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Carpal Knowledge

Raymond Tallis on the natural philosophy of the caress. It’s gripping stuff!

We humans are unique and cannot be fully explained in biological terms. So, at least, I have argued in several books, against various brands of quasi-scientific reductionism. We are explicit animals who do things deliberately, in a way that no other animal does. Our actions, however concrete, typically make sense only with respect to a framework which incorporates many layers of abstraction. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which advance biological explanations of human behaviour and society, are barking up the wrong tree. They overlook what is distinctive about us.

If animalist accounts of humans seem plausible – and they must do because so many people seem to take them seriously – it may be because they tendentiously re-describe what goes on in ordinary human life in such a way as to make it sound like what goes on in ordinary animal life. Supposing, for example, you invite me out for a meal. Having learnt that you have just taken on a new mortgage, I choose the cheapest items on the menu and declare that I am full after the main course, so as to spare you the expense of a pudding. A chimpanzee reaches out for a banana and consumes it. Both the chimp and I may be correctly described as exhibiting ‘feeding behaviour’ but this obscures huge differences between her behaviour and mine. Here’s another example. I decide to improve my career prospects by signing up for a degree course which begins next year. I have a small child. I therefore do more baby-sitting this year in order to stockpile some tokens. A cow bumps into an electric wire and henceforth avoids that place. Both of us have been exhibiting learning behaviour. Again, the difference between the two forms of behaviour is greater than the similarities. This will be evident to anyone who is not bewitched by some kind of theoretical assumption such as EO Wilson’s creed that “behaviour and social structure” are biological phenomena, indeed “ ‘organs’, extensions of the genes that exist because of their superior adaptive value.”

Reaffirming the exceptional status of human beings, however, brings problems of its own. I am a doctor and the clinical science upon which the medicine I practise is based, is rooted in biology. I don’t need convincing, therefore, that Man, the explicit animal, is an animal. I am not a creationist nor do I believe that we, uniquely among the animals, fell from the sky. Darwin’s story about our origins is utterly persuasive. Moreover, I am impressed (though not overimpressed) by the fact that we share 99% of our DNA with higher primates. The human exceptionalism argued in The Explicit Animal and some of my other books has therefore left me with a problem: what Kenan Malik in his (wonderful) Man, Beast and Zombie characterises as the problem of reconciling “a vision of Man as a natural being with an understanding of him as a conscious agent”; of explaining how humans can be both part of nature and yet at a unique and very complex distance from it; understanding how we can be products of evolutionary process and yet be sufficiently awake to it to write books such as The Origin of Species.

I address this problem in my forthcoming volume The Hand Book: A Contribution to Philosophical Anthropology. Taking my cue from Kant’s claim that “the hand is a window on the mind” I (somewhat recklessly, perhaps) attempt to pin down the origin of the uniqueness of human beings to the unique properties of the human hand. By tracing how a seemingly small biological difference opened up the widening gap between the animal kingdom and the human world, I try to provide a natural explanation for mankind’s partial liberation from nature and thereby end my embarrassment at being a biological scientist (of sorts) who doesn’t believe that biological explanations are useful for understanding much of what we humans have now become.

Foreplay (1): The Consequences of being Erect

It is widely accepted that the migration of Australopithecine hominids out of the safety of the trees to the dangerous savannah – perhaps triggered by climatic changes that devastated the forests – made the upright position of adaptive value. For example, it increased the range of vision, allowing the eyes to assume their full potential as early warning devices. Incidentally, and most importantly, however, bipedalism also liberated the forelimbs from the demands of locomotion. (Although other animals assume the upright position from time to time, only Man is overwhelmingly bipedal.) The distal parts of the human forelimbs were freed to develop into full-blown hands and to take advantage of anatomical developments that might increase manipulative skills.

Foremost among these developments were those that enabled full pad-to-pad contact between the thumb and the other fingers: so-called opposability. Some other primates show a degree of opposability but because their thumbs have limited powers of rotation and are relatively short, opposability is incomplete. Only in humans is there a large surface of very intimate contact between the pulps of opposing fingers. Opposability, combined with the ability (shared with some other primates) to move the fingers independently, makes the hand a stunningly versatile organ for interacting with the world. It is richly supplied with sensory endings, so that the multitude of grips it can draw upon may be perfectly adapted to the objects it is exploring and manipulating and be exquisitely regulated during manipulation by very subtle feedback processes. In the touching tips of the fingers, the hand communicates with itself and the extra-manual world with unprecedented intensity.

The biological importance of the opposable thumb has been fully appreciated. The profound consequences for selfawareness and self-understanding, however, have not. Opposability utterly transforms our relationship to the world, to our bodies and to ourselves. There isn’t space to do full justice to the arguments I set out in The Hand Book. Suffice it to say that opposability makes available a limitless number of grips that the hand may deploy during the course of its manipulative activity. Crucially, at any given moment, there is a range of possible grips and strategies, so we have a choice. At the same time the range is restricted by the shape and properties of the object we are manipulating. We have what I call ‘manipulative indeterminacy’ and this, ultimately, is the basis for the intuition of agency. This choice, in the context of the especially intimate interaction with the object, underscored by constant direct feedback – about the position of our hands, their relationship to the object of interest and the progress of whatever operation is being performed – through skin sensation, limb proprioception and vision, generates a very special relationship to our hand when it is engaged in manipulative activity. This relationship, in turn, fosters a relationship with our own bodies that is not seen elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The hand becomes a tool; the body becomes an instrument; and we emerge as true agents. Deliberate action begins to replace instinctive behaviour and tropisms – even though such actions must still be fashioned out of, or built upon, biological mechanisms.

The Organ as a Tool and the Tool as an Organ

A dramatic reflection of the special, instrumental relationship that humans have to their hands – and to consequently to their bodies and, through their bodies, to the world – is Man’s collective genius as a toolmaking animal. Other animals use tools, and even modify sticks and stones snatched at random; but only humans make tools in the true sense. The ceiling of animal tool use is the employment of a stone to break a nut and this take a chimpanzee about 5 years to learn! Human tool use by contrast has no limits: the journey from the eolith and pebble chopper to the SuperCray and the nuclear power station, which has been extraordinarily rapid, is just the beginning. And even at the outset, there was complexity: flint knapping to make a stone axe involves many hundreds of steps. No animal can match this.

Aristotle was extremely perceptive, therefore, in characterising the hand as “an instrument that represents many instruments”. (Significantly, the Greek term organon means both ‘organ’ and ‘tool’). The human hand is the ur-tool, the tool of tools, the inspiration of the implement. Tools directly and indirectly mark the distance between the nature in which other animals are immersed and the culture that distances humans from nature. Our environment is increasingly one of artefacts and even our most direct interactions with nature are mediated by many tools as intermediaries. When we do something seemingly as simple and natural as walking, we typically walk shod on paved earth between massive tool-chests, in pursuit of abstract purposes many steps away from the satisfaction of physiological needs. Our tools, what is more, embody abstract principles and general strategies. They are such principles set out in space, made visible and (importantly) communicated. Tools, it has been argued, lie at the origin of language.

Getting Closer: Touch

Manipulative indeterminacy underpins our sense of ourselves as free agents. Of course, we have some choice over how we deploy other parts of our body such as our feet. Why not argue that the human foot lies at the root of the intuition of agency? Why didn’t knuckle-walking or brachiating chimps acquire this intuition? This is because of another special feature of the hand: it is, as John Napier, so beautifully put it, “the chief organ of the fifth sense”. (John Napier Hands 1980) That sense – touch – is rather special. Just how special may be illustrated by an experiment that requires no equipment except a human body and a quiet room where one can be undisturbed.

Slip off your shirt and let your bared shoulder cool. Touch it with your warm hand. You will find that you are divisible into at least two subjects and two objects. (That’s leaving aside all the background bodily awareness and awareness of the things around your body). Your hand (subject) is aware of the coolness of your shoulder (object). Your shoulder (subject) is aware of the warmth of your hand (object). There is therefore a double distance within you as an embodied person. However, this relationship is not symmetrical: the hand has, well, the upper hand: it is manifestly the exploratory agent and the shoulder manifestly the explored surface. (If the shoulder were studying Humanities at University it would complain of this asymmetry, listing colonisation and marginalisation amongst its grievances, and join the Shoulder Liberation Front.) Although touch is reciprocated – the toucher in each case is also a touchee – there is this hierarchy of roles because the hand has come to the shoulder and not vice versa. (This is a differentiation almost at the same spot, unlike the characteristic differentiation in looking. The gaze is usually unreciprocated: the objects I look at do not usually look back at me and see-er and seen are at a distance from one another.) The differentiation of roles, so that one part of your body is as it were ‘superior’ to another, maintains the inner distances: the subject-object distance awoken within your body is not cancelled by an equal and opposite object-subject distance. Opposite, yes; equal no.

The hand’s roles as an exploratory tool confirms and underlines its status as an agent – but only once the intuition of agency has been already ignited. In the exploratory and manipulatory hand, prehension and comprehension are integrated, indeed fused.

Cultural Evolution and Handiness

It is through the gap opened up by the hand between the body and itself that culture pours into nature. This may seem to give too much credit to the hand: What about language? What about general intelligence? What about brain size?

Well, unless one believes in outmoded notions such as orthogenesis, brain size will not increase autonomously. The brain’s expansion is driven by adaptive interaction with the peripheral organs. Only when opposability gave the hand the potential for its unique dexterity was there any point in increasing the complexity of its neural control. I envisage a dialectic between brain and hand such that increasing dexterity would drive increasing brain size and shape cerebral organisation and the latter would promote increasing dexterity. The dialectic was, in the first instance, driven by the hand: opposability started the process. As for general intelligence, despite the convention in much psychology, it is very difficult to apply it outside of deliberative action. It cannot therefore reasonably be identified as the origin of such action.

Language, of course, has had a crucial influence in the dissemination of know-how and the onward transmission of accumulated knowledge. But it is a latecomer compared with the hand-tool: the earliest unequivocal evidence of language is about 40,000 years ago whereas the first manufactured tools date from about 2.8 million years ago. (Undeniably, the rapid development of toolmaking over the last 40,000 years owes much to the interaction between manual technicity and linguistic communication.) Tools – and so the hand – were arguably crucial precursors to the development of language.

Notwithstanding the crucial contribution of language, general intelligence and increasing brain size, therefore, to the development of human culture, the hand remains the tool of tools, the agent behind agency. The hand and its tools lit the fuse that led ultimately to the cultural explosion that has lifted humans above the evolutionary process.

Foreplay (2): Reflections on Human Sexuality

We have now have assembled some of the elements necessary to sketch an account of carpal knowledge and hint at a philosophy of the caress. At the risk of driving the reader mad with frustration, I must however protract foreplay a little longer, because there is something important missing and this something crucially separates human sexuality from animal mating behaviour.

Sexuality has always had a bad press because in the eyes of some it represents a regression to animal behaviour. We share many other functions with animals but they seem to cause less upset. Defaecation and urination are acceptable because they are solitary activities hidden from human view. Indeed, there are few of us who would like to be observed defaecating in public. Eating is tolerated because the extraordinarily beast-like business of shoving nutriment into a hole in the upper half of one’s body can be subject to cultural transformation and ritual and distracted from by conversation (so long as one does not speak with one’s mouth full). But sexual congress seems to some beyond the pale because it is as unredeemedly animal as urination or defaecation but, as Baudelaire pointed out, it always requires an accomplice. It can never be entirely private. (Fantasy-fuelled onanism is a derivative or parasitic form of sexual expression.)

Kant was famously hostile to sex, asserting that it threatened to reduce us to beasts. He died before Hegel reported what was different about human beings and unwittingly gave us the clue as to what is distinctive and nonanimal- like about human sexuality. Animals are conscious but humans are self-conscious and this self-consciousness is the basis of human desires. Self-consciousness, Hegel says, achieves satisfaction only in another self-consciousness. So humans have a fundamental and all-pervasive need additional to those experienced by other animals: a need for recognition or acknowledgement. This transforms human sexuality. Human sexuality is not just, or chiefly about the replication of genetic material: it is about self-esteem and one’s sense of one’s place in the world. Its expression is therefore remote from animal behaviour.

You will not be surprised that I believe that the human carpus has had a hand in this as well. The development of the sense of oneself as an agent, acting directly or indirectly through the instrument of one’s body, lies at the root of the emergence of human self-consciousness and the sense of self. “I act (deliberately) therefore I am” has always seemed to me to pin down the basis of the sense of the self better than “I think therefore I am”, which can seem merely a bare, almost tautological connexion between two empty forms. The hand opens up the body to itself as an instrument, awakens the sense of self and of the (cultural) world to which the self relates – the world which Heidegger described as that of the ready-to-hand.

The jigsaw has one other piece: the fact that sex is pleasurable. It may be uniquely pleasurable in human beings because sexual behaviour is mediated by voluntary actions rather by instinctive mechanisms which link into other mechanisms, such as oestrus and so on. Contrary to the usual notion, therefore, the intensity of the pleasure associated with sexuality is a measure of its distance from instinct and not of its instinctuality. To take an example from the other end of the living world: a tree doesn’t have to relish its ‘continual solitary meal’ because its ‘eating’ is an assured mechanism. Voluntary action, by contrast, has to be motivated – by pain or pleasure. For humans the pleasure is so conspicuous that it is cultivated for its own sake, so that its biological purpose, reproduction, may be seen as an unlooked for, and undesirable, side effect.

The two distinctively human elements of sexuality – the search for recognition by and conferring recognition upon the other’s self and the pursuit of physical pleasure – may be uncoupled. In particular the pursuit of physical pleasure may take extreme forms that degrade sexuality towards the congress of beasts, when the sensations of contact are disconnected from true intimacy. The unwelcome groper, the abuser, the rapist, inflicts a physical monologue upon another rather than engaging in a welcome dialogue with the other and is appropriately designated a filthy beast. And the orgies between multiple anonymous partners in the bath houses of San Francisco before the AIDS epidemic, though unprecedented in the natural world, likewise reduced sexuality to something close to bestiality. At any rate, (to use Martin Buber’s terms), under such circumstances the Thou-Thou relationship of true human lovemaking moves closer to the It-It relationship of animal congress.

Human sexuality, in short, is unique in its engagement of a self-world and its taking the form of dialogue. Animals mate (plus or minus a bit of pre-copulatory behaviour, plus or minus a bit of post-coital tristesse): it encounters it. Humans make love: thou encounters thou. The hand makes this possible by transforming our relationship to our own bodies, making us true agents and true selves.

The Caress

We are at last in sight of our goal and the climactic revelation of the true nature of carpal knowledge. Let us for the sake of argument postulate an ideal caress. This is takes place between A and B who are equally committed to each other or (if that is too complicated) who are equally happy about, and absorbed in, what is going on at that time. Each is acting and being in good faith; neither is indifferent to or absent from or oppressed by the other. Let us assume that the caress is addressed by A’s hand to B’s body. (Even the most innocent know that caresses are not confined to the hand but the invisible hand of the hand is at work in all the pleasure of the flesh.)

A wants to give B pleasure: this is a pure gift. She wants to exploit on B’s behalf the pleasure B may take in his own body. This complex pleasure taps into the inner distances that we identified earlier in our discussion of touching oneself. The pleasure of the one who is caressed is rooted in that special sense of being one’s own body that comes from having a subject-object relationship to it. (Of course, one cannot at any time be all of one’s body; indeed, it is because one’s possession of one’s own body flickers over it like light on the sea – now the bottom feeling the pressure of the chair, now the itching arm, now the face in a cold wind or sensed in someone’s puzzled stare, now the warm feet on the flagstones – so that one is not identical with one’s body, that one can possess it. The inner distances necessary for possession – opened up by the agentive hand – require this non-coincidence with the whole of one’s body.)

That is what A gives to B. But there are no pure gifts in sexuality. What does A take from B? What does B give? The stroking hand, “the chief organ of the fifth sense”, finds things out. A acquires knowledge – literal carnal knowledge – of B, of course. But that does not take her much further into the postulated interior of B. Granted that information about the texture of the skin of the back is knowledge available to few and so is privileged knowledge. This is a gift, as it the knowledge of B’s pleasure. But it does not tell her what she might want to know: the truly privileged knowledge of what it is like to be B. This is where the caress, however, offers something else and it was Sartre who first pointed this out.

When we caress another and they respond, we feel we are touching not just their body but themselves. For the caress aims to awaken the other to a particular part of their body, summons them back from the world that their body has opened up to them and makes them exist under your hand, at the very place where you are touching. The intensity of the physical pleasure combined with the social significance of the contact concentrates the person at the place that is touched and makes them be truly tangible; at any rate truly here, at the point where touching and touched coincide. In a caress two humans create a spatio-temporal coincidence that goes beyond space-time. (Though that is another story).

This will truly happen only if being caressed is welcome and freely allowed as it is freely given. A pinch, a threat, a painful blow may make the recipient focus on the part of the body that is touched but the discomfort and threat will at the same time drive them away. They will be closed off, even if they are forced, by pain, to be under the assailant’s or groper’s hand.

Only the human hand, where cognition, manipulation and communication meet, could achieve what a caress achieves. That is why sociobiologists, ethologists, evolutionary psychologists and all the other scientistic tribes are wrong when they suggest that caresses are analogous to the tactile interaction through grooming behaviour that animals exhibit prior to copulation. The are wrong not simply because hunting for each other’s fleas isn’t seen as particularly romantic (John Donne might have a different angle on this) but because the animal paws that communicate through touch do not really communicate in the way that human hands do: they are not the true agents of true agents; and the supposed communicants are not true selves.

And even if the human caress does not (pace Sartre) have the hopeless aim of taking hold of another’s freedom – as Spinoza said, what we love in another is her freedom, and we love that most which we see is most free – the caress is utterly different from animal touch. There is literally a world – or a world-anda self or two worlds-and-selves – of difference. For animals do not have those inner distances, derived from the sense of inwardness and agency initially opened up by the hand, that seeks acknowledgement and recognition to fill it up.

We come to sexuality with bodies that are more than animal bodies; they are cultural bodies, infused with self-worlds. That is why we are able to make love as well as mate: “the ten second jump and shriek” of the mating primate is not the way of the human. The relationships we establish with other’s bodies in lovemaking are founded on the relationships we have with our own bodies.


Philosophy sometimes simply reminds us of what is in front of our nose. This piece has only reminded us of what we tend to forget when we listen to biologistic nonsense; namely that WS Gilbert’s claim that “Man, however well-behaved/ At best is only a monkey shaved” is utterly untrue. And it is untrue even, or perhaps especially, when we are making love. The philosophy of the caress reminds us that carpal knowledge places our carnality at a great distance from animality and that, despite our biological origins, we are not entirely part of nature. Our biological roots do not encompass our cultural leaves. Nothing could be further from the truth than the claim that “our distant past holds the key to much in our present” (Dudly Young The Origins of the Sacred), a received idea of our time whose commonest manifestation is the assumption that our animal ancestry explains us. If you want to understand human sex, forget about the birds and the bees.

© Raymond Tallis 2001

Raymond Tallis is Professor of Geriatric Medicine in the University of Manchester and a consultant physician in Hope Hospital, Salford. An anthology of his non-medical writing The Raymond Tallis Reader edited by Michael Grant was published in 2000 and his A Conversation with Martin Heidegger will appear later this year.

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