[Art_beyond_sight_theory_and_research] 11th & 12th fingers: Hands, eyes and tentacles

Paterson, Mark M.W.D.Paterson at exeter.ac.uk
Mon Jan 11 14:47:49 UTC 2010


In addition to Robert Hopkins’ full and fascinating answer, the relationship between vision and touch has interested me for a while. You might want to look at my book published by Berg in 2007, The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies, as chapter two sets up the phenomenological framework for considering this relationship, mostly based on Merleau-Ponty. So it might help contextualise your reading of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. Some people find reading Merleau-Ponty difficult, but actually I find his prose style to be both poetic and clear. You might not need to read any secondary literature on this, but if you do, the book might be useful.

As regards Rob’s last point, about sight evoking touch, Merleau-Ponty writes about this in terms of “the tactile within the visible”. This I write about in my book (also available on Google Books!) and in an easily-comprehensible ‘popular philosophy’ article for The Philosopher’s Monthly, available here: http://www.philosophypress.co.uk/?p=214.  Although there need not be any argument relating to evolutionary theory, the cross-modal associations between vision and touch have been the subject of much philosophical debate throughout history, including the infamous Molyneux Question (which Rob has written about, and which I have also written about in an article for the British Journal of Visual Impairment and another journal, The Senses and Society).

But your questions, Lisa, really prompted me to think in more animal-based terms about something I’m currently writing, Seeing with the Hands: A Philosophical History of Blindness, to be published by Reaktion next year. Because your analogy with the tentacles and the eyes is really pretty similar to René Descartes discussion in his 1637 book Optics (Dioptrique), where he hypothesises about an unnamed blind man walking with a cane, and makes an analogy between the cane and the eyes. Generalising about all ‘blind’ people he says “it is as if they see with their hands”. This is quite striking, and opens up questions about the relative hierarchies of the senses in western philosophy (Aristotle famously denigrated touch as the lowest and most bestial of the senses), the ways that certain senses have been considered as dealing with distance or proximity, and much else besides.

But another thing also immediately sprang into mind: a few years ago I read an article in The Guardian newspaper about the star-nosed mole, an amazing creature that has virtually no light perception, but has a nose with haptic (touch) elements so that it feels its way through earth and water with this, smelling/palpating the environment in search of food. It even creates a bubble in water in order to smell potential prey, and a few months ago the BBC series Life (narrated by David Attenborough) had a small sequence showing this remarkable animal in action. The newspaper article is here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2001/may/31/neuroscience.onlinesupplement

Didn’t mean to do all the shameless self-promotion, honestly(!) but your questions and Rob’s responses resonated so well with what I’ve been working on. Good luck with your own research!



Dr. Mark Paterson
School of Geography
University of Exeter
+44 (0)1392 723912


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