Carnal Hermeneutics in a World of Social Distancing, Pt 2: Bodies in Place

Pt 2: Bodies in Place: Confinement and Displacement

David Utsler, PhD, is currently part-time faculty in philosophy for Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College. He is co-editor of Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics (Fordham 2014) along with Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor and Martin Drenthen. He is also co-author with Cynthia R. Nielsen of “Fricker, Gadamer, and Honneth: Testimonial Injustice, Prejudice, and Social Esteem” in Recognition Theory and Epistemic Justice, eds. Paul Giladi and Nicola McMillan, forthcoming 2021 from Routledge.

I .  Getting a sense of sense

In the first installment, I noted that carnal hermeneutics refers to the body as interpretation. While “touching” primarily on touch, I highlighted that Kearney and Treanor insist on an “equiprimordial redistribution of the senses” as a necessary aspect of carnal hermeneutics in order to understand how we, through the body, interact with other bodies and make sense of the world. Interpretation of our world begins and is carried through within our senses.

So if we make sense of the world through the senses, Richard Kearney asks how we make sense of sense (Kearney. 2015, 15). He explains three senses of sense that, I take, are all weaved together in the interpretation of the world through our embodiment. The first is the five senses themselves. The second refers to meaning as in “getting a sense” of what someone is communicating. The third is expressed in the etymology of the word “sense” as direction or orientation. This last refers to how we “place” ourselves in the world. Our embodied place, our position, is an orientation to the world through which we make sense and understand meaning in the world.

There is no doubt that a world of social distancing has “re-placed” our bodies. The way that we orient ourselves to those around us has changed. The way we work has changed as many who went to the office now work from home, while others have been “dis-placed” as working non-essential jobs now have no job. Social distancing, for the most part, has “dis-placed” us from one another except to those in our immediate household. On a positive note, as I take walks in my neighborhood I am witnessing far more people that what is typical out and about themselves. A change of place often means a change of pace: what we do with our bodies (how we live) is in direct relation to where our bodies are placed.

II .   The confinement of social distancing

In his contribution to Carnal Hermeneutics (“Skin Deep: Bodies Edging into Place”), Edward S. Casey writes: “Some places are hard to bear—to bear bodily” (Casey. 2015, 159). Casey writes of the specific example of solitary confinement and the devastating effects such can have on a human being. Now, while I would not think to equate being confined in the comfort of our own homes with prisoners in solitary confinement. But there are some comparisons alongside the differences, the differences being different to an extreme order and degree.

Consider the language that has entered our discourse. Shelter-in-place. In other words, stay where you are and do not come out. Whereas a prisoner is placed is solitary as a punishment, we are asked to “place” ourselves at home for our own safety and the safety of others. Yet, what many experience is still a kind of confinement. As Casey says of the prisoner, he has nowhere to go (Casey, 160). While the prisoner is limited by walls, many feel limited by the walls created by COVID-19. Our ordinary lifeworld has been re-oriented such that we have limitations on where we can go. Places we went at will at now no longer available to us. To varying degrees from mere frustration to fear of losing property (losing place), how we dwell has been destabilized and we are forced to re-orient ourselves in place by externalities outside of our control. To cite Casey in this context, “one’s coherent, customary world” (Casey, 159) has been, for an unknown length of time, upended. It no longer coheres the same and our customary way of being in the world is, for now, gone. In both “social distancing” and “shelter-in-place,” how we orient ourselves toward others and in place is altered requiring that we “make sense” of the world in new ways. This can have devastating effects on the human psyche and devastating effects socially. Yet, we can be hopeful for more positive outcomes.

III.  Displacement within place

I speak of “displacement” in two senses. People can be physically displaced by war, natural disaster, or other means where they are forced to leave one place and go to another. There is another form of displacement, what I call “displaced in place” where a familiar place has been altered to the extent that our orientation to that physical space is forever destroyed. For example, in the context of environmental justice, there are seemingly a limitless amount of cases that one could cite where due to the environmental effects of the actions of others, entire ways of life of a people have been lost.

Casey writes of implacement and displacement in his book Getting Place Into Place. He writes: “The power of a place such as a mere room possesses determines not only where I am in the limited sense of cartographic location but how I am together with others (i.e., how I commingle and communicate with them) and even who we shall become together” (Casey. 2009, 23). In this single profound sentence, Casey has shown that a place is not merely a physical space but, to put it in the terms of carnal hermeneutics, is an embodied interpretation determined by our orientation to the place itself and to others with whom it is shared, effecting our very identities, both individual and communal. Certainly, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have determined how we “commingle and communicate” with others and, I would add, the places wherein we have a sense of self. The loss of place (displacement) can occur even within the same material space. As hermeneutics in both Gadamer and Ricoeur have repeatedly communicated, interpretation always implies an interpretation of self. Identity is always bound up with understanding.

The current “landscape” in which we now dwell has been altered by COVID-19. How we are within the places where we are and who we are with one another has, even if only temporarily, changed. The question now becomes, “how shall we respond?” The discordance and disruption created by COVID-19 also creates the imperative that we must reorient ourselves bodily (refigure) the world to which we had become accustomed (prefigured and configured). In the final installment, I will reflect on this imperative in light of the narrative hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur, particularly on his explication of threefold mimesis.


Kearney, R. (2015) “The Wager of Carnal Hermeneutics.” In Richard Kearney & Brian Treanor, eds. Carnal Hermeneutics, pp. 15 – 56. New York: Fordham University Press.

Casey, Edward S. (2015) “Skin Deep: Edging into Place.” In Richard Kearney & Brian Treanor, eds. Carnal Hermeneutics, pp. 159 – 172. New York: Fordham University Press.

Casey, Edward. S. (1993, 2009) Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. 2nd Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Carnal Hermeneutics in a World of Social Distancing

David Utsler, PhD, is currently part-time faculty in philosophy for Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College. He is co-editor of Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics (Fordham 2014) along with Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor and Martin Drenthen. He is also co-author with Cynthia R. Nielsen of “Fricker, Gadamer, and Honneth: Testimonial Injustice, Prejudice, and Social Esteem” in Recognition Theory and Epistemic Justice, eds. Paul Giladi and Nicola McMillan, forthcoming 2021 from Routledge.

I.  Introductory Remark

In the midst of the global health crisis posed by COVID-19, the language of “social distancing” has entered our shared global lexicon. The words of Paul Ricoeur came to mind where he wrote, with reference to touch, that “…one’s own body is revealed to be the mediator between the intimacy of the self and the externality of the world” (Ricoeur, 1992, 321 – 22). While the body is more than touch as there are four additional senses, touch (and also taste) require physical proximity the other senses do not. With social distancing, we are being directed specifically to avoid the sensation of touch. Wash your hands. Do not touch others. Stay 6 feet apart so that the microscopic body of COVID-19 does not touch your body or from you the body of another. Touch is considered an expression of care in numerous ways (the touch of lovers, a hand on a shoulder in reassurance or comfort, and so on). But in response to COVID-19, care is expressed through refraining to touch. 

To my mind, this raises several questions in the context of how social distancing is understood in the light of carnal hermeneutics (see Kearney and Treanor, 2015). Carnal hermeneutics is essentially about the body as interpretation. What role does the interpreting body play in a world of social distancing? What does the intentional avoidance of touch mean in the relationship of self and other in the social sphere? What sorts of trauma and suffering may follow in the wake of social distancing, even if social distancing is necessary in response to the danger posed by COVID-19? 

II.   What is “social distancing”?

I want to define “social distancing” as I see it as the term itself can be understood in different ways. For example, I have seen where some have suggested substituting the term “physical distancing” for “social distancing.” I understand the thinking behind this suggestion. To be sure, we are being asked to remain physically distant, not give up interacting with one another. This understanding seems to say that “social distancing” means being disconnected, similar to how we might refer to a person as being emotionally distant. But I see certain shortcomings. “Physical distancing” does not imply that I interact with or engage others at all. It only bids me to stay away from them. This terminology does not retain the sociality it seeks to preserve. Further, a social context already existed that gave rise to the direction to “practice social distancing.” Speaking of “social distancing” makes no sense if there is not already the fact of shared spaces. If we are in a shared physical space, we practice social distancing by remaining at least 6 feet apart. If we are in a virtual space, we are social distancing by practicing sociality in a virtual rather than physical space. 

I will define “social distancing” as practicing sociality in (implied) physically distant ways. I am not being asked to distance myself socially from others, but to practice social life with distance between myself and others with whom I share social space.

III.  Carnal Hermeneutics

In the introduction to their book, Carnal Hermeneutics, editors Richard Kearney and Brian Treanor list as one of their basic principles a redistribution of the senses. What they mean is that rather than the classic privileging of sight, hearing, and smell over taste and touch, there should be an “equiprimordial redistribution of the senses” in order to show how any and all sensate experience is an interpretation. As interpretation, the five senses are not merely conduits of information to the mind that then understands. Rather the senses are actively engaged in the creation of meaning. This is true of all the senses. Kearney and Treanor are right to note that carnal hermeneutics is not simply a reversal of the hierarchy of the senses, ascribing a place of privilege to touch and taste, making sight, sound, and smell subordinate. To the contrary, the equiprimordial redistribution of the senses, not bound to Platonic or Cartesian dualisms of mind and body, reveals that all the senses are equally carnal and all the senses equally “speak” to the mind.

That said, given the long neglect of touch and taste in Western philosophy, it is not surprising that touch and taste are given more of a spotlight in Carnal Hermeneutics. And although carnal hermeneutics maintains an equality of the senses in the body as interpretation, we can also acknowledge difference side by side with equality. For example, sight is a function of the body, the flesh (indeed, the eye itself is flesh), yet two bodies engaged in seeing the other do not experience the same resistance such as in touch. In terms of spreading a virus, sight does not have the capability to transmit a virus, but touch does. So it is especially with regard to touch, or at least bodies sharing space in proximity, that I want to reflect on social distancing.

IV.  Reorienting the body as interpretation

When we must go out, how we interact with others is changed by COVID-19. Most wear masks. Passing in the aisle of a grocery store, we create as much of a gap as space will allow. When we cannot physically meet with family or colleagues, we enter virtual spaces to at least see one another. Just as a person deprived of sight relies on the other senses to interpret the world, when we are deprived of touch and physical proximity in shared space, we use virtual spaces and webcams just so we can see each other. At the least, we make use of audio to hear one another. What we cannot have with regard to one sense, we make up for with others.

Social distancing has modified in the present circumstance the way the body interprets the world in which it dwells. For those who are sick, they must isolate from even the closest of family and friends. For those who succumb to the virus and die, they are forced to die alone, not sharing space with their loved ones. How many obituaries include the line that the deceased passed “in the presence of family and friends by her side.” COVID-19 has deprived the dying of this comfort. To the living who remain, they are deprived of being present to the last. Hands are not held. Foreheads are not kissed. These extremes being no doubt the saddest, social distancing even for the well and healthy impacts the body as interpretation, as being-in-the-world. 

To conclude this introductory installment, from the point of view of carnal hermeneutics, social distancing both creates and demands a reorientation of the body as interpretation. Specifically, interpretation as narrative here has experienced what Ricoeur would refer to as a discordance that disrupts the narrative unity of life. In short, COVID-19 and subsequent social distancing has changed our story. In the remaining two installments, I will look at the body in relation to place in a world of social distancing with particular reference to Edward Casey’s chapter in Carnal Hermeneutics and, finally, how the disruptive nature of social distancing can be understood in light of the threefold mimesis in the work of Paul Ricoeur. 


Kearney, R. & Brian Treanor (2015). Carnal Hermeneutics. New York: Fordham University Press. 

Ricoeur, P. (1992) Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.