Sensing the World
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Sensing the World

An Anthropology of the Senses

David Le Breton

  1. 328 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Sensing the World

An Anthropology of the Senses

David Le Breton

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Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses is a highly original and comprehensive overview of the anthropology and sociology of the body and the senses. Discussing each sense in turn – seeing, hearing, touch, smell, and taste – Le Breton has written a truly monumental work, vast in scope and deeply engaging in style. Among other pioneering moves, he gives equal attention to light and darkness, sound and silence, and his disputation of taste explores aspects of disgust and revulsion. Part phenomenological, part historical, this is above all a cultural account of perception, which returns the body and the senses to the center of social life. Le Breton is the leading authority on the anthropology of the body and the senses in French academia. With a repute comparable to the late Pierre Bourdieu, his 30+ books have been translated into numerous languages. This is the first of his works to be made available in English. This sensuously nuanced translation of La Saveur du monde is accompanied by a spicy preface from series editor David Howes, who introduces Le Breton's work to an English-speaking audience and highlights its implications for the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and the cross-disciplinary field of sensory studies.

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Social Sciences

Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses

Now knowledge is conveyed through the senses; they are our Masters […] Knowledge begins by them, and can be reduced to them. After all, we would have no more knowledge than a stone if we did not know that there exist sound, smell, light, taste, measure, weight, softness, hardness, roughness, colour, sheen, breadth, depth […] Anyone who can force me to contradict the evidence of the senses has got me by the throat; he cannot make me retreat any further. The senses are the beginning and the end of human knowledge.

There Is No World without Sense

The perceptual world of the Aivilik in the singular environment of the Canadian Arctic is very different from that of Westerners. The view, in particular, has a distinct tone. To the untrained eye, the ice-field landscape appears infinitely monotonous, lacking any perspective or contour to focus on or situate the gaze, especially over the winter months. When the wind picks up or it starts to snow, spatial confusion is heightened by poor visibility. Edmund Carpenter observed that the Aivilik Inuit are perfectly capable of finding their way and orienting themselves, but he has never heard them refer to space in visual terms. They navigate without getting lost, even when visibility is reduced to zero. Carpenter recounts a series of experiences. On one extremely foggy day, for example, his companions
listened to the surf and to cries of birds nesting on promontories; they smelled the shore and surf; felt the wind and spray on their faces and “read,” through their buttocks, the wave patterns created by the interplay of wind and swell. Loss of sight was not a serious handicap. When they used their eyes, it was often with an acuity that amazed me. But they weren’t “lost” without them. (Carpenter 1973: 36)
The Aivilik make use of multiple senses to get around. They are never lost in spite of the sometimes rapid changes in atmospheric conditions. Sounds, smells, and the direction and force of the wind all provide precious information. They draw on numerous elements to orient themselves. Their references
are not actual objects or points, but relationships: relationships between, say, contour, type of snow, wind, salt air, ice crack. I can best explain this with an illustration: two hunters casually followed a trail which I simply could not see, even when I bent close to scrutinize it; they did not kneel to examine it, but stood back, examining it at a distance. (21)
A trail is made of diffused scents. It has a taste, a touch, and a smell. It calls attention to subtle signs that escape vision alone.
The Aivilik have a dozen terms for different types of wind and textures of snow and an extensive vocabulary for describing auditory and olfactory experience. Sight, for them, is a secondary sense for orientation. “A man in Anaktuvuk Pass, in response to a question about what he did when he visited a new place, said to me, ‘I listen.’ That’s all. I listen, he meant, to what the land is saying. I walk around in it and strain my senses in appreciation of it for a long time before I, myself, ever speak a word” (Lopez 1987: 230). In Aivilik cosmology, the world was created by sound. While the Westerner might say, “Let’s see what we can hear,” they would say, “Let’s hear what we can see” (Carpenter 1973: 33). They have a fluid concept of space that, unlike the enclosed, visual geography of the Westerner, is adaptable to the radical changes that the seasons bring, the prolonged nights and days, the endless expanse of snow and ice that erase every visual reference point. Spatial knowledge is synesthetic, always implicating the full range of sensory experience. In the Inuit tradition, animals and humans spoke the same language. Before the arrival of firearms, hunters had to demonstrate infinite patience when approaching their prey, identifying the sounds of their own movements to avoid making noise. A subtle “conversation” developed between the hunter and the animal, played out in a symbolic drama that bound them together.
Other communities of the Far North also place sound at the center of their cosmogony, evoking a “hearing” rather than a vision of the world. The Saami, for example, have the tradition of the joik (Beach 1988), sung descriptions of the earth and its inhabitants, evoking animals, birds, wind or land. These are not just songs, however, but celebrations of the close bond between humans and the world in all its forms. The joik, far from being a rehearsed performance, is an open environment that gives rise to new forms according to the circumstances and is performed using a handful of words or sometimes just sounds. For the Saami, the world does not come into being through sight alone but also through sound.

The Senses Are Good to Think

The human condition is corporeal. The world reveals itself only through our sensory perception. There is nothing in the mind that has not first passed through the senses. “My body is made of the same flesh as the world,” said Merleau-Ponty (1968: 248). Sensory perception physically plunges us into the world where, immersed in a world of significations, we are not limited but aroused by the senses. In a passage from The Dawn of Day, Nietzsche imagines that
certain organs could be so formed as to permit us to view entire solar systems as if they were contracted and brought close together like a single cell: and to beings of an inverse order a single cell of the human body could be made to appear in its construction, movement, and harmony as if it were a solar system in itself. (Nietzsche 1911: 107)
Further on, he observes that an individual’s relationship to his or her body is like that of a spider to its web:
My eye, he writes, whether it be keen or weak, can only see a certain distance, and it is within this space that I live and move: this horizon is my immediate fate, greater or lesser, from which I cannot escape. Thus, a concentric circle is drawn round every being, which has a center and is peculiar to himself. In the same way our ear encloses us in a small space, and so likewise does our touch. We measure the world by these horizons within which our senses confine each of us within prison walls. We say that this is near and that is far distant, that this is large and that is small, that one thing is hard and another soft. (106)
Nietzsche describes the individual as enclosed within the limits of the body and dependent upon it for all knowledge.
Yet the body is also our point of entry into the world. In experiencing oneself, one experiences the world unfolding. Sensing involves both moving through the world as a subject and receiving the profusion of sensations from outside. Physical experience, however, is only one aspect of sensory perception. The first frontier is not so much the flesh but rather that which culture makes of our embodied experience. It is not the body but rather a symbolic universe that intervenes between the individual and the world. Biology adapts to that which culture has equipped it for. If the body and the senses are the mediators of our relation to the world, it is only by means of the symbolic meanings that infuse them.
The body’s limits, like those of the human universe, are defined by the symbolic systems that ground our existence. Like language, the body is a measure of the world, a net thrown over the multitude of stimulations that assail us throughout the day and of which only the most significant are retained, prevented from slipping through the cracks. Individuals, through their bodies, continually interpret and respond to their environments according to inclinations interiorized through education and habit. Sensation is immediately submerged in perception, and knowledge arises between the two, reminding us that human beings are not just biological organisms but meaning-making creatures too. Seeing, hearing, tasting, touching or smelling are ways of thinking the world, filtered through the prism of a sensory organ and rendered communicable. This is not a matter of alertness or attention. Even the least lucid among us never ceases to filter the profusion of incoming stimulations.
Confronted with reality, the individual is never just an eye, an ear, a hand, a mouth or a nose but, rather, immersed in an activity of looking, listening, touching, tasting or smelling. Continually engaged in the sensory world, one is imbricated in a world of senses for which the environment is the pretext. Perception is not the imprint of an object on a passive sensory organ but the fruit of reflection, an activity of knowing diluted in the evidence of experience. We do not perceive reality but rather a world of meanings.
To simplify things, individual existence calls for a certain negligence with respect to the profusion of sensory stimuli. The senses avoid chaos. Indeed, perception is selective, the result of sorting through the endless flow of sensations that envelops us. It passes over that which is familiar and unremarkable. Perception is not attentive but, rather, absorbed in the evidence of experience. And while we may not always have precise names for our perceptions, we are aware, nonetheless, that others might. Where one person is content to see a “bird” or a “tree,” the connoisseur identifies a chickadee and its mating season, or a poplar tree. Categories are relatively open-ended. They generally encompass the objects or events we notice without having to make an extra effort of understanding.
This symbolic latitude and access to a sort of naked reality are the products of a mental attitude brought about by focused contemplation or lingering attention.
I never wholly live in varieties of human space, but am always ultimately rooted in a natural and non-human space. As I walk across the Place de la Concorde, and think of myself as totally caught up in the city of Paris, I can rest my eyes on one stone of the Tuileries wall, the Square disappears and then there is nothing but this stone entirely without history: I can, furthermore, allow my gaze to be absorbed by this yellowish, gritty surface, and then there is no longer even a stone there, but merely the play of light upon an indefinite substance. (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 293)
When perceptions become unreal, however, the world disappears.
Only that which has meaning, however minimal or basic, enters into the field of consciousness and rouses our attention. Yet reality sometimes slips through the seams of this symbolic fabric—certain unnamable visual, audible and other experiences are impossible to define in spite of our efforts. People are not always attentive, but experience shows that human beings are clearly capable of seeking out and recalling sounds, odors, tactile impressions, or images encountered in passing that might have initially gone unnoticed. In this way, the world reveals itself in sudden, countless concretions. We inhabit the time and space of our lives through our bodies and are most often unaware of it, for better or worse (Le Breton 1990). But there is no reality beyond the perceptible, because our being in the world is embodied, and thought is never just a product of the mind. Perception is the origin of meaning, while sensation is the fleeting yet ever-present ambiance that goes unnoticed until transformed into perception, that is to say, meaning. Perception is therefore the point of entry into knowledge and speech, if only, at times, to express perplexity before a mysterious sound or indefinable taste.
The body has a conceptual dimension, just as thought is rooted in the body. This fact of everyday experience undermines all forms of dualism. The body is “a project directed toward the world,” wrote Merleau-Ponty, observing that movement is already knowledge, practical sense. Perception, intention and movement intermingle in ordinary actions though a kind of evidence that cannot be separated from the education and familiarity that ground and guide experience. “My body,” he says, “is the fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument of my ‘comprehension’” (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 235). The body is not a passive substance, subjected to the control of the will by its own mechanisms. It is first and foremost a way of knowing, a living theory applied to its environment. This sensory knowledge enlists the body in our intentional engagement with the world, orienting movements or actions without requiring lengthy prior reflection. Hundreds of scattered perceptions occur throughout the day without recourse to the in-depth mediation of the cogito. They unfold naturally as the evidence of our relation to the world. Under normal circumstances, the flow of experience is rarely interrupted or uncertain. We navigate the sensory twists and turns of our familiar environments with ease.
Sensory perceptions make sense, encompass a world of familiar references, insofar as they coincide with a unique individual’s way of organizing categories of thought based on what he or she has learned from peers, travel, acquaintances or interests, or from his or her particular skills as a cook, a painter, a perfume maker, a weaver, etc. Anything that eludes habitual decoding of sensory experience is met with indifference or a shrug. When taken by surprise, we confront the unfamiliar by seeking resemblances, by trying to identify unusual smells or sounds, for example, that have caught our attention.
To perceive is to take symbolic possession of the world, to decipher it in a way that situates us in a position of understanding. Meaning is not contained in things like a hidden treasure. It arises in the relation between the individual and the world and in the intricate debate with others, consenting or not, about the correct ways of categorizing and defining things. Sensing the world is another way of thinking the world, of transforming the tangible into the intelligible. The perceptible world is the social, cultural, and personal translation of a reality that would be otherwise inaccessible, if not for this detour through the sensory perception of a socially situated individual. It reveals itself to us as an endless possibility of meanings and flavors.

Language and Sensory Perception

Like language, the body is a constant purveyor of meanings. Confronted with the same reality, individuals whose bodily experience is steeped in different cultures and histories do not experience the same sensations or interpret the same sensory input: they are sensitive to information that they recognize and relate to their own systems of reference. Their sensory perceptions and world views are dependent on acquired symbol systems. Like language, the body projects a filter onto the environment, embodies a semiotic system. Perception is not reality but a way of sensing reality.
To decipher our surroundings, we possess a range of senses that vary in quality and intensity and register our perceptions. In order to share our experience with others, we rely on the mediation of language or on gestures or actions that have established connotations. There is a subtle dialectical interplay between language and perception. From one second to the next, the role of language is probably decisive. Words crystallize perception, invoke it. They are not labels attached to a myriad of ...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Series Page
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Contents
  7. Preface: David Le Breton and the Sociality of Sensation
  8. Introduction
  9. 1 Sensing the World: An Anthropology of the Senses
  10. 2 From Seeing to Knowing: Sight, the Projective Sense
  11. 3 Listening to the World: Hearing, the Sense of Understanding
  12. 4 Skin Deep: Touch, the Sense of Contact
  13. 5 Scents of Self and Other: Smell, the Sense of Transition
  14. 6 Savoring the World: From Taste in Food to the Taste for Life
  15. 7 The Cuisine of Disgust
  16. Overture
  17. Notes
  18. References
  19. Index
Estilos de citas para Sensing the World

APA 6 Citation

Breton, D. L. (2020). Sensing the World (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)

Chicago Citation

Breton, David Le. (2020) 2020. Sensing the World. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Breton, D. L. (2020) Sensing the World. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Breton, David Le. Sensing the World. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.