Century after century – will it be soon, God? –
Under the scalpel of nature and of art
Our spirit cries, the flesh wears itself out,
Giving birth to the organ of the sixth sense.
Everyday English language about the mind, now and for centuries past, firmly identifies five senses – ‘the
five senses’: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. This is a social convention, though there are those who have thought there really are, ‘naturally’, precisely five senses. It is common to cite the classical authority of Aristotle, in De Anima
, a text which was a mainstay of Arabic and then European education down to the seventeenth century and even through the eighteenth century. Aristotle dealt with the five senses in turn and described vision as superior to the others. Yet, at the same time, he identified touch as in some manner at the foundation of sensation generally and not straightforwardly comparable to the other senses. ‘The most basic of the senses, touch, all animals have … so is touch separable from the other senses,’ he wrote, implying that without touch animals simply would not continue to preserve themselves, to remain alive. Touch is the sense without which the animal (and
person) ‘can have no other sense’.2
Touch is primary, and the other senses share or reflect the fact that it has passive and active dimensions (contact is brought about by movement) at the same time. Then, Aristotle noted, there are different kinds of touch awareness, indeed very many. ‘Touch … has a wide range of objects’. A reference to touch may denote awareness of very different kinds of things: contact, pressure, tactual qualities, temperature, vibration, not to mention the senses of movement.3
Indeed, one recent summary listed thirteen different types of nerve fibres running from the hand and supplying the brain with sensory (afferent) impulses.4
Aristotle himself even wondered whether touch should be called one sense or many.
The epigraph at the opening of this chapter is from the Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev, Anna
Akhmatova’s first husband, who was shot by the security services in 1921. In the last year of his life, he composed ‘
The Sixth Sense’ and voiced a longing that the age might finally come in which the body will acquire a new capacity, a special organ for ‘sensing’ poetry. Here poetic language ran together allusion to intuition and to an actual sense organ. Indeed, the age had come to expand beyond the traditional five senses. In the same year, 1920, the Russian Expressionist poet Ippolit
Sokolov wrote that there must be between ten and fifteen senses.5
Most obviously to a modern reader, perhaps, touch differs from the other four senses since its relations with things is not mediated by one localized organ: touch is present (though variably) all over the skin, and, if we include bodily sensations (tired muscles, stomach ache and so forth) under this heading, there is also deep touch throughout the body. ‘There is no neatly circumscribed “organ” of touch, other than the dynamic human body.’6
For this reason, Aristotle wrote that all the senses can be understood as kinds of touch. Developing such a view, we might conclude, the body is one
sense organ. Jacques
Derrida, in his study of touch, amplified the insight of Jean-Luc
Nancy to this effect: ‘there is no “the” sense of touch’ – touch is the way in which animate beings are animate, not properly described one among five senses.7
This is a significant suggestion, to which we shall return. Ordinary speech, however, continues to differentiate the senses.
Another ancient writer to accord touch special status was the Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius. His poem On the Nature of Things
, rediscovered in the West in 1417 and written in Latin much
admired for its elegance, presented a fully materialist worldview.8
He explained all phenomena, including the soul, in terms of the motions of particles in a void. If all that exists are particles and motion, then the contact, the touching, of particles is the principle of change in the world, and the human sense of touch the basic source of knowledge of what exists and brings events about. Lucretius, like Aristotle, described the senses in turn, though when he came to touch, he had nothing to write that he had not implied already in describing the contact of particles. Touch just is what it is, con-tact
, touch), particles touching each other. The challenge was to show how the other senses, like vision, also resulted from the contact of particles. (Lucretius thought that objects give off very fine films of particles, like a spider shedding its skin, which, moving, touch the eye.) In the seventeenth century, suitably distanced from Lucretius’s distinctly non-Christian views, this way of thinking became central to the new natural philosophy, the modern science of understanding nature in terms of matter and motion. This, too, gave touch special status among the senses.
We summarize a large history. Many authors fixed on touch as the route to the most direct knowledge of what is real; indeed, touch achieved status as the sense through which there is knowledge of the primary, or irreducible properties of things, their massiveness, spatial dimensions, motion and resistance to us. Touch, it appeared, is the most direct, or the deepest, engagement of a living organism with ‘the real’, a condition of it being alive not dead. In Aristotle’s words again (in a passage where he argued that no one of the four elements, earth, air, fire or water, without soul, was sufficient to be the substance of a sense organ):
For without touch … [the animal body] can have no other sense, every ensouled thing being … a tactile body, and, while the other elements apart from earth might be sense-organs, they would all produce sensation by indirect and mediate perception, whereas touch consists, as its name suggests, in contact with objects. The other sense-organs seem to perceive by touch, but through something else, touch alone being thought to do so through itself.…
It is the deprivation of this sense alone that leads to death in animals. Just as it is impossible for anything that is not an animal
to have this sense, so there is no other sense that something must have to be an animal except this one.9
This argument (which we are abstracting from what Aristotle wrote as a whole) has parallels in contemporary debate on the theory of knowledge. Its modern incarnation in
phenomenology goes back to the work of Edmund
Husserl in the first decade of the twentieth century, and it became widely spread in the second half of the century through Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception
(first published in 1945). For Maxine
Sheets-Johnstone, who is both a biologist and a phenomenologist (and she was also, not coincidentally, a dancer), the sense of movement is simply the sense of life
. Discussing the vexed question of the nature of consciousness, especially of the qualities of ‘feels’, like redness (an example of what are called qualia
), she wrote: they are ‘integral to bodily life. They are there in any movement we make … They are not a “mental product,” but the product of animation. They are created by movement itself.’10
Developing a similar argument, the physiologist Alain
Berthoz and phenomenologist Jean-Luc
Petit linked Husserl’s discussion of the shaping of the world in kinaesthetic awareness to recent work on the brain’s active construction of what is taken to be the world. They boldly concluded that ‘on the basis of this theory, we can account for everything that exists for a subject with the meaning of being “a thing”’.11
Husserl took up phenomenal awareness of embodiment, or experience of life as contact and movement, as pivotal for the re-establishment of philosophy. We may think of this as a philosophical parallel, coinciding in time, to modernism in the arts, though Husserl worked without (to our knowledge) direct interaction with the arts. Husserl called for a rejection of the immediate philosophical past, judged inadequate by the high calling of his field. He sought to re-describe ‘the real’, and for this re-description he introduced a new technique (phenomenological reduction); and he turned to his own thinking for the authority to make statements about what is real. All awareness, he supposed, even the awareness of a philosopher thinking as intensively and as rationally as himself, is embodied. The phenomenal reality of this embodiment is given in and by
kinaesthesia, the sense of being alive, moving, at each moment.
Already in the constitution of a sensed spatial something … we have a formation of a hidden, analytically exhibitable [demonstrable], constitutive synthesis; it is indeed an ‘appearance’ which refers back to the kinaesthetic ‘circumstances’ to which it appertains. We are always led back further analytically and arrive finally at sense-objects in a different sense, ones which lie at the ground (constitutively understood) of all spatial objects and, consequently, of all thing-objects of material reality too.12
For Husserl, analysis led to kinaesthesia as the ground of awareness of things, and to awareness that awareness is in a body. Kinaesthesia is involved in every apprehension that we exist as embodied in the world: ‘I am at all times in one or another kinaesthetic stance.’13
Husserl supposed that analysis can trace the phenomenal presence (‘in consciousness’, as ordinary language has it) of spatial things to the kinaesthesis, the movement of an organism as part of, in
, the world, not as a mind or some kind of internal observer looking out on the world. Kinaesthetic awareness is awareness of a particular stance or movement; and the awareness is localized. The body is the bearer of spatialized locations, beginning with the double character of touch, which is at one and the same time touching and being touched. The pattern of localization is the source of knowledge of body differentiated from and having relation to objects:
Given with the localization of the kinesthetic series in the relevant moving member of the Body is the fact that in all perception and perceptual exhibition (experience) the Body is involved as freely moved sense organ, as freely moved totality of sense organs
, and hence there is also given the fact that, on this original foundation, all that is thingly-real in the surrounding world of the Ego has its relation to the Body.14
Husserl’s argument made the basis of all knowledge, that is, the character phenomena possess which analysis cannot further reduce, the spatiality of the body given by kinaesthesis. In a course of lectures in 1907, he discussed at length the ‘animation’ binding apprehension of the existence of a world to the world. Going through the place of the visual and tactile senses in this apprehension, he argued that these senses alone are not sufficient to give rise to
awareness of spatiality. This comes, he said, from self-movement, which, understood psychologically, we know in kinaesthesia. (He self-consciously adopted the foreign word.)15
The importance Husserl accorded to kinaesthetic awareness passed, transformed, into the philosophy of Martin
Heidegger and of later phenomenologists concerned with Dasein
, the being that has as its being the understanding of itself as being. Being is ‘being-in-the-world’, and this is disclosed with being itself. As Heidegger wrote, using an expression redolent with reference to touch: ‘In anything ready-to-hand the world is already “there”.’16
Merleau-Ponty developed this way of thought in the language of phenomenological psychology, a psychology setting out to show analytically how knowledge of self and world, that is, knowledge of embodied self in the world, originates in the facts of embodiment. The body ‘is the horizon latent in all our experience and itself ever-present and anterior to every determining thought’.17
Hence all perception involves an ‘attitude’ of the body, knowledge of which is given by the position and movement of the body, which is always position and movement in relation to some thing. These kinds of arguments, in the language of phenomenology, very much continue to inform the writings of those, like
Sheets-Johnstone, who would find the base in awareness of movement or touch for a theory of knowledge that is also a theory of significance or meaning.
These philosophical discussions did not, and do not, describe a neutral, disinterested encounter of reflective subject ...