The human touch

forum45200Unless we have an extremely rare neurological condition, touch is present within every single interaction with objects in the world, and a considerable amount of interaction with people. The submissive position it is accorded perhaps mirrors the dismissive attitude we accord to touch in everyday experience: so obvious as to be meaningless, with seemingly little need for interpretation. Yet the long history of the relationship between vision and touch in science and philosophy indicates a more complexly experienced and articulated world. In striving for verification, do we reach out to touch something to feel its truth, or do we believe our eyes? And in the notoriously visual culture in which we live, what is the place of touch?

Like much of philosophy, what is closest or most obvious to us is revealed to be most distant. Or, as Heidegger once asked in The Essence of Truth: “How is it that the apparently self-evident turns out, upon closer examination, to be understood least? Answer: because it is too close to us and because we proceed in this way with everything close.” Not only the banal, everyday nature of touch but also its transience and deeply subjective nature, are all potential factors that make it unattractive for philosophers to consider seriously. There are no treatises on tactility, and few works praising the hand as opposed to the eye.

Nevertheless, the history of western philosophy is peppered with references to touch and tactility, even if primarily in relation to vision and the eye. In such works as Descartes’ Dioptrique (Optics, 1637) and Berkeley’s Essay Towards A New Theory of Vision (1709), touch is discussed only in relation to vision. Descartes unequivocally declares, “sight is the most comprehensive and the noblest” of the senses. Furthermore, the legacy of Platonic thought is characterised by an extreme aversion to, and suspicion of, touch and tactile properties.

Despite an inauspicious start in classical Greek scholarship and subsequently in the Renaissance, however, the story of touch becomes progressively richer as we reach the Enlightenment. For it was Denis Diderot, one of the founders of the original Encyclopaedia with Jean d’Alembert, who said in his Letter on the Blind (1749), “And I found that of all the senses the eye was the most superficial, the ear the most haughty, smell the most voluptuous, taste the most superstitious and inconstant, touch the most profound and philosophical.”

Some twentieth century European philosophy has engaged more directly with the possibilities and contingencies of touch as an alternative way of thinking about subjectivity, ethics and the question of the Other. Such figures include Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Luce Irigaray, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Luc Nancy.

If history has been largely dismissive to the place of touch in philosophy, there is another ancient idea of the primacy of touch. Touch is, indeed, the first sense to develop in the human embryo, as Ashley Montagu’s Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin shows. Due to this very primordiality, touch sometimes functions as a model for all the senses, becoming the first sense prior to the differentiation into other senses like sight, smell and taste.

This tradition, spanning from Ancient Greek philosophy to recent folklore, classifies all senses as variations of touch. In De Sensu et Sensibilibus (On the Senses and Sensibilities) Aristotle reports the Atomist philosopher Democritus and his followers sharing this view, as “they represent all objects of sense as objects of touch”, and so “it clearly follows that each of the other senses is a mode of touch.” Aristotle himself hastily dismisses this treatment of sense perception as irrational, conceding only that taste and touch are related as they share the necessity for contact. Yet touch as a universal sensory model persists in some popular conceptions and folk knowledges. The primacy of touch and the celebration of the ambiguities of touching and feeling are also present in the work of more contemporary feminist philosophical figures such as Luce Irigaray and Edith Wyschogrod, as we shall see.

From Plato onwards, our enduring cultural assumption, compounded in later philosophy, is of the primacy not of touch but of vision. The famous division of the senses into five distinct ones occurs in Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul). He conceives it as a hierarchy, sight being the superior sense while touch is relegated to the lowest, basest position. In fact Aristotle reserves contempt for the “bestial” pleasures of taste but especially for erotic touch in his Ethics. This formal model of the five senses, as well as the value system behind its hierarchy that prioritises sight but is dismissive of touch, has clearly endured for millennia.

Doubting Thomas, embedded in the Christian heritage, is so-called for not believing what he saw, having to physically touch Christ’s wounds to ensure certainty. The popular expression “seeing is believing, but feeling’s the truth” reflects this. Our historical and philosophical legacy has favoured one side of the equation, and “seeing is believing” is the most remembered and rehearsed part of the phrase. At least in Western industrialised cultures, such attitudes maintain the sensory stereotype whereby vision is predominant, is distanced and even deceitful, whereas touch seems more intimate, reassuring and proximal. As in Doubting Thomas, touch is associated with verification, the connotations of tangibility being solid, foundational and undeceiving. And, as in Aristotle, touch in its immediacy is base or bestial.

Elsewhere, in De Anima, Aristotle does celebrate the aesthetic pleasures that touch affords, decoupling valid sensory pleasure from more bestial or carnal appetites. This is the case only for humans, who have the most finely discriminating powers of touch in the animal kingdom, and he sees this discriminatory power as indicative of superior intelligence. Thus, exploring the fine textures of a dress or a beautiful sculpture would show more discrimination and intelligence than, well, “copping a feel”.

Likewise, the philosopher Ficino, one of the major figures of the early Renaissance, followed his Greek classical forebears in equating touch with the baser, more carnal forms of love, and contrasted it with the “higher” or spiritual love associated with vision. His Platonica Theologica, like the work of Aristotle, acknowledged that touch was the “universal sense” in both animals and humans, and binds us to the animal world. For a religious man at the heart of the Renaissance’s celebration of all that is divine, raising our heads and opening up our eyes towards God, touch was the inevitable reminder of our lowly, animal origins and was therefore cast very negatively. If touch decidedly binds us to the animal world, it is the intellect that separates us from animals and allows us to contemplate the divine. It is no wonder, then, that in his Three Books on Life, written between 1480-1489, he declares: “Nature has placed no sense farther from the intelligence than touch.”

It is remarkable how powerfully this position is maintained, the exact reversal of Diderot’s view of touch three hundred years later. Ficino inherited the Greek unequivocal attitude towards touch with good reason. Not only was he a Neoplatonist, he was in fact the first translator of Plato into Latin and responsible for the Renaissance revival of Platonism. For Ficino, as for Aristotle, tactile properties are obvious, simple properties. “Of all the powers of the soul which are concerned with knowing,” he says in his Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, “the highest are intellect and reason, and the lowest are taste and touch. The last two for the most part lead down to bodily nature, while the first two lead up to divine substance, which is not of the body.”

A significant philosophical development occurs towards the end of the seventeenth century in thinking about the relationship between vision and touch. This concerned the case of blindness. Descartes had considered how the blind might use their eyes and hands in his Dioptrique, where he rather dismissively analogised the experience of the blind, saying “one might say that they see with their hands.” But a more considered treatment of space and touch in the congenitally blind was raised by Irish philosopher and scientist William Molyneux in a letter to John Locke, after the publication of the first edition of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690. Subsequently a whole host of philosophers including Berkeley, Diderot, Condillac and Voltaire became involved in a debate on the philosophy of blindness.

The letter was reprinted in later editions of Locke’s work, and became known as “Molyneux’s question”. It concerned the hypothetical case of a man born blind who could now see, at a time before cataract operations could answer this definitively. The question can be paraphrased like this: If a man, blind from birth, had an operation and suddenly gained his vision, could he tell a sphere from a cube by sight alone on the basis of a lifetime of solely tactile experience?

The answer reveals a huge amount about the relationship between the role of learnt experience and what is innate in our perception of the world. Remembering that the question was formulated before cataract operations had been performed successfully, the theoretical content of the question is really asking whether there is translation from one sensory system (touch) to another (sight), or whether it must be learned through repeated experience. Being an empiricist, Locke could allow nothing innate, nothing outside of the immediacy of experience, and therefore sided with the incompatibility of the sensory systems. There followed much discussion and disagreement. Indeed, Berkeley’s aim in his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision was “to show the manner wherein we perceive the distance magnitude and situation of objects”, but as a significant correlate to this aim also “to consider the difference there is betwixt the ideas of sight and touch, whether there be any idea common to both senses.”

Molyneux’s question and the issue of the specificity of the senses, especially touch and vision, is important for later theories of psychology, philosophy of mind, and in particular the issue of how blind people conceive of space. In fact, the Molyneux problem was regarded by the great historical philosopher Ernst Cassirer in The Problem of Knowledge (1951) as the central question of eighteenth century epistemology and psychology. For the empirical psychologist Von Senden in his book Space and Sight of 1932 for example, what was felt by touch would produce a separate series of sensory impressions from what was seen. And more recently, the contemporary philosopher Shaun Gallagher in his How the Body Shapes the Mind follows this question through psychological experiments with young children to find that, to this day, the answer is not as straightforward as you might think.

The debates that ensued from Molyneux’s question were undeniably fruitful, and certainly in Diderot’s famous essay “Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See”, the ability to seek evidence from actual blind people about touch and their imaginations of sight was a remarkable idea. Instead of endlessly hypothesising, Diderot went to a local village and asked a blind resident detailed questions, finding empirical evidence to resolve some of the troublesome questions that Molyneux and other philosophers had raised.

Centuries later, Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (1945), a sustained exploration of embodied consciousness, engages explicitly with the tactile and its relations to the other senses. He even declares “synaesthetic perception is the rule.” He speaks of the “tactile within the visible” in his later book The Visible and the Invisible. We can only truly talk about embodied perception if we acknowledge that touch is already there in the visible world, and that it establishes a reciprocal relation between an external world and our embodied consciousness; in other words, that there is something mutual between the toucher and the touched, that the toucher and the touched help constitute themselves as toucher, as touched. The paradigmatic case of the “tactile within the visible” is where Merleau-Ponty explains this co-constitution of toucher and touched through the emblematic example of one hand touching another hand:

“This can only happen if my hand, while it is felt from within, is also accessible from without, itself tangible, for my other hand, for example, if it takes its place among the things it touches, is in a sense one of them, opens finally upon a tangible being of which it is also a part. Through this criss-crossing within it of the touching and the tangible, its own movements incorporate themselves into the universe they interrogate, are recorded on the same map as it; the two systems are applied upon one another, as the two halves of an orange.”

Similarly, something of the primordial and maternal nature of touch, that of a mother and baby, or the reassuring carnality between lovers, is spoken of enigmatically by Luce Irigaray in her book An Ethics of Sexual Difference. She also hints at an ambiguity of touch, the same ambiguity of the physical act of touching and the emotion of being touched. Irigaray probes this ambiguity in a way consistent with considerations of the primacy of touch, of infant development, of interiority and exteriority, and of maternal, nurturing generosity: “Before orality comes to be, touch is already in existence,” she says. Reminiscent of the earlier discussion of the primacy of touch, for her there is something unique and subtle about touch that underlies all other perceptions, that helps to constitute an “inside” of the body and subjectivity as against an “outside”, and that continually, comfortingly affirms the tactility of flesh. This she does in a metaphor of her own that directly speaks to Merleau-Ponty’s example of the two hands touching. Instead, Irigaray suggests the lips are a better example of touching while being touched, simultaneously aware of each lip’s pressure while being a point of passage between inside and outside. From Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of hands touching each other, and Irigaray’s of lips, it is clear that we have proceeded into much more metaphorical territory.

Final mention must be made of the work of philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas. It follows the path we have taken from the immediacy of touch to a far more metaphorical notion of touching, a way of thinking fruitfully about intersubjectivity, about relations with others. Levinas’ concept of the “caress” is explained in Time and the Other (1987): “What is caressed is not touched, properly speaking.” Admittedly concerned with eroticism and sensibility, it is more about an orientation to an “other” subject in general than the straightforward sensation of touch. Rather than be limited, constrained, captured by lust or need for example, the caress allows a more ethical sensibility, letting the other be. There is something transcendent yet respectful about this, what he elsewhere describes as “a phenomenology of eros.”

The dictum of the Scholastic philosophers is relevant to thinking about the centrality of sensory experience: “There is nothing in the intellect that is not first present in the senses,” usually attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. The lowly position of touch in the hierarchy belies its complex constitution, being a sense that corresponds to no single organ. Physiologically, touch is a sense resulting from the combined information of innumerable receptors and nerve endings concerned with pressure, temperature, pain and movement. But there is more to touch. It is a sense of communication. It is receptive, expressive, can communicate empathy. It can bring distant objects and people into proximity. It is a carnal world, with its pleasures of feeling and being felt, of tasting and touching the textures of flesh and of food. And equally it is a profound world of philosophical verification, of the communication of presence and empathy with others, of the mutual implication or folding of body, flesh and world. That tension between the everyday immediacy of skin contact and the philosophical profundity of touch, between “immediate” and “deep” metaphorical touching, has been a continual presence within the philosophical senses of touch discussed.

Mark Paterson is lecturer in human geography at the University of Exeter and author of The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies (Berg)

  1. While reading your essay I was reminded of one of the most sensual pieces I had ever read, and it was about touching. It’s from Melville’s “Moby Dick” chapter 94. I’ve shortened it considerably in case anyone is interested in reading it:
    CHAPTER 94. A Squeeze of the Hand.
    . . . It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several
    others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found
    it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the
    liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid.
    A sweet and unctuous duty! No wonder that in old times this sperm was
    such a favourite cosmetic. After having my hands in it for
    only a few minutes, my fingers felt like eels, and began, as it were, to
    serpentine and spiralise.

    as I bathed my hands among
    those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within
    the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their
    opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible
    sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from
    all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

    Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm
    till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a
    strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly
    squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the
    gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving
    feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually
    squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as
    much as to say,–Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish
    any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come;
    let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into
    each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and
    sperm of kindness.

  2. kristine thoreson

    Where is the bibliography for this essay? I would love to read further yet there are no sources posted, that I can see.


  3. Thanks for those comments. That’s a great passage from Moby Dick.

    As for the references, they’re printed in the full version of the article in the magazine.

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