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Tallis in Wonderland

On Looking at the Back of My Hand

Raymond Tallis finds unexpected depths of knowledge.

I have recently been staring at the back of my hand: an innocent, inexpensive pastime that has provoked some thoughts I would now like to share with you. They touch on our relationship with our own bodies, and on the puzzle of our knowledge of the external world, which enigma has exercised many philosophers, not least David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

The peculiarity of our relationship to our bodies is captured in a famous passage from Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea (1965), where the protagonist Roquentin says:

“I see my hand spread out on the table. It is alive – it is me. It is lying on its back. It shows me its fat underbelly. It looks like an animal upside down. The fingers are the paws. I amuse myself by making them move about very quickly, like the claws of a crab that has fallen upside down… I feel my hand. It is me, these two animals moving about at the end of my arms.” (pp.143-4).

The metaphysical scandal of this strange and estranging encounter with our closest lieutenant, our primordial means of getting a grip on the world, suggests that further digging may yield philosophical treasure.

Roquentin’s fascinated horror exposes the oddness of the connection between the ‘I am’ of the subject and the ‘it is’ of his body: the mystery of what we might call ‘ambodiment’. In what follows, I want to argue that this oddness is a key to our ability, baffling to many philosophers, to perceive objects as existing independently of our perceptions and located in an external world. You may think this a bold, even outrageous, claim, but stick with me.

A Handy Double-Take

When I look at the back of my hand I see an object that I know from immediate experience has parts that lie beyond what I now see, belonging to my hand’s undersurface and its interior. I can, for example, feel my currently invisible palm through the pressure on its flesh of the table on which it is resting. Or I can directly intuit its interior courtesy of a variety of sensations such as its weight and warmth, and sometimes through localized experiences such as pains. These testify to an ‘in here’ hidden from the vision that discloses the hand as ‘out there’, and indeed, hidden from everyone else. You cannot sense my pain. I cannot sense yours.

It is worth reflecting on this a bit further before we proceed to my larger claims. When I directly feel the hand that I am also looking at, I am in receipt of parallel streams of experience which are each exposed by the other as incomplete.

The warmth of, or the pressure on, or a pain in, my hand, betrays that there is more to it than I can see; and the visual appearance of my hand – for example, the shadows between the wrinkles on the knuckles – discloses that there is more to it than I can directly feel. We thus have the cross-sensory equivalent of the depth perception afforded by binocular vision – in this case, two sensory modalities as opposed to two eyes. The object perceived in two different ways simultaneously thereby has an ontological depth – a depth of existence – that reveals it as being more than what is provided by a single sense.

You may be inclined to say, “So what? When I examine a cup, I can also feel tactile properties I can’t see.” I need therefore to clarify in what way the experience of our own bodily parts is unique.

Whereas lifting and looking at a cup give different experiences of it, together indicating that each sensory modality yields an experience of something that is more than that experience, the different senses do not have such a fundamentally different angle of approach as is the case with my body. With the cup there is nothing that corresponds to the double aspect of the ‘from without’ of my visible hand plus the ‘from within’ of my hand apprehending its warmth or weight or feeling discomfort. When I observe the colour of my veins I can see that I am seeing something that cannot be felt; and when I am feeling the warmth of my hand, I am aware of being aware of something that lies beyond my or anyone else’s gaze. The peculiar dissociation between a distance receptor such as vision and the immediate awareness arising out of the hand’s sensation of itself is particularly evident when my hand is in action: I can feel but cannot see the effort in the grip.

Therefore, when I look at my hand, or indeed other body part, I have experience of an object that exceeds or (to use a term beloved of phenomenologists) ‘transcends’ any sensory perception of it. Vision, which locates the object as ‘out there’ is complemented by proprioceptive (felt body) awareness that illuminates the ‘in here’ of the object, and which is not accessible to anyone else. I suffer my body in the way that you cannot. Moreover, while my seeing my body can be terminated by closing my eyes, my feeling it (particularily when it is in pain) cannot be extinguished by voluntarily closing down a sensory pathway. This is why tactile and proprioceptive experience locates my body firmly in my subjectivity, albeit on the edge of objectivity, while seeing it locates it at a distance from subjectivity. This double status is reflected in the way we refer to our bodies or parts of them as possessions – ‘my body’, ‘my hands’. These two fundamentally different modes of access reveal the ontological depth of my-body-as-object.

A Good Body Of Evidence

Now to the large claims. Starting with the human body will direct us away from a murky path that has led many otherwise sensible thinkers to find our knowledge of material objects, even the status of objects themselves, problematic. I am thinking for example of David Hume’s opinion in his Treatise on Human Nature (1738) that ‘bodies’ – by which he means objects generally – are mere fictions constructed out of sense impressions; or Willard Van Orman Quine’s assertion in Two Dogmas of Empiricism (1951) that objects are ‘cultural posits’ fashioned out of ‘irritations on our sensory surfaces’ and on a comparable ‘epistemological footing’ as Homer’s gods. Or as Kant (woken by Hume out of his ‘dogmatic slumber’) argued, we cannot know any ‘thing-in-itself’ by unaided perception. He consequently postulated that only the activity of the mind itself gives us the impression of stable objects in a coherent world.

The fundamental puzzle here is that if objects really are more than constructs out of experiences we could not directly experience them as such; so what on earth could justify the belief that the world is made up of items made up of stuff that is more than (and hence lies beyond) our experience?

The answer lies in our body, which is experienced from within and without. This gives the human body the ontological depth we require of all real, experience-independent, objects. Our body has the ontological depth of a being that is more than just the sum total of my and others’ experiences of it, in virtue of being both an object of external perception and experienced from within. This means the one object that could not be a Humean ‘fiction’ or a Quinean ‘posit’ is our own body.

I can envisage several objections to this argument. Let me deal with the most pressing.

Firstly, that this knowledge-from-within argument might not withstand Cartesian doubt. René Descartes finds a bedrock of certainty in the fact that he is thinking: I cannot without self-contradiction entertain the thought that I am not thinking. This is his famous cogito argument – ‘I think therefore I am’. But the scope of what is beyond doubt as delivered by this argument is severely limited. I can be certain only that I am a thinking being – or that there are thoughts happening – not that I am an embodied thinking being. Since, however – as P.F. Strawson pointed out in Individuals (1959) – identity depends on unique occupancy of a location in space and time, it is not possible to confine the ‘I’ of that ‘I am’ to thoughts, or indeed, perceptions, because they do not occupy space. So if I have an identity (in short, if ‘I’ is to have a reference, and I am to have token experiences and token thoughts), then I must be embodied. ‘I [the subject] am’ requires that ‘it [the body] is’. And this is equally true, by the way, of the very sense organs by which I perceive the world: they, too, must be located in a body localized in space and time in order to have particular content – so that I see this rather than that. As an individual who experiences the world from a viewpoint, I cannot be mistaken that my body exists.

All right, you concede, we can be certain about the existence of one type of material object that transcends sense experience: the bodies of conscious human beings. But what about sticks and stones and mountains? Can we really know that they, too, are real? Yes; for if my body with its interacting parts were real but the things it acted upon were merely fictions or posits, there would be a rather lopsided coupling between a real physical body and a world of fictional items.

I am not claiming that I have full knowledge of my body as an object from within in virtue of ‘aming’ it. The penetration of ‘I am’ into the ‘it is’ of my body is limited. Much of my own flesh is a place of darkness to me, and most of the little I know of it is not accessed through introspection. What happens at the level of organs, muscles and bones, and cells, is hidden from me until I open the relevant textbook. To be the body of Raymond Tallis is not to have privileged access to the physics, biology, biochemistry of his living stuff.

Existential Reassurance

What is most importantly granted to me through my ambodiment is what we might call ‘existential reassurance’: that the world is populated with objects that exist in themselves and are more than my, or anyone else’s, experiences of them. The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty expressed a thought similar to this when he asserted that “the very idea of the ontological dimension of objects must be traced back to… the constitution of the object in our (bodily) experience.” In virtue of the ‘I am’ that grows in and haunts, and appropriates, and distances itself from, this body, I have a sense of an ‘it is’ applicable to my body and thence to material objects beyond my body. The combination of first-person being or ‘am-ing’ my body and experiencing it as an object – most strikingly when I look at myself in a mirror – awakens the sense of the ‘being-in-itself’ of the world that surrounds me.

Next time you look at the back of your hand, give it a second, philosophical, look. You may find there’s more to it than meets the eye.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2018

Raymond Tallis’ Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience is out now. His Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World will be out this Spring.

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