There’s a guy on youtube named Corey Anton, who is a Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University. He’s posted a ton of videos on a broad range of subjects, many philosophical. He’s one of those that comes up when you search on the usual suspect terms and I’ve had occasion to watch him from time to time. I find the videos hit or miss based on my mood and the topic, but he’s got over 12k subscribers, so he’s clearly speaking to an established audience.
I just checked out his one titled “Phenomenology of the Senses”: (video quality is a bit choppy)
It’s a short but interesting meditation on the way the individual senses give us information – in combination and separately. Anton chooses to focus on the spatio-temporal characteristics of different sense. At about 1:30 he says something I found particularly odd: touch has no possibilities. It is a sense of pure actuality. He claims that any notion of possibility in the sense of touch comes from our sense of sight – we see what we might touch, but touch itself is ‘blind’ to these possibilities. Touch requires presence.
This is a fascinating idea which I’m sure one of our readers will point out has been explored elsewhere (/bait). If Merleau-Ponty correctly supplemented Heidegger’s Analytic of Dasein by bringing to it a notion of ’embodiment’, then there is a sense in which phenomenology, as a methodology, should prioritize the sense of touch. We are much more intimately involved with our own bodies through our sense of touch than we are through sight, sound, taste or smell. Less intimate are taste and smell, followed by sight and sound.
If being is being embodied, embodiment prioritizes the sense of touch and touch is a sense of presence, then there is a neat connection between being and presence as articulated through the body. This might be sounding a bit ‘continental’ (to refer to another recent post) but think about it: our sense of touch – not just interacting with external objects, but how we physically “feel” – is so fundamental to our existence that it is practically forgotten. Until, that is, something doesn’t feel right. If you are lactose intolerant but can’t resist the cheesecake at that fancy restaurant, you know what I mean.
Pushing this a bit further, it makes the body sound like Heidegger’s das Zeug: something that has a being in-order-to. You notice when you don’t feel well or you break a bone, but when things are working, food is digesting, breathing is clear, no worries, right? Well, yes but that’s not all. Your sense of your body can be ecstatic, exhilarating, electric. Think about stretching, a belly laugh, a clean shave (face or legs), blushing at an admirers glance.
So the body doesn’t seem to be only a being in-order-to like some instrument or tool. We notice it not just when it’s sub-par, but when it’s super-par. The body, embodiment, is our primary way of being-in-the-world. Touch is the first sensation we have coming into life and likely the last. And yet we don’t acknowledge its importance. Philosophy has, historically, prioritized sight over touch. The primary metaphor of knowledge is ‘seeing’: illuminate the difference, shine some light on the subject, can’t you see what I mean?
And it’s not just Philosophy – I remember hearing/reading somewhere that once humans started to walk upright, the sense of sight developed more fully and became more important than smell and hearing. Certainly for interacting with the world external to the body, sight is more important for humans that touch. Think about how much technology and care goes into televisions vs. couches. And how much more importance and money we place on the former.
So Husserl and Sartre were still stuck on the metaphor of sight/knowledge and Heidegger couldn’t even find the words (or rather found a bunch of them but they didn’t stick). Maybe Merleau-Ponty was on to something fundamental, even if he didn’t cash it out this way. Touch and presence. There’s a nice connection to the some of the Eastern thought we’ve seen and will be looking at this coming year as well.