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.

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.”


About middleeuropeanmelancholy

64 year old Australian born male. Into travel, poetry, philosophy, music, popular physics, mathematics (especially topology)...
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