Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 2
Spring 2008

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Michel Chaouli
Michel Chaouli
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Coming to Our Senses

by Elizabeth Rosdeitcher

Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, philosophers, artists, and scientists of all kinds have pondered the double life we lead as human animals. We inhabit an instinctive, physical realm of the body and an incorporeal, cognitive realm of the mind. And the two realms often seem worlds apart, body and mind going their separate ways.

Yet, with even the slightest attention to our language, to the everyday metaphors we use, this mind/body duality begins to dissolve. As Michel Chaouli aptly puts it, "There is no way of speaking about what our minds do without also speaking of what our bodies do. All intellectual traditions cannot help but conceive of mental labor in terms of bodily work." In describing the way we think with words such as "conceiving," "grasping," and "seeing," not to mention "labor," the workings of the body are everywhere in our thoughts.

Chaouli is a professor of Germanic studies and director of the Institute of German Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. Also an adjunct professor of comparative literature and cognitive science, Chaouli cites the work of the linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, who claims that bodily metaphors about thought are not merely accidental turns of phrase.

Our forms of thought and ways of reasoning, our language, imagination, morality, math, explains Chaouli, "emerge out of the particular ways our bodies are built and the ways we relate to other people--the way we move in the world, the way our voice works, and our senses, their limitations and achievements."

The advantage of this view, Chaouli points out, is that "we no longer have this dualistic view of the world, that we're animals on one hand, but there's some part of ourselves that we cannot really explain, that arrives unaccounted for, that's sort of fallen into us."

Cognitive scientists and neuropsychologists are tracing the precise contours of the relationship between embodiment and cognition. Chaouli considers embodied cognition from a different angle: He looks at what 18th-century European philosophers had to say about it. And his readings offer both a new take on the Enlightenment and a rich prehistory to current scientific pursuits.

"I began to notice," Chaouli explains, "that many of the [18th century] writers I was studying were trying to give an account of the world in which we're not just animals on one side, rational on the other. They were trying to give an account of the ways we process information in the world, both rational and nonrational, in terms of our human embodiment."

Chaouli works comfortably in French, English, and German, and has studied the 18th century and Romantic periods since the beginning of his academic career. More recently, he has immersed himself in the contemporary debates and insights coming out of the cognitive and psychological sciences.

Strangely enough, his foray into cutting-edge research in cognitive science took him right back to the18th century. "It became clear to me that the writers I was studying were trying to use what we now call cognitive science to describe the human encounter with the world," Chaouli says.

"To make the ordinary strange and the self-understood paradoxical"--this is what 18th-century counterparts of contemporary cognitive scientists aimed for when they examined the bodily dimensions of thought, says Chaouli. Unlike many current scientific discussions, 18th-century texts, Chaouli suggests, more readily "lay bare a perplexity about how the extraordinary complexity and variety of human thought can be related back to our bodily existence."

We ordinarily do not or cannot recognize the threads connecting our minds to our bodies. The disconnect, our common sense tells us, is simply a given. But 18th-century thinkers, Chaouli proposes, consistently bring these threads to our attention. And unlike many 21st-century scientific texts, they do so in ways that stir our imaginations.

Making Sense of the Senses

Take, for example, a speculation on blindness by the18th-century French writer Denis Diderot. "Could you develop morality if you were blind?" Diderot asks.

To us, Chaouli notes, "this might seem like a preposterous question, but to his contemporaries it was not preposterous at all. To have a moral relationship with someone, Diderot argued, I need to be able to tell if they are in pain or not, if they're unhappy or not, to know if they are embarrassed. If I'm blind, I have no access to these things. My empathy can therefore be blocked."

Chaouli points out that what is so striking about the question on blindness and morality is that it assumes morality does not exist independently of our bodies as some abstract law. It's a question of how our physical capacities--in particular our senses--shape, influence, or constrain our mental capacities.

"What unites these 18th century writers," says Chaouli, "is that they try to give an account of our conceptual understanding of the world through a reflection on the senses with which we come into contact with the world." For example, Diderot's speculation is that morality, one of our cognitive "senses", may be contingent on our sense of sight, one of our bodily functions. The senses become the hinge between the mind and body, physiology that makes our understanding of the world possible.

For this reason, Chaouli suggests, the senses are a source of fascination for Enlightenment thinkers. "It became an important engagement to study the blind, to study the deaf, to see if blindness led to an enhancement of other senses. Formal sign language is an invention of the 18th century," he says.

While the Enlightenment preoccupation with the light of reason and truth elevates the sense of sight above the others, Chaouli has identified a less obvious but nonetheless powerful preoccupation with touch.

"My argument," he explains, "is that touch, at least in the 18th century, becomes the sense of the senses, the sense in which the very idea of what it means to have a sense is explored and figured out. And it gives us the most significant ways of thinking about the relationship between cognition and the body."

Chaouli is not talking about our typical definition of touch. As he explains it, "the standard argument is that I see a stick in a bowl of water, and the stick seems bent because of the refraction of light. All I need to do is feel it, and I know that the stick is straight." Touch is from this view reliable and straightforward, offering assurance and guarantee. But to Chaouli and the 18th-century thinkers he studies, a more complex sense of touch exists: "The more people start thinking about how touch operates, the more they recognize how much more complicated it actually is," Chaouli says.

Touch, in fact, is necessary for any understanding of our selves and the world to take shape at all. It makes possible the very development of cognition from infancy onward, Chaouli explains.

The logic of this view unfolds vividly in the writings of 18th-century French philosopher √Čtienne Bonnot de Condillac. Consider the "thought experiment" he devised, for example, in which the experimenter can turn on the individual senses of a marble statue at the flip of a switch. The experimenter turns on smell, hearing, sight, and taste, individually and in various combinations, only to conclude that without the sense of touch the statue, Chaouli explains, "ultimately knows nothing of significance about itself and the world."

Without touch we are incapable of distinguishing self from world. Look at your leg and look at a table, for example--you cannot make this distinction without the feeling of your leg.

And without the ability to make the distinction between self and world, we can make no further sense of the world or of ourselves. Touch for this reason is not only one of the five senses, but "the condition of the possibility of sense," Chaouli says.

A strange and perplexing thought indeed. But one that makes you see, grasp, sense, perceive--or whatever bodily or sense metaphor you wish to use--that embodiment and cognition are interlocking realms. By recalling us to our senses, Chaouli says,18th-century writers brought us to the threshold of cognitive science today.

Elizabeth Rosdeitcher is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.