affects’. What is the difference?

Usually we think of affective experiences in terms of discrete categories of Darwinian affects: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise, interest, and perhaps shame. But we have much more nuances of feelings, which we can’t describe with these distinct categories. We have a continual, intersensory affection of our moving and perceiving body, interconnected with its surrounding and with the other living creatures.

Vitality affects mean that special rhythm, disposition, affection as we walk on the street, as we open a door, as we sit on a chair, as we look around, as we comb our hair, the special atmosphere as we take a pencil, as we laugh, as we cry…. It is a special quality of movement and perception, which gives the elemental feeling of our life.

This peculiar quality of our vitality affects connects our motions and different sensory modalities, expressing that special style by which our own body can interpret itself (as Merleau-Ponty would say(3)). It is a certain style of my seeing and touching, and moving, and laughing and crying which makes possible the original intersensory integration of my body experiences and makes possible my personal identity as well.

In addition vitality affects are the first and basic forms of interpersonal communication. The mother bends to her baby, the baby raises his head, the mother caresses the head, the baby gives a voice, and the mother says something in the same rhythm… There is an unconscious interpersonal attunement of motions and perceptions, forming a common tissue of their life…

The baby feels the mother’s movements, which fit very well to his own movements, and this joining forms the baby’s self-perception. Otherwise this fitting is never complete, so the baby can feel slight differences between his and the mother’s movements. But just this experience of difference strengthens his personal separation. This intermodal – interpersonal fitting and at the same time differing interplay of vitality affects makes the very grounds of self-development. The perpetual movement of vitality affects creates the “core self”, the fundamental mood of our personality, which forms our life from beginning to end.

The variations of vitality affects are endless, and usually we haven’t got appropriate words to express them. Some of them can be described by musical expressions: crescendo, decrescendo, allegro, andante, staccato, legato and so on. They refer much more to the form and quality, than to the object of the experience. The main qualities, we can perceive intermodally, are the special shape, form, pattern or rhythm. But the same transmittable character of the shape, the form, the pattern or the rhythm brings to light our vital interpersonal communication.

As Stern declared: “the capacities for identifying cross-modal equivalences that make for a perceptual unified world are the same capacities that permit the mother and the infant to engage in affect attunement to achieve affective intersubjectivity”.(Stern 1985.156)

So the theory of vitality affects showed us the inherent connections between motion, intermodal perception, affection and interpersonal attunement.

Even Stern noticed that his theory of original intersensoriality is similar to Aristotle’s doctrine of the unity of the senses. (Stern 154) We have to add, that the intersensory sensation at Aristotle is connected to affections and to interpersonal relations as well.

For Aristotle we have not only five senses, but we have a sixth sense or a “common sense” too. This sensus communis is not connected directly to organs, but it can apperceive the primary, amodal qualities of sensation. These amodal qualities are: intensity, motion, rest, unity, form and number. They can be extracted from any modality, and translated among all sense modes. The sixth sense is not another sense over and above the five, but presents the common nature inherent in all the five.(4)

This unspecialized perception played an important role in Aristotle’s philosophy. Although the phrase “_common sense_” itself is rare in Aristotle, it conveniently sums up a whole mass of doctrine, which had an enormous influence on later humanistic tradition. (Ross 1959, 138)

In addition sensus communis refers also to the self-reflective character of perception and motion. This aspect led in the philosophy of Aristotle and also in the later tradition to further consequences – especially to ethical and theological implications. By sensus communis we perceive not only in all modalities, but we perceive that we perceive. (He who walks, perceives, that he walks). The senses reflect on themselves. This transmodal and self-reflective quality gives the unity, and the elementary meaning of our perceptual, moving, living world. Morover, in Ethica Nicomacheia this common sense is connected to a joy, that we not only live our life, but reflect on it, feel it, and even feel the original goodness of our life. But we can feel the goodness of life not only through our own self-perception, but through the perception of the other’s life – it is good to perceive our friends.(5) (Aristotle 1952. 427)

So in Aristotle the intermodal capacity of sensus communis is connected with affection, with empathy, with ethical values, and with the original unity of life, and in the end it refers to a divine unity of the world.

As Gadamer explained in Truth and Method, this complex Aristotelian thought of sensus communis exercised enormous influence on the Stoicism, the Scholasticism, the Renaissance and the Pietism as well. There came to life a whole tradition which connected intersensorial capacity of senses with interpersonal sympathy and the sensible unity of the universe. Marcus Aurelius, Vico(1668-1744), Shaftesbury (1671-1713), Oetinger (1702-1782) – just a few names from this tradition: sensus communis is “the common root of outer senses – i.e., the faculty that combines them, that makes judgments about what is given, a capacity that is given to all man” (Gadamer 2003, 22) and it refers to the “genuinely divine mystery of life.” Sensus communis is also “a love of a community or society, natural affection, humanity, obligingness”. (Gadamer 2003, 24)

This complex thought constituted the basis of that humanistic tradition, which criticized the excessive rationalization since the 17th century, and unfolded the importance and the humanistic value of sensuality and sensual sympathy opposing it to the bare abstractions. As Oetinger expressed: “the ratio governs itself by rules, without God; but sense always with God”. (Gadamer 2003.29) In contrast to the violent anatomization of nature through experiment and calculation this humanistic tradition returned to the original complexity of sensual experience, supposing that every truth has its origin in our common sense. (Gadamer 2003.28)

But the modern form of rationalism since the seventieth century simplified the Aristotelian tradition of sensus communis to the primary qualities of sensation. The wider sense of sensus communis declined to a mere corrective, which contradicts the consensus of feeling, judgments, and conclusions. So in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the concept became emptied and intellectualized. (Gadamer 2003, 30) The understanding of perception lost its complexity, it became a perception of bare “sense data”. Modernity isolated human senses and human persons: sensual experiences became atomistic and private. It can’t be a pure accident that both isolations proceeded simultaneously.

But it can’t be a pure accident too, that the thought of an original intermodality and intersubjectivity revived in the twentieth century, and they became simultaneously central themes of phenomenology and psychology.

Phenomenology (especially the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty) – looking for an alternative of excessive and naive rationalism of natural sciences – returned to this experience. In phenomenology, perceptual phenomena, the experience of “the things themselves”, appear in the context of an intermodal and intercorporeal tissue, of the pregnancy of the “life world”, and are not simplified results of scientific abstractions. Philosophy can use this experience of wild perception as a source of primordial sense –genesis.

There went on a change simultaneously in psychology too. After Freud’s theory of primary narcissism new theories came to life, claiming that the origin of the self is not only corporeal, but intersubjective, as well. Here we have to mention the theories of object-relations, of intersubjectivity, attachment theories, and self-psychology. But it was only D.N. Stern who reconnected the intermodality and interpersonality of movement in the theory of vitality affects.

Dance and movement therapies do know these living connections, and had known them even decades before the theory of Stern. The discovery of vitality affects confirmed theoretically the well functioning therapic practice, and deepened the understanding of human motion.

Dance and movement therapy uses this capacity of intermodal perception and vital attunement for personal corrections: awaking the hidden integrating qualities of movement – opens new dimensions for the self-perception, and for the perception of our interpersonal situations. The safe and creative space of body work and movement improvisation makes possible the restructuring of the elementary feelings of the core-self. In creative movement we can perceive the interplay of various sensual modalities, and at the same time notice the interpersonal dimensions by which we are embedded into our life-world. We can realize our “motional-emotional” world constitution, feel our “small dance” – and all these lead us to the deepening of personal authenticity and existential self-understanding.

Phenomenological philosophy – as well as phenomenological psychology – trying to understand the formation of subjectivity and intersubjectivity have to turn back to this experiential field. But here we find a paradox. This tissue of intermodal-interpersonal perception has been interwoven in our life-world, but in the average situation we don’t feel this complexity, this operating pregnancy of our body movements.

For Merlau-Ponty our fixed assumptions of scientific and everyday objects deprive us of the richness of perception. Similarly our fixed psychological object-relations simplify or fix our motions and sensibilities.

We have to carry out a special reduction, if we want to get to this “*_wild perception*_”. We need special attention and we have to do a special body-work to open this field for personal corrections and universal reflection. Philosophers have to dance.

Vermes, Katalin PhD,
Associate Professor of Philosophy,
Department of Social Science
Faculty of Physical Education and Sport Sciences,
Semmelweis University
Dance and Movement Therapist and Trainer (psychodynamic method)
Hungarian Association for Movement- and Dance Therapy

NOTES: 1) We have an extended Association for Movement and Dance Therapies in Hungary, (Magyar Mozgás- és Táncterápiás Egyesület). It was established in 1992 by the psychotherapist Dr. Márta Merényi for the training and furthering of dance/movement psychotherapies and body-mind oriented methods in general. Márta Merényi and her followers since the eighties built up in Hungary the psychodynamic method, which became a prospering professional community, accredited by the Hungarian Council of Psychotherapy.
In the Association several professionals working with other different approaches of Dance/Movement Therapy and body-mind oriented methods are represented, such as Group-analytic Movement and Dance Therapy, Integral Dance and Expression Therapy, Body Mind Centering, Feldenkrais, etc. The author of this paper works and trains by psychodynamic method.

2) “But, like the chiasm of the eyes, this one is also what makes us belong to the same world – a world which is not projective, but forms its unity across incompossibilities such as that of my world and the world of the other (…) Chiasm, instead of For the Other: that means that there is not only a me-other rivalry, but a co-functioning. We function as one unique body” (Merleau-Ponty 1968 215)

3) “The body is, to use Leibnitz’s term, the ‘effective law’ of its changes. If we can speak of interpretation in relation to the perception of one’s own body, we shall have to say, that it interprets itself (….!) What unites ‘tactile sensations’, in the hand and links them to visual perceptions of the same hand, and to perceptions of other bodily areas, is a certain style informing my manual gestures and implying in turn a certain style of finger movements, and contributing, in the last resort, to a certain bodily bearing. The body is to be compared, not to a physical object, but rather to a work of art.” (Merleau-Ponty 1992 150)

4) “We must think of sense as a single faculty which discharges certain functions in virtue of its generic nature but for certain purposes specifies itself into the five senses and creates for itself organs adapted to their special functions.” – explained Ross. (Ross 1959.138)

5) As Aristotle wrote in the Ethica Nicomacheia: “But if life itself is good and pleasant ( …) and if he who sees perceives that he sees, and he who hears that he hears, and he who walks that he walks and in the case of all other activities similarly there is something which perceives that we are active, so that we perceive, we perceive that we perceive, and if we think that we think; and if we perceive that we perceive or think is to perceive that we exist (…); and if perceiving that one lives is in itself one of the things that are pleasant (for life is by nature good, and to perceive what is good present in oneself is pleasant); and if life is desirable, and particularly so for good men, because to them existence is good and pleasant (for they are pleased at the consciousness of the presence in them of what is in itself good) ; and if as the virtuous man is to himself, he is to his friend also (for his friend is another self) : – if all this be true, as his own being is desirable for each man so, or almost so is that of his friend. Now his being was seen to be desirable because he perceived his goodness and such perception is pleasant in itself. He needs therefore, to be conscious of the existence of his friend as well, and this will be realized in their living together and sharing in discussion and thought…” (Aristotle 1952. p.424 )

Aristotle: Ethica Nicomacheia. In: 9. Aristotle Great Books of the Western World Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor in Chief. William Benton Publisher. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Chicago,-London-Toronto 1952. Trans: W.D. Ross

Gadamer, Hans-Georg (2003): Truth and Method Continuum, New York, London. Trans: J. Weinsheimer, and D.Marshall

Embree, Lester: Gestalt Psychology In: Encyclopefia of phenomenology (1997) Drummond. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London. 276-280

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice(1992) Phenomenology of Perception. Routledge, Humanistic Press, GB trans: Colin Smith
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice(1968): The Visible and the Invisible. Northwestern University Press, Evanston. Trans: Lingis, A.

Ross, W.D. (1959): Aristotle: a Complete Exposition of his Work and Thought. Meridian Books, New York

Stern, Daniel N (1985) :The Interpersonal World of the Infant. A View from Psychoanalysis and Development Psychology. Basic Books. A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, Printed in the USA

Vermes, Katalin (2006): A test éthosza. A test és a másik tapasztalatának összefüggése Merleau-Ponty és Lévinas filozófiájában. L’Harmattan, Budapest

published 8 December 08



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