Friday, 26 October 2012

Aristotle's Aporias of Touch

The second part of the exergue to On Touching reports on, and responds to, a section of Aristotle's De Anima. In the next posting I will look at how the section of Aristotle is reported on there but in this posting I want instead to move away from Derrida's text and to look directly at the section of De Anima in question in order to first give my own summary of how this section goes. When, in the next posting, I then look at how it is treated in the exergue to On Touching it will be possible to compare the treatment I have given with that set out in the exergue.

The section of De Anima that Derrida treats is the eleventh paragraph of Book II. It is here that Aristotle arrives at the treatment of touch and lists some "aporias" (or "problems") concerning this. The first question that arises concerns whether touch is a "single" sense or "many" senses. Now, if touch is more than one sense it would follow that what is "tangible" is the object of many senses. But this first problem is followed rapidly by a second one which concerns what the sense-organ of touch is. Two alternatives are listed here by Aristotle as possible answers to this question. The first is that the "sense-organ" is the flesh. But the second answer would state that flesh is only the "medium" of touch whilst the original sense-organ is something different, something more "interior". 

After raising this second problem Aristotle lists, as is common within his work, a common view and, is also often the case with him, proceeds to complicate the response to it. The common view would be that senses are governed by a "single" opposition as hearing for example would be by the difference between sharp and flat. By contrast, touch would appear to include many oppositions (thus giving credence to the view that it involves many senses) since the contrast between rough and smooth is different to that between hot and cold for example. Having set this up and used this point to apparently reinforce the claim that touch is something that belongs to many senses Aristotle proceeds to state something that undermines such a ready conclusion. For, as he now states, there are many oppositions with regard to the other senses and not just with touch. The example Aristotle uses to show this concerns "voice" which is said to include as much variety of pitch as touch does variety of that which is tangible (and which would therefore undermine the earlier claim about hearing since voice and hearing would be inter-related senses). However if this discussion of a common view undermines the way that such a view appears to resolve the question of whether touch is one sense or many it remains the case that nothing said has addressed the question of the organ of touch and related to this point is the further (third) question of whether there is something that "underlies" the phenomena of touch in the way that sound does with hearing and speaking.

Aristotle returns next to the question of whether the "organ" of touch is the flesh or something interior and he now points out that we have no way of getting an answer to this purely from the claim that the sensation of touch arises immediately from contact between flesh and object. After all an overall surface that stretches over all our flesh would have the same effect of immediacy and yet this surface still would not be the organ of touch. Similarly if flesh itself acts as such a membrane on top of the interior organ as might be suggested by a champion of the view that touch arises from the interior then the fact of immediacy alone could not lead one to the view that flesh is the organ of touch.

This point concerning immediacy is reinforced by some considerations Aristotle adduces with regard to other senses and principally with regard to air. The result of this is to lead his discussion in the direction of the claim that the "body" in general is the "ongrown medium" of the faculty that is responsible for touch and that sensations take place through the body. So this question of the sense-organ of touch is apparently resolved in favour of the view that the organ is interior and is not the flesh. This view is also linked to the claim that touch encompasses many senses since the tongue is engaged in touch but in such a way as to inform us of flavour whereas other forms of touch inform us of other phenomena.

At this point, however, Aristotle poses another problem. This concerns the understanding of body. Bodies, he argues, all have depth which is something like their third dimension. Further where there is a body interposed between two others the two in question are not able to touch. Something that is wet also has body but one that incorporates water so that if two things touch in water this is by means of connection through water as a medium. However the problem here is that water is presumably saturating the bodies in question in such a way that it becomes unclear how the bodies can touch given that water acts like a third body between the first two.

This problem concerning the touching of bodies in different media is next related to one concerning how perception takes place. Is perception the same with regard to different things Aristotle now asks or does it have a different relation to distinct things? If it is the latter then perceptions of different sorts would differ in the way that touch and taste do. But Aristotle indicates this is not the case given that we perceive the rough and the smooth by means of other media just as we do the audible and the visible.

The difference with different senses is that with some we perceive them at a remove as when smell is distinct from that which has the smell whereas with other senses, such as roughness and smoothness there is an apparent immediacy in the relationship between the phenomena and the way we perceive it. But in fact every thing appears before us by means of an intermediary that enables us to perceive it. In the case of what Aristotle terms the "contact senses" we often fail to note the presence of the intermediary which is why some forms of sense strike us as more immediate than others.

Tangible objects are different from visible ones as we grasp the intermediary elements in the latter case more readily than in the former though the earlier hypothesis of a membrane covering the whole flesh showed us how it is the case that there is no evidence for the immediacy of touch purely from our naive phenomenal sense of it. However with touch we are not affected by the medium but, as it were, at the "same time" as it. This is like when someone is struck by means of something he is holding which vibrates throughout him simultaneously with the thing being held. 

Aristotle moves now to the view that the sense-organ or faculty of touch is something interior rather than being the flesh itself. The sensations of touch are thus no more in the flesh than the sensation of sight is in the eye even though we appear to perceive objects "through" the flesh. 

The next step in Aristotle's argument is that the "organ" or "faculty" of touch is potentially like that with which it is affected. This is due to his general claim that perception consists in being affected in a certain way. So if the senses are so affected then what affects them is something active and the senses, as that which is passive, are made potentially like that which is active is in actuality. Sensation is like a kind of judge between the opposing elements of the active affection which discriminates between their contraries so that we not do not note all the ways the affecting element is distinguishable. 

Touch, in the conclusion of section 11, concerns, states Aristotle, the tangible and the intangible where that which is intangible is either that which is only slightly tangible or excessively so. And with this claim Aristotle closes his discussion. In the next posting we will look at how Derrida's text includes a response to this account.

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