4EA

I am not sure what to make of this issue.

4EA is the initialism used for a catch phrase now commonly deployed in contemporary neuroscience and philosophy of mind research to characterise cognition: “Embodied, Embedded, Enacted, Extended, Affective”. I think it first began as 4E, then someone thought “hang on, what about the emotions?” and added the “A”.

The following is a mash-up of some definitions I found here (from a blurb for the book “The New Science of the Mind” by M Rowlands) and here (from Gary Williams’ blog “Minds and Brains”):

  1. Embodied means “partly made up of extra-neural bodily structures and processes”; emphasises the lived body as the starting point for philosophical investigation of cognition
  2. Embedded means “designed to function in tandem with the environment”; refers to the fact that the neural system is embedded or nested within a organized body and environment and cannot be analyzed independent of its behavior within both a physical environment and a social-cultural milieu
  3. Enacted means “constituted in part by action”; refers to the way in which action-control is not a matter of sensing-modeling-planning-acting, but rather, regulating the  intrinsic behavioral dynamics of autopoiesis (emergent self-organization) so as to effectively utilize resources in the environment
  4. Extended means “located in the environment”; refers to how the cognitive system actively offloads tasks onto external environmental props so as to free up limited cognitive resources (e.g. using a notepad as external memory storage).
  5. Affective refers to how the intrinsic behavioral dynamics of emergent self-organization are driven by an emotional attunement or affectivity that valences stimuli in terms of meaningful salience thresholds e.g. good/bad, inviting/threatening, etc. Such affectivity is grounded by what Damasio calls “background feelings” and what Ratcliffe calls “feelings of being-in-the-world” or “ways of finding oneself”.

The 4EA paradigm appears to be a snappy encapsulation of the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (sharply distinct from the earlier traditions of Descartes and Kant), for whom consciousness and the senses are always “in the world”, actively exploring and participating, rather than being merely passive and aloof spectators. Since awakening from my Cartesian/Kantian slumber after reading M-P’s “Phenomenology of Perception”, I have no problem with the first 3 “E”s (and the “A”).

However, I am a bit ambivalent about the 4th “E” (Extended), though I am having trouble pinpointing the exact source of my unease.

The Extended Mind thesis or the “Hypothesis of Extended Cognition” (HEC) has been the source of much debate in recent years, in scholarly philosophical works as well as more popular accounts. For the case for HEC see, for example:

  1. The seminal paper by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, the Extended Mind
  2. The book by Andy Clark, “Supersizing The Mind”, which is reviewed here
  3. The paper by Andy Clark, Re-Inventing Ourselves: The Plasticity of Embodiment, Sensing, and Mind
  4. The book, “Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noë, reviewed here

For the case against (or at least not quite as enthusiastically in favour) see:

  1. A review of the book Bounds of Cognition by Frederick Adams and Kenneth Aizawa; and
  2. this modest proposal by Lynne Rudder Baker

My lack of enthusiasm for HEC cannot be because I feel the mind must be only “in the head”. In my view, mind (or “cognition”) is not physical and cannot be spatially located anywhere, so I feel no reason to deny that cognition can sometimes “leak” out into the environment (for example by utilising external props such as notebooks). And my disquiet is not because I insist that consciousness and thought must be purely biological entities, strictly connected with living tissue. I am quite open to the idea that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of complex physical systems, whether “living” or not. After all, since living and non-living things are both ultimately composed of the same “stuff” (molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles and forces), why not? I came to this view even before I learned about the experiment with a spiny lobster, in which one of the lobster’s brain neurons (which had been damaged, preventing it from carrying out the creature’s natural rhythmic chewing function) was replaced by a (non-biological) silicon chip, restoring normal functionality. I realise that is a long way from replicating a human brain with non-living hardware, but still…

What am I missing?

Although I realise that analogies can sometimes be misleading (although seductive) if pushed too far, I cannot help but think about the question of the body and what constitutes it. If I have a transplanted kidney or liver is it truly part of “my” body? What about a synthetic heart valve? What about a heart-lung or dialysis machine for the period of time they are operating? What about an artificial limb? A cochlear implant? A pair of spectacles, a walking cane? What about a wheelchair? See here for a phenomenological-style account of a wheelchair user’s point of view about the wheelchair coming to be seen as a body part, and how offence can be taken when others touch it without permission or otherwise treat it as an “object”. If I can concede that a person can reconstitute their body schema to incorporate a wheelchair, why should I be so precious as to resist the idea that a notebook (or a computer or the internet) can constitute part of my mind? For studies of how the brain can be rewired through experience to encorporate new body schemas see here for a fascinating account of tool use by macaque monkeys and the Rubber Hand illusion.

If Daniel Dennett’s suggestion that the self is an illusion and that we are all zombies wasn’t enough, the HEC proponents seem to be suggesting we are all cyborgs!

Feedback welcome, as always…

Now for a poem: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace by Richard Brautigan

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I’d like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Richard Brautigan

Reprinted in The Pill versus The Springhill Mine
Disaster, copyright 1968 by Richard Brautigan.
Posted in Philosophy, The Body, The Mind | Leave a comment

Yet more poetry

In literature, Stream of Consciousness refers to a “narrative mode that seeks to portray an individual’s point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character’s thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue, or in connection to his or her actions.”

On the other hand, Concrete Poetry is “poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on”.

A recent book, Every Day in the Morning (Slow) by Adam Seelig seems to combine both. Here is a review. and here is another.

For a paper on a pioneer of Concrete Poetry (bpNichol) and that poetry form’s relation to embodied consciousness, the paper “The Materiality of Cognition: Concrete Poetry and the Embodied Mind” may be helpful.

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Some more poems

Here are three more poems. They may (or may not) have something do with embodied consciousness or conscious embodiment. You be the judge. (Do I have to do all the work around here?).

A Day at the Gate

A loose and dispiriting
wind took over from the grinding of traffic.
Clouds from the distillery
blotted out the sky. Ocarina sales plummeted.

Believe you me it was a situation
Aladdin’s lamp might have ameliorated. And where was I?
Among architecture, magazines, recycled fish,
waiting for the wear and tear
to show up on my chart. Good luck,

bonne chance. Remember me to the zithers
and their friends, the ondes martenot.
Only I say: What comes this way withers
automatically. And the fog, drastically.

As one mercurial teardrop glozes
an empire’s classified documents, so
other softnesses decline the angles
of the waiting. Tall, pissed-off,
dressed in this day’s clothes,
holding its umbrella, he half turned away
with a shooshing sound. Said he needed us.
Said the sky shall be kelly green tonight.

John Ashbery

In the waiting room

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
–”Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities–
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts–
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How–I didn’t know any
word for it–how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

Elizabeth Bishop

Personal Helicon

for Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Seamus Heaney

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Some poems (if you want to call them that)

The Meaning of Existence

Everything except language
knows the meaning of existence.
Trees, planets, rivers, time
know nothing else. They express it
moment by moment as the universe.
Even this fool of a body
lives it in part, and would
have full dignity within it
but for the ignorant freedom
of my talking mind.

Les Murray, Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002

the internal nothingness
of my self

which is night,
nothingness,
thoughtlessness,

but which is explosive affirmation
that there is
something
to make room for:

my body.

And truly
must it be reduced to this stinking gas,
my body?
To say that I have a body
because I have a stinking gas
that forms
inside me?

I do not know
but
I do know that

space,
time,
dimension,
becoming,
future,
destiny,
being,
non-being,
self,
non-self,

are nothing to me;

but there is a thing
which is something,
only one thing
which is something,
and which I feel
because it wants
TO GET OUT:
the presence
of my bodily
suffering,

the menacing,
never tiring
presence
of my
body;

Antonin Artaud, excerpt from “To have done with the Judgement of God, a radio play” (1947)

To be in any form, what is that?
(Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither,)
If nothing lay more develop’d the quahaug in its callous shell were enough
Mine is no callous shell
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to someone else’s is about as much as I can stand.

Walt Whitman, excerpt from “Song of Myself”, in “Leaves of Grass”

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Proprioception

Proprioception can be defined as “perception of the body, its parts in relation to its whole, and its placement in space” or “one’s own-ception”. It could be considered the true “sixth sense”. Proprioception was also a favourite term of poet Charles Olson.

Proprioception
Physiology: the surface (senses—the ‘skin’: of ‘Human
Universe’) the body itself—proper—one’s own
‘corpus’: PROPRIOCEPTION the cavity of the body,
in which the organs are slung: the viscera, or
interoceptive, the old ‘psychology’ of feeling,
the heart; of desire, the liver; of sympathy, the
‘bowels’; of courage—the kidney etc—gall,
(Stasis—or as in Chaucer only, spoofed)
Today: movement, at any cost. Kinesthesia: beat (nik)
the sense whose end organs lie in the muscles,
tendons, joints, and are stimulated by bodily
tensions (—or relaxations of same). Violence:
knives/anything, to get the body in.
To which
PROPRIOCEPTION: the data of depth sensibility/the ‘body’ of us as
object which spontaneously or of its own order
produces experience of, ‘depth’ Viz
SENSIBILITY WITHIN THE ORGANISM
BY MOVEMENT OF ITS OWN TISSUES
‘Psychology’: the surface: consciousness as ego and thus no flow
because the ‘senses’ of same are all that sd contact
area is valuable for, to report in to central. In-
THE WORKING spection, followed hard on heels by, judgment
‘OUT’ OF (judicium, dotha: cry, if you must/all feeling may
‘PROJECTION’ flow, is all which can count, at sd point. Direction
outward is sorrow, or joy. Or participation: active
social life, like, for no other reason than that—
social life, in the present. Wash the ego out, in its
own ‘bath’ (os)
The ‘cavity’/cave: probably the ‘Unconscious’? That
is, the interior empty place filled with ‘organs’? for
‘functions’?
The advantage is to ‘place’ the thing, instead of
it wallowing around sort of outside, in the
THE ‘PLACE’ universe, like, when the experience of it is intero-
OF THE ceptive: it is inside us/& at the same time does
‘UNCONSCIOUS’ not feel literally identical with our own physical or
mortal self (the part that can die). In this sense
likewise the heart, etc, the small intestine etc, are
or can be felt as—and literally they can be—
transferred. Or substituted for. Etc. The organs.—
Probably also why the old psychology was chiefly
visceral; neither dream, nor the unconscious, was
then known as such. Or allowably inside, like.
‘ACTION’—OR, AGAIN, ‘MOVEMENT’
This ‘demonstration’ then leads to the same third,
or corpus, thing or ‘place,’ the
proprious-ception
‘one’s own’-ception
the ‘body’ itself as, by movement of its own tis-
sues, giving the data of, depth. Here, then, wld be
the soul is what is left out? Or what is psysiologically even
proprioceptive the ‘hard’ (solid, palpable), that one’s life is
informed from and by one’s owl literal body—
as well, that is, as the whole inner mechanism,
which keeps us so damn busy (like eating, sleeping,
urinating, dying there, by deterioration of sd
‘functions’ of sd ‘organs’)—that this mid-thing
between, which is what gets ‘buried,’ like, the
flesh? bones, muscles, ligaments, etc., what one
uses, literally, to get about etc
that this is ‘central,’ that is—in
this 1/2 of the picture—what they call the SOUL,
the intermediary, the intervening thing, the inter-
ruptor, the resistor. The self.
The gain: to have a third term, so that movement or actionis ‘home.’ Neither the Unconscious nor Projection
(here used to remove the false opposition of
‘Conscious’; ‘consciousness’ is self) have a home
unless the DEPTH implicit in physical being—
built-in space-time specifics, and moving (by
movement of ‘its own’) —is asserted, or found-
out as such. Thus the advantage of the value
‘proprioception.’ As such.
The ‘soul’ then is equally ‘physical.’ Is the self.
its own Is such, ‘corpus.’ Or—to levy the gain psychology
perception from 1900, or 1885, did supply until it didn’t
(date? 1948?)—the three terms wld be:
surface (senses) projection
cavity (organs—here read ‘archtypes’)
unconscious the body itself—consciousness:
implicit accuracy, from its own energy as a state of
implicit motion.
identity, therefore (the universe is one) is supplied; and the
abstract-primitive character of the real (asserted)
is ‘placed’: projection is discrimination (of the
object from the subject) and the unconscious is the
universe flowing-in, inside.
(Charles Olson, 1965)

Caveat: no guarantee the line layout matches the original City Light Books publication.

An essay on proprioception by Charles Wolf can be found here. Some quotes:

  1. Here, the word ‘proprioception’ will serve as a short-hand designation for the priority of dynamic embodied activity over isolated ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ regions. Rather than asking “How can a brain accomplish reasoning?”, the question becomes “How can a brain have experiences?”, that is, “What is it like for a brain to be embodied?”.
  2. The body which I experience is always my body, regardless of prostheses, hallucinations, etc.; experience is always my experience. In proprioception, I have an inner sense of how the various parts of my body ‘communicate’ among one other (cf. neurological interest in “body images,” the well-known phenomenon of ‘phantom limbs’, etc.), but also a projection towards the physical world around me, all at once.
  3. To understand what it means to think, to compute information, to have a trillion neurons firing in my brain, to have consciousness either at a 40 Hz frequency (F. Crick) or at the quantum level (Penrose), one must really understand this: it’s all about bodily sensation.

In the last few years, neuroscientists have been investigating proprioception and the sense of “body ownership”.

“Recent studies have shown that recognizing our own bodies depends upon integrated information from the senses of vision, touch and proprioception (the sense of how our bodies are positioned in space). These cues can easily be manipulated, leading to an altered sense of body ownership.” See here for a description of the original study from the University of London, which is published here.

In another study, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden claim to have induced a “body swap” illusion, whereby subjects perceived the body of another person as belonging to themselves. An account of this experiment is here. The original research article is here.

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Touchy-feely

The sense of touch is the most bodily, immediate and grounded of the senses. The common prejudice that sight is the pre-eminent sense, and touch the most lowly, has a long tradition (see “Early modern epistemologies of the senses: from the nobility of sight to the materialism of touch”) here for a brief review of the philosophy of the senses from Plato and Aristotle on.

This tradition of privileging the sense of sight was subverted by Descartes, with his epistemological scepticism:

“Touch, the sense par excellence of contact, becomes for Descartes the irrevocable symbol of a critique of Aristotelian empiricism. By revealing the poverty of sensation, touch initiates us to a new cognitive humility, toppling the hubris of sight by placing it on a par with blindness. Far from being maimed in his intelligence, the blind man emerges with the dawn of scientificity as the philosophical seer par excellence. Unlike the sighted, the blind man is not naively dazzled by the cosmic spectacle—but escapes, so to speak, from the dark spell of the visible. The blind man is the one among us of who is least deluded by the phenomenality of the world. If we had to venture an Aristo­telian counterpart to Descartes’ ‘Cogito, ergo sum,’ we would say without hesitation: ‘Sedeo, ergo sum’: I am sitting, therefore I am.”

Zur, O. and Nordmarken, N. (2010). To Touch Or Not To Touch: Exploring the Myth of Prohibition On Touch In Psychotherapy And Counseling.

http://www.zurinstitute.com/touchintherapy.html.

Denis Diderot recorded the blind mathematician Saunderson saying on his death bed, “If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him” (Letter about the Blind, 1743). This may have been an allusion to the “Doubting Thomas” Biblical account of Thomas the Apostle, a disciple of Jesus who doubted Jesus’ resurrection and demanded to feel Jesus’ wounds before being convinced (John 20:24-29), as portrayed in the Carravaggio painting “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1601-1602).

Another quote from Zur and Nordmarken:

In his seminal work, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, Ashley Montagu (1971) brings together a vast array of studies shedding light on the role of skin and physical touch in human development. He goes on to illuminate how the sensory system, the skin, is the most important organ system of the body, because unlike other senses, a human being cannot survive without the physical and behavioral functions performed by the skin. “Among all the senses,” Montagu states, “touch stands paramount” (1986, p. 17). Touch is often referred to as the “mother of all senses” as it is the first sense to develop in the embryo (Montagu, 1971), and all other senses-sight, sound, taste, and smell are derived from it. Within three weeks of conception, we have developed a primitive nervous system which links skin cells to our rudimentary brain. ‘The tactile system is the earliest sensory system to become functional (in the embryo) and may be the last to fade’ (Fosshage, 2000).”

Zur and Nordmarken again: 

Touch has a high degree of cultural relativity. Thus, the meaning of touch can only be understood in its cultural context (Halbrook & Duplechin, 1994; Phalan, 2009). Montagu (1971) brought together emergent studies related to the function of skin and touch in the role of human development in his seminal work, Touching: The Human Significance of Skin. Among other things, Montagu observed cultural attitudes towards touch by developing a continuum of tactility. People of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon origin were placed on the low end of the continuum. Americans ranked only slightly higher than their English ancestors, while Scandinavians occupied the middle position. People of Latin, Mediterranean, and Third World ancestry were placed at the high end. This is further substantiated in studies done by Argile (1988), Mehrabian, (1971) and Scheflen (1972). In a study done by Jourard (1966), people from different cultures were observed in casual conversation. He counted the number of times they touched during a one-hour period. Touching occurred 180 times an hour in Puerto Rico, 110 times in Paris, in London, 0; and in the U.S., 2.

Research has demonstrated that Touch influences social judgements and decisions e.g. Incidental haptic sensations influence social judgments and decisions by Joshua M. Ackerman, Christopher C. Nocera znd John A. Bargh (Science 25 June 2010: Vol. 328 no. 5986 pp. 1712-1715). The abstract is here:

Touch is both the first sense to develop and a critical means of information acquisition and environmental manipulation. Physical touch experiences may create an ontological scaffold for the development of intrapersonal and interpersonal conceptual and metaphorical knowledge, as well as a springboard for the application of this knowledge. In six experiments, holding heavy or light clipboards, solving rough or smooth puzzles, and touching hard or soft objects nonconsciously influenced impressions and decisions formed about unrelated people and situations. Among other effects, heavy objects made job candidates appear more important, rough objects made social interactions appear more difficult, and hard objects increased rigidity in negotiations. Basic tactile sensations are thus shown to influence higher social cognitive processing in dimension-specific and metaphor-specific ways.

The World of Blind Mathematicians outlines the surprising (for sighted people) aptitude and facility many blind people have for higher mathematics. There have been a number of famous blind mathematicians in history, including Leonard Euler (1707–1783) who was blind for the last seventeen years of his life. Euler produced around 850 works, half of his output coming after his blindness. The English mathematician Nicholas Saunderson (1682–1739) went blind in his first year due to smallpox. He developed a method for performing aritmetic and algebraic calculations, which he called “palpable arithmetic”. The French mathematician Louis Antoine lost his sight in the First World War at the age of twenty-nine. Antoine worked in the field of topology and came up with the first “wild embedding” of a set in 3-space (now known as Antoine’s necklace). This result spurred J.W.Alexander into discovering “Alexander’s horned sphere”, a counterexample for 3-space to the theorem for 2-space which shows that any closed loop divides space cleanly into an “inside” and “outside” analogous to the inside and outside of a circle. Bernard Morin is another blind French topologist who was a member of the group that first exhibited an eversion of the sphere, i.e. a homotopy (topological metamorphosis) which starts with a sphere and ends with the same sphere but turned inside-out. He also discovered the Morin surface, which is a half-way model for the sphere eversion, and used it to prove a lower bound on the number of steps needed to turn a sphere inside out. A video of a sphere eversion is here.

The phrase “touchy-feely” is a good example of the low regard in which the sense of touch is held, as it is almost always used pejoratively, conflating tactile with emotional (bad) and counterposing it to rational (good).

As for poetry, it should be mentioned that Australia’s eminent poet Les Murray’s verse novel Fredy Neptune is about a man who loses his sense of touch. Robert Savage from Monash University says in Erocide Is Painless. Insensation In Les Murray’s ‘Fredy Neptune’:

“While the literature of sensation is legion, that of insensation, understood as a total absence of bodily feeling, knows but a single example. “There is quite simply no other story that could be called ‘The Man Who Lost His Sense of Touch’”, Les Murray writes in his afterword to ‘Fredy Neptune’ (1998), his picaresque verse novel about one man’s journey through the age of catastrophe. In this paper, I argue that Fredy’s condition is far from unique, his symptoms corresponding instead to the crippling effects of what Murray elsewhere terms “erocide”, the concerted destruction of a person’s sexual morale. The novel provides a rich phenomenological account of a kind of embodied existence which both draws to an extreme and challenges the dualist model of human self-understanding that informs the prevalent scientific, medical and beauty regimes of Western society.”

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The senses and their unity

The human senses have traditionally numbered five, dating from Aristotle’s On the Soul, Greek Περὶ Ψυχῆς (Perì Psūchês), Latin De Anima. An English translation with commentary by St. Thomas Aquinas is here. Modern science has identified many more senses (in humans and other animal species) depending on definition (see here). In Metaphysics Aristotle said “There is nothing in the intellect that was not previously in the senses”. The human senses considered by Aristotle in De Anima were (in order): Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, Touch. It is probably not a coincidence that this order corresponds to the maximum distance over which these senses have command. Subsequent Aristotelian thinkers (such as Aquinas) seem to take this order as indicating a spirituality/materiality continuum, from sight (most spiritual/heavenly) to touch (most material/earthly) as in the Summa Theologica Question 83 here. Aquinas says that “Further, of all the senses the sight is the most spiritual and the nearest to reason” (Article 4, Objection 3) and also that touch is the sense most infected by original sin (Article 4, Reply to Objection 3). It might not be an exaggeration to maintain that in contemporary Western culture the sense of sight is the most highly privileged and touch the most underestimated even today.

Here is a quote from Denis Diderot (1713-1784) with a different take on the senses:

“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” Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient (Letter on the Blind, for the Usage of those who can See)

In his “Phenomenology of Perception”, Merleau-Ponty promotes the idea of the “unity of the senses”.

After discussing a certain unusual case involving brain injury which caused a disconnect in the subject’s tactile and visual experience of the world, M-P draws the implication that

“…there is not in the normal subject a tactile experience and also a visual one, but an integrated experience to which it is impossible to gauge the contribution of each sense.” (PP137)

Some more quotes:

“Let us therefore say rather, borrowing a term from other works, that the life of consciousness—cognitive life, the life of desire or perpetual life—is subtended by an ‘intentional arc’ which projects round about us our past, our future, our human setting, our physical, ideological and moral situation, or rather which results in our being situated in all these respects. It is this intentional arc which brings about the unity of the senses, of intelligence, of sensibility and motility.” (PP157)

“… my body is not a collection of adjacent organs, but a synergic system, all the functions of which are exercised, and linked together in the general action of being in the world, in so far as it is the congealed face of existence.” (PP272)

“It is my body which gives significance not only to the natural object, but also to cultural objects like words…..The word ‘hard’ produces a sort of stiffening of the back and neck, and only in a secondary way does it project itself into the visual or auditory field and assume the appearance of a sign or word. Before becoming the indication of a concept it is first of all an event which grips my body, and this grip circumscribes the area of significance to which it has reference.” (PP273)

“Movement, understood not as objective movement and transference in space, but as a project towards movement or ‘potential movement’ forms the basis for the unity of the senses.” (PP272)

“Consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think’ but of ‘I can’.” (PP159, attributed by M-P to Husserl)

Another way of approaching the idea of “unity of the senses” might be through consideration of the “abnormal” syndrome called synaesthesia. “Synaesthesia is experienced when stimulation of one sensory modality gives rise to a perception in a second modality, without that second modality having received any direct stimulation.” (“Synaesthesia”, Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science, John Wiley and Sons, 2006). For example, some synaesthetes can see colours and simple shapes in sounds. Usually two senses are involved, rarely three or more. The perceptions in one sense triggered by a stimulus in a second sense are usually very consistent within one individual, but not necessarily between synaesthetes. A recent theory which has gained a lot of attention, and for which there is some experimental evidence is the Neonatal Synaesthesia Hypothesis. This theory proposes that there is a normal phase of synaesthesia in development, that all babies experience sensory input in an undifferentiated way in early infancy, probably up to about 4 months in age, and that for some people (adult synaesthetes) the normal dying off or inhibition of the connections between different sensory modalities in infancy has not occurred. Interestingly, while modern cognitive scientists might assume the idea of a developmental pathway from some form of synaesthesia to separate sense modalities to be quite recent, in fact it has a long history, including literary works such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), as well as scientific works such as William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890). See here for details.

A book that looks interesting enough to try to track down is Les Cinq Sens (The Five Senses) by French philosopher Michel Serres. There is a review here. Serres does not seem to have a taste for the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty. Or it may rather be that he considers him too dry, academic and bloodless. From the review: Les Cinq Sens is part of the turn which Serres’s work undertook during the 1980s from a certain kind of philosophically respectable and recognisable commentary to the work of invention, a work characterised by lightness, freedom, associativeness, caprice.”

A classic 18th century essay on the senses was Étienne Bonnot de Condillac‘s essay “Traité des sensations”. If you can read French, the original is here.

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