One of the first things we lost as the Covid pandemic began was the handshake. It foreshadowed what would follow in the months ahead: Social distancing, the loss of human touch and our longing for the physical presence of others. As we began living an increasingly disembodied existence on Zoom meetings and video calls with friends and family, many of us had a similar realization: The tactile sensation cannot be replaced with vision and sound.
Historically, much of philosophy downgraded the importance of touch. According to Plato it was vision that brought us closer to the divine, the realm of ideas and reason. Touch, on the other hand, connected us to our lesser, carnal, animal nature. Aristotle, as usual, had a different take from Plato. For him touch was the most important and philosophical of the senses.
So what does this philosophical disagreement teach us about the nature of touch? And is the current trend to “live on the internet” the result of a technological accident, or the culmination of a culture that prioritises vision while neglecting our embodied nature? Has the pandemic confirmed the importance of physical presence and touch as part of a good social life? And what can Ancient Greek medicine teach us about the role of touch in healing?
Richard Kearney holds the Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College.
He is extremely prolific, the author of over 24 books on European philosophy and literature (including two novels and a volume of poetry) and has edited or co-edited 21 more.
Long before the pandemic, he had already started work on a project around the philosophy of touch, resulting in the publication of his book Touch: Recovering our Most Vital Sense, which has just been published. The book is a testament to how philosophy can capture something important about our cultural moment, even before events themselves make it explicit to the rest of us.
Guardian pieces referenced: Lost touch: how a year without hugs affects our mental health
I desperately miss human touch. Science may explain why.
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