Unreal Nature

March 19, 2013

The Beast in the Belly

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:37 am

… the great treachery of the body is that it is not always governable.

… [H]ave theoreticians prematurely dismissed complex issues because they were already assuming the unimportance of the bodily senses and the baseness of their pleasures?

This is from Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy by Carolyn Korsmeyer (1999). I am jumping to the last half of the first chapter which looks at the historical treatment of the hierarchy of the senses:

… Pleasure … is the special danger of the senses of taste and touch. Because of the necessity of slight alteration of the body that occurs with the exercise of both, pleasure or pain always accompanies these senses …

… In summary, here are the various considerations that Plato and Aristotle advance to support the ranking of bodily senses such as taste below the higher, more rational or cognitive senses. Sight and hearing operate with a distance between object and organ of perception, and as a consequence they serve to draw attention away from the body of the perceiving subject to the object of perception external to the body. (Modern theorists sometimes make this point by observing that there is a less discernible distinction between sensation and perception with sight and hearing.) The senses of taste, touch, and smell, in contrast, are experienced as “in” the body, locatable in the fingertips, the mouth, the olfactory passages. While all three senses are experienced phenomenally in the body of the percipient, the degree of subjectivity of bodily sensations varies. Pains, for example, are actually locatable in the body and travel with it. Smells reside in the locale of odorous objects. Tastes appear somewhat in between; one can carry around a taste in one’s mouth, but the taste is also experienced as of the tastant. In spite of these variations, sight and hearing remain by comparison phenomenally objective.

… touch inescapably reminds one of the facts of embodiment. While from the experience of the distal senses one may even share Plato’s fantasy and aspire to leave the senses behind and ascend to purely intellectual understanding, the proximal senses keep the percipient in a state of awareness of his or her own flesh.

The information delivered by sight and hearing, especially sight, lends itself to reflection and to the abstraction that yields knowledge of universals. (It is the intellectual activity of knowing that permits this generalization, not the sense experience itself, which only gives one acquaintance with particulars.) Because attention is directed outward rather than toward the particular state of the body, the mind is disposed to generalize about its objects. They may be counted and assigned number; their qualities may be summarized in categories such as color and shape. Because the truths arrived at concern the external world, the language developed to refer to them is common, shared. By comparison, the information delivered by the bodily senses is particular, specific, pertaining to the here and now.

The role of pleasure in the exercise of the senses is another feature of distance or its absence that contributes to the ranking of the senses. Experience of the cognitive senses is not necessarily accompanied by pleasure and pain; that of the bodily senses has some pleasure-pain valence.

[ … ]

… The other senses [as compared to vision] require a sequential experiencing of an event over time, which hinders detachment: “These more temporal senses therefore never achieve that degree of detachment of the signified from the sign, of persistent existence from the transitory event of sense-affection, which sight offers.” Jonas illustrates his points with contrasts to hearing and touch, which he believes are the only senses that are interestingly compared with sight. Smell and taste do not even come in for mention. … Transience and time are the essence of “now,” whereas sight presents an “extended present.” This has profound effects on the congruence fo this sense, with philosophical ideas: “Indeed only the simultaneity of sight, with its extended ‘present’ of enduring objects, allows the distinction between change and the nonchanging and therefore between becoming and being. … Only sight provides the sensual basis on which the mind may conceive the idea of the eternal, that which never changes and is always present.”

The second feature of sight that distinguishes it from the other senses is “dynamic neutralization”: one can see something without entering into a relationship with it. (Jonas has in mind a relationship of some physical intimacy, for the viewer does bear a relationship to the object of vision, such as “being in front of.”) The thing seen does not need to affect the percipient in order to be seen. The contrast here is especially with the sense of touch. Touch requires a degree of force, at least pressure, against the skin. Sight is contemplatively uninvolved. And finally, Jonas invokes the significance of the spatial distance over which sight operates. Distance makes the first two features of vision possible. Sight is the “ideal distance sense,” the only sense in which advantage lies with lack of proximity between percipient and object.

… If hearing and touch are … disqualified as “philosophical senses,” how much more useless for the intellect are the senses of taste and smell! They too demand time to experience, and they require intimate practical commerce with their objects in order to function. Practice is so requisite in the operation of taste that the very idea of a division between theory and practice is hard to conceive. Even more than touch, taste involves the body. The objects of taste must actually enter the body, and in most instances, they are actually devoured. Jonas’s conception of philosophy requires that it maintain a level of abstraction that is as detached from singular bodily experience as possible.

Of course, philosophy itself has undergone some scourging critiques since Jonas wrote, many of which have called into question his assumptions about the importance of being over becoming and of theory over practice.

… the great treachery of the body is that it is not always governable. Whatever is awry scientifically with Platonic or Aristotelian psychologies, each presents its own vivid picture of a soul divided against itself, of character tendencies in conflict. Plato’s image of the beast in the belly threatening to overtake the mind doubtless overrates the intellect and separates intelligence from the body in ways that suffer under scrutiny. But still his image vividly captures a familiar phenomenal truth: the war between what one knows one ought to do and the overwhelming power of what one wants at the moment.

… Philosophy contains some gaps that are only now visible, having been previously hidden because the assumptions about what constitutes a philosophical question were so widely shared as to have become invisible. These omissions and distortions have led theory to develop in ways that overlook important beliefs and practices and that ignore living values. Theoretical treatments of the sense of taste frequently contravene the ways we actually employ that sense and its objects, which is one symptom of the fact that working, practical beliefs and theories are seriously divergent.

Is the territory of taste really so bereft of interesting philosophical questions of its own? Or rather, have theoreticians prematurely dismissed complex issues because they were already assuming the unimportance of the bodily senses and the baseness of their pleasures? The elaborate objects of taste alone should lead one to reject the simple judgment that this sense yields no interesting philosophical problems. We use our taste sense with immense complexity. The remarkable thing is that it has been left so innocent of theoretical exploration.

Long ago a Mexican nun pondered the activities that prompt philosophical thinking and observed how often her own mind was stimulated in the kitchen. While Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz did not herself pursue food or its taste as a topic for study, perhaps she was right when she remarked, “Had Aristotle cooked, he would have written a good deal more.”



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