Real Phantoms/Phantom Realities: On the Phenomenology of Bodily Imagination

“I cannot understand the function of the living body except by enacting it myself,
and except in so far as I am a body which rises towards the world.”1


“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again!”


In the summer of 1993, as the result of a recurrent soft-tissue cancer in my thigh, my left leg—after three operations, literally as well as metaphorically, “a drag”—was amputated high above the knee. Here, taking a phenomenological approach3, I want to attend to the extraordinary and radical expansion (not merely the presumed reduction) of my lived body’s articulations of itself during the post-operative period when I was supposedly “missing” a leg and the subsequent period in which I learned to use and then “incorporate” my prosthetic leg. Indeed, during this time (as well as in the retrospective period in which I prepared this presentation), my body became for me an intimate “laboratory” in which I could examine, test, and reflect upon the experience and dynamics not only of so-called “phantom” sensations, but also of the relations between my body image and my bodily imagination, my body and language, and between the visible and invisible aspects of an irreducibly subjective and objective experience.

What follows, then, is a necessarily brief exploration of certain selected aspects of an on-going phenomenological autobiography of living what is usually, if problematically, called a “phantom limb.” However, before I get to the specificities and conundrums posed by these dramatizations of the so-called “phantom,” some preliminary remarks are in order—this particularly for those, in this interdisciplinary context, who are unfamiliar with existential phenomenology as an empirical method of describing, thematizing, and interpreting human experience, the latter emergent as meaningful to an irreducibly embodied consciousness always engaged in the intentional and reversible activity of perception and expression as its primary mode of being in the world (indeed, of having a world at all).

First, a phenomenological approach seeks the meaning of experience not as a physiological or psychical abstraction but as it is always embodied and lived in context, its structure and significance emerging provisionally as the irreducible synthesis of the experience’s subjective and objective aspects—these not only as they are lived and valued (in this instance) by me, but also as they are lived and valued by others. Thus, although it may reveal certain dimensions of experience hidden from objective view and often elided in discourse, subjective (or autobiographical) experience of a “phantom limb” is also intersubjective—and not to be privileged as either more or less “authentic” and “real” than the “phantom limb” as it is objectively lived and imagined by those who think that they do not have one. Indeed, given this non-hierarchal (or “horizontalized”) emphasis, a phenomenological approach would also horizontalize the binary (and discursive) separation that divides the “phantom” from the “real.” That is, the phenomena of experience—including “phantom limbs”—cannot be reduced to static and binary essences. Although experience of such phenomena may have certain invariant structural features, these will always also be qualified and given particular value by the mutable possibilities and constraints not only of biology but also of history and culture. As such, they must be seen as provisional forms that are inherently dynamic and open to myriad variations of being and meaning.

Second, although phenomenological inquiry may begin with a particular experience, its aim is to describe and explicate the general or possible structures that make that experience resonant and comprehensible to others who might “imaginatively” inhabit it (even if in a differently-inflected or valued way). Although particular experiences may be idiosyncratic to a degree, they are also, and in the main, lived both generally and generically—generally, according to various inherent properties of embodied existence such as spatiality, temporality, intentionality, reflection, and reflexivity; and, generically, according to usually transparent cultural habits that regulate the boundaries of human being and its meanings. Thus, phenomenological inquiry attempts to describe the existential structure of a particular experience as an adequation to its more general possibilities. Even an instance so seemingly personal and generally anomalous as the bodily trauma of losing a limb and experiencing its invisible “phantom” finds us—to paraphrase Art Spiegelman, analogously traumatized and haunted by the “phantom” presence of New York’s lost twin towers—”reeling on the fault line” where Personal History and General Existence collide5

Shortly after my amputation, at the supermarket on crutches, I was confronted by the curious gaze of a lone little girl, probably not much older than three. “Where’s your arm?” she asked. “You mean leg,” I replied. She stared at the empty space beneath my skirt and persisted: “Where’s your arm?” “You mean leg,” I said again, trying to think of an explanation that would be comprehensible to a toddler. “My leg got sick. I had to take it to the hospital.” As she was pondering this, her mother appeared and the child pointed at me and asked, “Where’s her arm?” Clearly embarrassed more by the social situation than by her child’s anatomical mistake, the mother nonetheless dealt with the supposed gaucherie of the former by apologizing for the latter. “I’m really sorry,” she said, “I broke my arm last year. It was in a cast for a while and must have made quite an impression on her.”

How do we learn our body parts—our bodies in parts? Lacanians speak about the first rough-casting of the ego in the “mirror-stage”6 of infancy as, among other primary processes of identification, the specular recognition of bodily integrity—the baby’s jubilant comprehension of its unity giving rise, as well, to an apprehensive and retroactive fantasy of its body once in pieces. However, during infancy and toddlerhood (at least in Western cultures), it is also generally the case that parents and pre-schools, along with playing peek-a-boo (symbolically dramatizing the “fort/da” binary of “presence” and “absence”), teach babies their bodies in pieces. This literal and concrete formal lesson in corporeal objectivity links nomination through word, touch, and vision to a circumscribed and limited spatialization of the body that is, if not fragmented, then certainly segmented. Yet, insofar as we live our bodies transparently as a materialized but transcendent ensemble of enabling capacities rather than as an immanent and opaque hermeneutic problem, we do not explicitly feel or think of ourselves in parts—let alone, as a set of discontiguous appendages: “These are your eyes, now touch your ears, five little piggies went to market” and so on. (This is also generally true of persons who are “missing” a limb but do not necessarily feel they are “missing” anything.) Given this vague, rather than specific and particular, sense of our formal embodiment, it is thus not surprising that, like the little girl of my anecdote, children often confuse the names and forms and locations of “body parts” as such. Their difficulty comes from not inherently sensing their own bodily integrity as either a fixed form or a collection of localized segments.

Drew Leder, in his aptly-titled The Absent Body7, points to both a certain stability of corporeal structure and “the mass of skills and functional tendencies” we have incorporated over time that allow our bodies’ continual transformations sufficient continuity to generally recede to the background of our consciousness. This “primary absence” of our bodies is a tacit “self-effacement that first allows the body to open out onto a world.” Leder, however, also points to ways in which we become more—not less—explicitly conscious of our bodies. Grounded upon our bodies’ “primary absence,” this “secondary absence” in which the body is directed away from its ordinary ecstatic being-toward-the world and “folds back upon itself” is what Leder calls the body’s “dys-appearance.” Corporeal self-presence thus becomes experienced not as the recessive ground of our being but rather dysfunctionally as its delineated figure. As Leder points out: “This presence is not a simple positivity. It is born from the reversal, from the absence of an absence.” And although this absence of the body’s “primary absence can find positive figuration in the corporeal self-absorptions of, for example, pregnancy, or in the self-awareness of learning a new motor skill, or in a seemingly “positive” game in which a parent teaches a baby to name and thus feel itself in parts, this “secondary absence” that is the body’s foregrounded “dys-appearance” generally marks its most striking figures when we have experienced significant bodily trauma—like the amputation of a leg which has initially transformed a transparently-embodied capacity for movement into the forestalled and insistent self-presence of a now-problematic body part.

Which brings us, despite her anatomical mistake, to the gist of the little girl’s question: Where was my leg? On the one hand (a tropological mistake), propped up on my sofa after surgery, looking at my body stretched out before me as an object, there was “nothing” there where my transparently absent left leg had been. On the other hand, feeling my body subjectively, along with significant (albeit not long-lived) pain, I most certainly experienced “something” here—the “something” sort of like my leg, but certainly not coincident with my memory of its form; and the “here” somewhere in the vicinity my leg had previously occupied, but not exactly coincident with its objective boundaries. Most prominent and clearly defined, I experienced my former foot: even two of the outer toes felt numb just as they had before the operation. However, I didn’t feel anything more of the leg itself than a certain vague verticality (lying now on a horizontal plane); I had no formal sense of a knee and only the barest sense of an ankle and, of course, did not proprioceptively feel the weight of my thigh or sense some equivalent of my calf against the sofa cushion. The leg’s connection to my bandaged stump was also ambiguous; there seemed to be a certain auratic area around the residual limb, a sort of vaguely-bounded band of space, a no-man’s land separating two different senses of my body that would not be trespassed—at least until many months later, when I started walking with my prosthetic and it dissipated completely. Despite all this imprecision of location and vagueness of form, however, I also had the sense of the limb’s spatial—and motor—constriction. Indeed, the more I consciously tried to “figure out” the limb’s contours, the less successful I was—experiencing, instead, what felt like nothing being given a shape by the geometrically rigid and horizontal compression of what seemed like an externally-imposed plexi-glass block. Indeed, imaginatively riffing on his father’s missing limb, David Wills’ description is apposite here: “Nothing can be said to be present there within the bounds of a confinable space.”8

Rita Carter tells us in Exploring Consciousness, “A thing must have a boundary in order for us to name it, categorize it and deal with it….No-thing is, by definition, not a thing at all. But in order to have a concept of it, we have to make it a thing, which means giving it a boundary. Then, of course, we have to create a background ‘thing’ to distinguish the no-thing…and so on.”9[ Looking at the place from which the “thing” that was my objective leg was absent, “no-thing” was there. And, yet, the “dys-appearance” of my leg, however vague its boundaries, was subjectively experienced as a sense of self-presence now and here. Together, however, this objective absence and subjective “dys-appearance” did not make, to paraphrase Leder, a simple negativity; rather, in their conjunction, doubling, and reversals, they constituted a strange positivity: the presence of an absence. As Merleau-Ponty writes (evoking the toddler’s anatomical focus): “The phantom arm is not a representation of the arm but the ambivalent presence of an arm….The phantom arm is not a recollection, it is a quasi-present and the patient feels it now…with no hint of it belonging to the past.”10 In this case, then, King Lear’s “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again!” resonates and we must speak again—but this time of my supposed “real” leg, the right one that visibly occupied space as some “thing” objectively there.

As I lay on my sofa or walked about on my crutches, I began to focus, with as much phenomenological specificity as possible, on my transparently “absent,” rather than “dys-appeared,” right leg—that is, in contrast to my left leg, on its general transparency and lack of self-presence. Indeed, I had to force myself to sense it explicitly even as I could clearly see its objective location and shape. (And, here, I would ask you to consider how you feel your own leg and how precisely—or not—it registers as a solid “thing” with objective boundaries.) As it happens, I have never had “knee” or “ankle” problems and so realized, when I bent these joints, that I hardly experienced their movement as a physical sensation at all; rather, these actions were accomplished and marked by a general sense of corporeal realignment—not of a “thing” but of a materialized ensemble of capacities in action. I also did not feel the specific weight of my thigh (the latter no more nor less sensed as the “thinglike, passive, inert,…mere object with no animating or receptive interiority” that Elizabeth Grosz attributes only to the “stump”11) ; nor did I sense the contour of my leg when it was not in physical contact with the “things” of the world that, through their external resistance, limned from the outside the specific shape of my limb. Thus, it is not surprising that, just as with my so-called “phantom,” the most prominent sense I had of my right leg’s specific shape and solid presence was my “foot”— that “part” of my leg that most regularly met and was spatially defined by the resistance of the ground. In sum, without either some corporeal problem or worldly contact, for all its fleshy solidity, I sensed my right leg as little more than a generally vague and hardly weighty verticality. Indeed, its general absence seemed a reverse, if transparent, mimicry of the “dys-appearance” of my so-called “phantom”: I subjectively experienced the objective “some thing” there as my right leg as almost “no-thing” here at all. Nothing will come of “no-thing”—even when some “thing” is limbed as there.

Despite and because of their reversed inflection, there is, then, a form of adequation—and, indeed, possible reconciliation—that exists between my two legs: the so-called “phantom” and the so-called “real” one. We could say that the one carnally comprehends the other in lived-body experience and this adequation opens up its experiential structure as comprehensible to others not so physically disposed. Carter writes, “Our body-maps are ‘built-in’ rather than learned concepts, yet they are firmly grounded in the external world and remain intact only so long as they receive appropriate sensory feedback from physical interaction between the body and the environment.”12 The consequential difference between my two legs (one undone by the reconciliation afforded by my prosthetic leg) is that, although both may carnally grasp the intentions and initial purpose of my motor projects, one had lost its capacity for physical interaction with the “practical field” of its environment and could not enact them. Forestalled from contact, as it were, it had lost touch with the world that gave it shape and, as is the case with most amputees, it began to lose the shape the world gave it. Otherwise, the phenomenological adequation of one leg to the other reveals to us (whichever side of an amputated limb you are on) that the subjective objectivity of lived-body perception and expression are highly ambiguous both in corporeal experience and language: “here” and “there,” shifters like the word “I,” are, indeed, shifty; “nothing” and “no-thing” are reversible rather than binary figures; the rigid separation of “presence” from “absence” is itself a phantom constituted by a solely visual logic; and the “real” and the “phantom” reverse themselves depending upon one’s lived-body situation.

As Carter suggests, “Even the most immutable boundaries are created by us for convenience, rather than fixed in objective reality,”13 and pointing to the fuzziness of the boundaries of embodied consciousness (or “self”), she continues: “[Body] maps sometimes get ‘stuck’ in a configuration that is incongruent with the real body—as with phantom limbs—but normally they adapt to match the changes in the physical body so well that we are unaware of their illusory nature.” But even so-called “phantom limbs” adapt—not only to an impoverished commerce with the world but also to the possibilities afforded by a prosthetic. Indeed, over time, the “dys-appeared” phantom may diffuse its self-presenced discretion to become the transparent absence and integrity of one’s habitual, if self-adjusting, body image.

Directly after surgery, like many amputees, I felt my left leg as shorter than it had objectively been. Phenomenologically (and tropologically), we could say that, materially “curtailed” and thus expressively “forestalled,” the leg was perceptually experienced as “foreshortened.” Over the course of time, however, and even before I learned to walk with a prosthesis, the length of this foreshortened limb began to shrink further, its prominently defined foot moving upward as if to intentionally and corporeally reconcile itself with my stump. Indeed, at one point, I remember quite distinctly the odd feeling of my foot where the transparency of not only my “real” but also my “phantom” knee had once been. Soon, moving further upward to my thigh, the foot stopped at the border of the previously-described “auratic” band of space between my fleshy residual limb and the residual limb that was my shrinking “phantom.” It was as if the foot—in fleshy life separated from the thigh by the transparent leg (however long or short)—knew to keep its distance; and as if the thigh, in a strange dialectic that recognized the foot’s different ontological status, refuted its half-hearted figural attempt to (re)incorporate itself literally—”in the flesh,” so to speak.

Eventually my foot dissipated as such: no longer “dys-appeared,” it became primarily “absent”—absorbed in my more transparent sense of my body as a materialized ensemble of capacities and resistances. Over time, as my foot lost its definition, at first I could voluntarily will it into sensed existence or, describing it to curious others with the focus demanded by description, I would involuntarily feel the foot reassert its self-presence. Later still, even these acts—voluntary or involuntary—became corporeally impossible to imagine—as with many amputees, my “level of control and sensation gradually decreas[ing] in conjunction with the telescoping phenomenon.” The last time I felt my foot as such, however, was particularly remarkable—both phenomenologically and tropologically. Describing it to someone in the past tense since it had lost its presence, I initially felt “no-thing” as I spoke of sensing its vague shape, precise toes, and telescopic movement upward. Suddenly, however, using the active verb form “wiggling” in reference to my toes, the latter tingled into figural being—their carnal “entropy” momentarily reversed by the “living expression” of language on the hither side of, as Ricoeur says, “the distinctions between actuality, action, production, and motion.” That wiggling of my toes, however, was their last specific grasp on being, their last wave “good-bye”—for, whether willfully or involuntarily, I have never been able to evoke their presence again.

Gail Weiss, in Body Images, writes: “That for most individuals, the phantom limb eventually does disappear…should not be understood as the ‘triumph’ of the body (or the specular image of the body) over the body image, but rather, as the construction of a new morphological imagination, one that offers new sites of projection and identification and new bodily possibilities.” 14Thus, the eventual absence of my phantom as a sensed “specificity” does not mean that it has become fully coincident with my physical body as an objective and bounded “thing”—or that the material and immanent order of existence has “triumphed” over that transcendent order of existence that perceives and expresses itself as “no-thing” at all. Given that our lived bodies are the “hinge” between the immanent and transcendent, the objective and subjective, they do not come down on one side or other. Rather, my phantom’s diffusion made way for another sense of incorporation—which brings me to my prosthesis and, with it, as Weiss suggests, a transformed morphological imagination that while formally new was also intentionally familiar.

What was formally new was a perceived shape of my left leg as I sat or walked with the prosthesis quite different from both my earlier “phantom” and its later diffusion. Although objectively—in specular terms—my stump is fleshy, round, and very short (occupying only the top third of the space between my hip and knee), my incorporation of the prosthesis and its grasp of my body has transformed my carnal imagination. My leg now has integrity: it is muscled, tapered, and elongated well beyond the end of the suction socket that is joined by a block to the hydraulic knee, titanium leg, and hard (but sprung) rubber foot. As a vague quasi-presence (when I focus on it rather than simply use it), it extends beyond the knee joint and then becomes absorbed in the dominant feeling of the resistance and springiness of my foot as it meets the ground. While I no longer feel discrete toes, I do feel the ball and heel of my foot. As Carter suggests: “The boundary of…sensory consciousness has pushed out to the place where it is needed.” 15Thus the changed shape of my “phantom” (and it takes an act of will to call it that in this situation) enacts less a nostalgic longing, than an anticipatory lengthening towards the ground, the one expressing a focalization on what was once there but is now missing, the other a mobilization of capacities to fulfill a present intention.

Now, I primarily sense my leg as an active, quasi-absent, whole. That is, unless there is a rare prosthetic problem (akin to an event such as getting a blister on one’s heel), I do not feel a “place” where the flesh of my stump comes to an end and the material of my prosthesis begins. Indeed, whether I am sitting or walking, there seems only the slightest difference, the merest “echo,” between my two legs. Rather, their expressive reciprocity in the intentional and active ensemble of my corporeal alignment and movement is perceived as a general “seamlessness” in my comportment and its realized action—this including the cane I have also incorporated as part of my new corporeal stability.

Nonetheless, although this imaginative figuration of my morphology was newly incorporated in form and offered “new sites of projection and identification and new bodily possibilities,” it was also familiar in function—and thus, phenomenologically, it is not a contradiction to say that my corporeal figuration was, at once, both new and renewed. Radically transformed in perceived shape, my diffused “phantom” both figuratively and functionally elongated and grew into the hollow of my prosthetic socket—occupying, thickening, and substantiating it, finally “grasping” it so that it made sense to me and became corporeally integrated and lived as my own. And while my “phantom” again took form to animate the prosthesis, the prosthesis reciprocally “grasped” my bodily imagination of animation—and materially articulated it in the long-familiar gestures of standing and walking on the concrete ground of my world.

Indeed, my prosthesis again opened for me what Merleau-Ponty calls the “practical field” unrealized by but still familiar to the “phantom”—and thus I became once again “open to [nearly] all those actions” of which the legs “alone are capable.” 16In this regard, Merleau-Ponty might be speaking not only of “phantom” but also of “prosthetic” limbs when he writes: “What is found behind the phenomenon of substitution is the impulse of being-in-the-world….[This impulse] presents only a practical significance; it asks only for bodily recognition; it is experienced as an ‘open’ situation…and it is precisely what allows the limbs to be substituted for each other and to be of equal value before the self-evident demands of the task.” Indeed, in this regard, he might well be speaking also of most people’s two original legs which “substitute” each for the other all the time; standing and walking, each bears equal weight and value in their mimetic reciprocity, the joint—and thus transcendent—cadence of their gait attuned and responsive to the immanent demands of their intentional task. “Phantom” limbs, “prosthetic” limbs, “real” limbs: their difference is one of degree, not kind—and less in function than in material substance.

Thus, the phenomenological “substitution” of which Merleau-Ponty speaks17 is not a “substitution” conceived in the negative terms of perceptual failure or psychic “mourning work” or “nostalgia.” I don’t walk around feeling incomplete or like something is missing even without my prosthesis insofar as I can, if I will, stand to my height and walk (even with crutches). My residual limb and its image are part of my whole bodily being not merely as a visible physical object but also as a transcendent subject who lives her life and performs her habitual tasks in an embodied state of absent positivity. Thus, as Weiss eloquently summarizes: “The phantom limb is only a more extreme form of a phenomenon that all of us experience on a daily basis, namely, the attempt to maintain a certain bodily equilibrium in the face of continual changes in both our body and our situation.”18


  1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), 75.
  2. William Shakespeare, King Lear (Act 1, Scene 1).
  3. For those readers unfamiliar with the history, philosophy, and method of phenomenology (both transcendental and existential), see Herbert Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1965). For elaboration of existential phenomenology in particular see David Carr, “Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Incarnate Consciousness,” in Existential Philosophers: Kierkegaard to Merleau-Ponty, ed. George Alfred Schrader, Jr. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 369-429. For a gloss on and demonstration of phenomenological method, see Don Ihde, Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction (New York: Paragon, 1979).
  4. Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (New York: Pantheon, 2004).

    Finally, and important here in regard to the very nomination “phantom limb,” is language. Unlike certain strains of psychoanalysis, existential phenomenology does not regard language as a symbolic “substitute” for being, but rather understands it as a transcendent carnal gesture—that is, as an extension and elaboration of being that not only exteriorizes lived-body experience beyond its spatial and temporal boundaries but also is mimetic of its polymorphous structure. Which is to say, as our lived body experience—through gesture and action— is being concretely “figured” in the world, it is always also being imaginatively and discursively “figured out.” Thus, autobiographical experience is always discursive and discursive experience autobiographical. And thus a phenomenological autobiography of my lived “phantom limb” as subjectively experienced must also be a tropological phenomenology of the “phantom limb” as objectively described—this latter to “defamiliarize” its normative figuration and revitalize its existential significance and intersubjective structure. Indeed, as Paul Ricoeur writes in The Rule of Metaphor, “If there is a point in our experience where living expression states living existence, it is where our movement up the entropic slope of language encounters the movement by which we come back this side of the distinctions between actuality, action, production, motion.” There is, then, both a differential tension and a dynamic connection between the “phantom limb” as “a cultural trope and a material condition that indelibly affect[s] people’s lives.”4Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary studies of the creation of meaning in language, trans. Robert Czerny, Kathleen McLaughlin, and John Costello (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 309.

  5. Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror-Phase as formative of the I,” trans. Jean Roussel, New Left Review 51 (September-October 1968): 71-77.
  6. Drew Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 90-91.
  7. David Wills, Prosthesis (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 2.
  8. Rita Carter, Exploring Consciousness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 215.
  9. Merleau-Ponty, 80, 85. (Emphasis added.)
  10. Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 72.
  11. Carter, 217.
  12. Carter, 215.
  13. Gail Weiss, Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality (NY: Routledge, 1999), 37. (Emphasis added.)
  14. Carter, 217,
  15. Merleau-Ponty, 81-82.
  16. Merleau-Ponty, 78.
  17. Weiss, 35.