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Tallis in Wonderland

Philosophy in the Time of Plague, Part 1

Raymond Tallis has thoughts whilst handwashing. For Max, who is just discovering his hands.

At the time of writing this piece, your columnist, along with a fair slice of the population of the world, is under house arrest. His confinement is broken only by the permitted exercise: a sneaky dawn walk in the valley at the back of his house. Over seventy, and too long retired from the clinical front-line to be of use to Britain’s NHS, he has more time than hitherto to reflect.

And there is much to reflect on – not just on the kinds of philosophical questions that have preoccupied him over the years, but also on what is going on in a world turned upside-down. Keeping one’s distance is now pro-social, while proximity, unless necessary, is anti-social. It is an act of courtesy explicitly to cross the road to avoid someone. Careless talk costs lives, as pleasantries may be mixed with the ultimate unpleasantry of the invisible enemy, and sentences could be death sentences. There is a strange convergence between altruism and self-interest here: protecting ourselves from infection means protecting others, and the health services and those who work therein. Avoiding going to work is mandatory if your work is not key. You play your part by simply staying at home.

Coronavirus has brought with it many grave problems and unanswered questions. That will be for the next column. For the present, I want to focus on something that has become central to our survival: handwashing.

A Handy Guide to Hands

Hands have featured in this column in happier times, for instance when, in ‘George Moore’s Hands: Scepticism About Philosophy’ (Issue 69, back in 2008), I examined a famous (or infamous) refutation of solipsism, the idea that there is no world external to our own consciousness. Moore’s refutation was performative: he raised his two hands in turn and asserted “Here is one hand… and here is another.” If you can’t deny the existence of these two hands, he argued, then there is, after all, an external world populated by objects that are independent of human consciousness. As a willful exercise in point-missing, it would be hard to beat. Besides, there are more interesting things to say about the items in question than that they exist.

I have long maintained that we take our hands too much for granted. In my book The Hand: A Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being (2003), I argued that the human carpus, equipped with a fully opposable thumb and liberated from being a locomotor prop by our bipedal gait, has been the key biological lever by which we humans have become distanced from biology.

This view had its predecessors. The pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras also connected our unique intelligence with our having hands. For Aristotle, the hand was ‘the tool of tools’. And in What Is Called Thinking? (1954), Martin Heidegger emphasized the ‘infinite’ difference between hands “and all grasping organs such as paws, claws, or fangs”.

What is beyond dispute is that the hands are the primary agents of our agency. Discovering our own hands and acquiring dexterity is even more fundamental to development than the acquisition of speech. Nothing could be more poignant than seeing a newborn child whose hands have not yet found each other.

Homo faber (‘man the maker’) started out as handyman. The uniquely human full opposition between thumb and index finger and an ability to mobilize individual digits or combinations of them, make possible a limitless variety of power and precision grips and modes of direct and indirect manipulation. Beyond this, the handiness of our hands has inspired a million modes of mediated action and the extraordinary array of artefacts – from hammers to cars to power stations – that support, empower, protect, and sometimes threaten us.

Counting grew out of our relationship with our fingers. Our digits and their fractionated movements provided the root intuition for our digitization of the world – enumeration, counting, the very idea of units, measurement, and science. The index finger is the primordial pointer that assists sharing of experiences, and, in its role in supporting the ostensive definition of words (pointing out things whilst naming them), helps a developing child to connect sculptured air with things. And the repertoire of manual gestures is almost as rich as that of the tongue. Little wonder that ‘grasping’ is a metaphor for understanding, and ‘prehension’ is the root behind ‘comprehension’. Truly did the anatomist F. Wood Jones proclaim in Arboreal Man (1916) that “Man’s place in nature is largely writ upon the hand” (though I would qualify, man’s place not quite in nature).

Let’s Put Our Hands Together

And so to handwashing. Our infinitely versatile hands, on duty all our waking hours, get everywhere. As the pathway carrying the heaviest traffic between our bodies and the material world, they are potential super spreaders, incessantly touching surfaces touched by a hidden multitude of other hands. With these same hands we contact our own bodies and the food we prepare and the equipment that assists us to cook and eat. So there is much to think about as we wash our hands, and if we adhere to the prescribed duration and frequency of lavage, much time to do the thinking. The injunction to use two rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’ as a timer to ensure that handwashing has been adequate, is also a startling reminder of the ingenuity of a species capable of re-purposing activities in such cunning ways.

Handwashing is also a reminder of the vast distance between ourselves and beasts in other ways. Many animals groom themselves, but no others utilise products manufactured according to a certain specification, bottled in baffling dispensers that broadcast the ingredients of their contents and boast of their antibacterial efficacy, and are transported great distances to distribution centres, where they may be purchased in exchange for money. It is salutary to remind ourselves that, while all animals defaecate, only humans fight in supermarkets over toilet rolls. To watch a cat licking its own rear end may prompt us to reflect on the mystery of the many intermediaries caught up in our relationship to our own bodies. The riddle of the sphincter, perhaps.

Handwashing is a perfect model of cooperation too. Commitment to the teamwork involved temporarily suspends the hierarchy according to which one hand (usually the right) is dominant. Both hands act and are acted upon: in each washing the other, they are washing themselves, or allowing themselves to washed. Alas, for those who, like your columnist, are of an obsessive disposition, there is no closure to handwashing, because our hands have to leave their charmed circle of mutual cleansing and dry themselves on what may be contaminated towels. But it is good for as long as it lasts. And if ‘Happy Birthday’ is not long enough, there’s always The Ring Cycle.

Awash with Ideas

While it is important for reasons of hygiene that those of us who have beards refrain from stroking them, we may be sorely tempted to do so because we are in the vicinity of some of the most profound thoughts in the traditions of both Analytic and Continental philosophy.

We are, for example, next door to Russell’s Paradox. For this, consider the village barber who says he will shave all and only those men of the village who do not shave themselves. Does he shave himself? If he shaves himself, he breaks the rule; and if he does not shave himself, he also breaks the rule. The same would apply if the Chief Medical Officer committed to washing the hands of all and only those who do not wash their own hands. He himself is both forbidden and obliged to launder his own mitts. It is generally acknowledged that at the beginning of the twentieth century, Russell’s Paradox, a snake in the paradise of Set Theory, changed the whole direction of mathematics.

Handwashing also brings us into contact with some of the most profound observations of the father of Continental philosophy, phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). His concern was with ‘the lived body’ and how it revealed itself to the thinking subject. The most direct intimation of this is when our own hands comes in contact with our body. There is a special revelatory power in one hand contacting another. In this the touched and the toucher – or the sensation of touching and that of being touched – belong to the same subject. And this awareness of a double sensation is heightened and sustained when the hands are rubbed together, as in handwashing. The democracy of the teamwork just noted further underlines this merging of subject and object, reflected in the double roles of patient and agent, as the washed hands are washing hands. The touching and the touched are, and are not, one and the same.

Of course, there are many other sources of the sense that this body is mine, or, more intimately, that I am this body, being connected with it by something closer than any possible embrace. Vision locates my body in the centre of my visual field, and allows the experience of bodily movements to be connected with the inner, proprioceptive experiences – our sense of the positions of the parts of our bodies – adding to my sense of identity with, or of living, this body – ‘ambodiment’. But the hand adds something special. This may be because the hand has a key role not only in our agency but in our sense that we are agents. It is the first tool. It is, as Aristotle said, ‘the instrument that represents many instruments’ (De Partibus Animalium or On the Parts of Animals, c.350 BC). Our vast repertoire of grips makes the deployment of any particular grip an explicit choice. In most grips, there is contact between parts of one or both hands. This ‘meta-touching’, especially between finger-tips – a source of heightened manual self-consciousness – further enhances the sense of manual agency, our awareness of the miracle by which we use a part of our body to bring about changes in the world around us.

Handwashing evidently presents us with a limitless supply of things to think about. Rubbing the backs of our hands, we may wonder whether we are sufficiently familiar with them to pick them out of an identity parade: knowing something ‘like the back of one’s hand’ may not amount to very much after all – a chastening reminder of how close to home our ignorance begins. Paying particular attention to our thumbs, we may pause to give them a thumbs up for the part they have played in taking us out of the state of nature. Each of our fingers has a story to tell, not only collectively in the brute force of heavy labour, or the exquisite achievements of dexterity, but acting separately to command the attention of others – for example uniting to deliver a V sign, of variable significance. My remarks offer only glimpses of the boundless terrain opened up when we start to think about the part our hands play in our lives and their role in creating the ever-widening gaps between ourselves and the natural world, showing us that we are not just especially smart chimps. So let’s hear it for our hands and give them a clap; or, more precisely, let them give themselves a clap.

Meanwhile, keep washing those hands. As my friend Mike Freeman said in an email, “Gather ye soapsuds while ye may.” And ‘soap’ rhymes with ‘hope’.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2020

Raymond Tallis’s new book, Seeing Ourselves: Reclaiming Humanity from God & Science, is out now.

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