Fen Inman

In Which Confucius and Aristotle Place Our Hands on the Elephant


Six-panel folding screen showing Chinese children playing with an elephant, late-18th- to mid-19th-century Japan. Ink and gold on paper.

When you’re small, you learn the five senses. Sight is done by the eyes, hearing by the ears, tasting by the tongue, and smelling by the nose. Touch is done by—well, what, exactly? The hands and fingers are often the pictographic shorthand for touch, but they aren’t where touch is “found,” certainly. Is touch done by the skin? It is, but also by the muscles, bones, and ligaments beneath. You feel a muscle cramp, a full stomach, tension in a joint—all beneath the skin. It’s as though the capacity for sensation wells up wherever the flesh requires it. Where is touch happening? What is the organ of touch?

First, Sight and Touch

This is the same question that vexed Aristotle in his book De AnimaOn the Soul—in approximately 350 BCE. He found, as we do, that you can’t isolate where touch happens because it happens everywhere, and nothing mediates between what’s touched and the sensation of touch.

For Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, touch was the basest sense because no distance from what’s touched is possible. Correspondingly, sight was the highest sense: sight puts us at a distance from whatever is under scrutiny, providing a semblance of objectivity and the intuitive ability to hold the sense-perception of that thing separate from both it and from oneself. One can point one’s gaze, turn it “on” and “off,” and focus it, such that seeing something is as close to a conscious action of sensation as one can get. For Plato, in his world of imperfect shadows of perfect Forms, to sense something intentionally, as a gestalt, and from afar was how one got the best idea of it. Sight, mediated by distance and intention, was the loftiest and most trustworthy sense, followed by hearing, smell, taste, and lastly touch. Touch is muddy. It does not lend to the toucher the ability to sense something and say “I have sensed X.” When someone hands you something with your eyes closed, you must puzzle over it, feeling it, before opening your eyes to see “what it is.” For Plato, though this story originated far east of him, the blind men running their hands over the long-suffering elephant’s various tangible bits would not be able to say “I have sensed an elephant” with any accuracy. From his “optocentric” perspective, they are missing out.1 They can’t interpret what they sense to get a whole.

But Aristotle looked more closely than Plato at touch. He found it unique in its unmediated nature and in the way it centerlessly “fills” the body as though flesh and capacity for sensation were identical. He theorized that sensing flesh (what we today know to be tissue shot through with nerves) is, in fact, itself a medium. It is through and by way of our sensing flesh that the world ceaselessly reaches “us,” whatever we are inside ourselves, in the same way that air is the medium by which smells reach our noses and water is the medium by which fishes’ electric fields reach eels’ electroreceptors. The sense of touch itself mediates. To Aristotle, this quality made touch the most necessary of the senses and also the most discriminating. Sight lets you sense something as a whole, all at once (at least from one angle), but touch lets you sense a thing most finely, with the highest resolution. Touch cannot be focused: it can only receive, blindly, and discern differences between things. The mechanoreceptors in your fingertips can feel a speck on the tabletop that’s 10 nanometers tall, and in doing so your sense of touch has discriminated between same and different. The same speck seen from afar could be misinterpreted—it could be a trick of the light or a defect in the wood. But touching is touching, and your flesh senses only what it has felt.

Touch works both at the “edge” of your body and inside it. Numerous studies show how your kinesthetic sense is not achieved by the brain tracking where it has moved the limbs but by body parts sensing other body parts touching and stretching inside the body, largely through muscle spindles. To be in the world is to always be touching and sensing yourself as though your body were part of the outside world. And this accords with Aristotle: you are “in touch with” your body through itself in the same way that you are in touch with the world through your body. The body is part of the sensed world and the sensing self all at once.2 This picture of understanding the world through the senses is “haptocentric”: to know something best is to be touching it, in contact with it, and feeling its texture, because touch as a medium does its own interpretive work. It “translates” the world we’re physically in contact with (and of which the body is part) into something that can be experienced—sensation.

Two Ways of Knowing

Here we have not only two hierarchies of the senses but, in fact, two metaphors for knowledge.

Sight lends itself easily as the structural metaphor for knowledge in the optocentric Western tradition that followed Plato: if I see something, I can say what it is. To have knowledge like sight is to know things as wholes, distinct from the self and from other things and capable of being brought to mind even in their factual absence. This paradigm seeps into our language around knowledge so that we say “...you see?” to ask someone whether they understand what we’ve just said, and we bring things before the “mind’s eye” to consider them. Even I, above, described Aristotle’s pursuit of knowledge about touch as “looking closer at it.” When you lean in close and narrow your eyes to see something in finer detail, are you not simply trying to mimic the effect of touch with the affordances of sight? But you’re still sensing over a distance.

To have knowledge like touch is to understand something by being in contact with it, receiving and discerning its minute movements and textures and, crucially, responding to them by changing the way contact is made. Such knowledge is immediate, fine-grained, and unfalsifiable, as it were—touch “fails” when it is insufficiently sensitive, not when it is wrong. It’s extremely difficult to design a robot that can both lift a hundred-pound weight and pick up an egg without crushing it because it has to be able to “feel,” from flexion in the eggshell itself, when it’s put enough pressure on the egg to lift it but not enough to break it. Its “flesh” isn’t sensitive and so doesn’t respond like ours does. Just like touch itself, touch-like knowledge puts you in a dialogue with things that lets you move them, while sight and sight-like knowledge let you judge what something is and point it out to others.

Two Modes of Foreknowledge

Sight as a metaphor for knowledge is a well-trodden subject often explored in the trope of the blind prophet wherein one who loses physical sight gains knowledge of a different kind. Stories vary for the blind seer Tiresias, but in each case he is struck blind for some perceived wrongdoing and then granted the gift of prophecy as compensation. The Norse god Odin voluntarily trades his eye for a drink from the spring of wisdom (and the Icelandic Edda tells how the sacrificed eye itself is still in the spring, somehow contributing to its powers). When the wife of King Jeraboam tries to fool the blind prophet Ahijah, YHWH directly gives him knowledge of the intended deception and the future fate of the deceiver and her nation. And, in an inversion of the trope that still retains the exchange, Oedipus gouges his eyes out at the moment he “sees” the arc of his true fate. The same archetype persists in Western literature and media, from the X-Men character Oracle whose empty white orbs indicate she is “looking” elsewhere to the prophet-messiah in Dune who loses his physical sight but gains prescience.

But to me it seems clear that in each case it’s not so much that sight is exchanged for “knowledge of a different kind,” but that the prophet simply gives up physical sight for sight-like knowledge—visions, prophetic dreams, divine revelation, farsight—all kinds of knowing-something-from-afar. The seer’s “privileged” prophetic knowledge could not be extrapolated from his ordinary, everyday experience, in the same way my knowledge of the tree I see outside my window could not be extrapolated from my current tactile experience of desk, chair, clothes, and posture. There is a qualitative break between the knower and the known. Ahijah knows why and how Israel will fall because YHWH tells him, not for any reason found in the world apart from this divine intervention. The prophet suffers a kind of derangement of his normal, healthy faculties for knowledge, and it is fitting that he is pervasively depicted as either a god himself or a marginal, liminal, somewhat impractical figure roaming the desert or the hinterlands: one whose contribution to day-to-day matters is his foresight alone. He says what he sees, and others alter their actions.

But this is not, it seems, the only way to know the future. Around 200 years before Aristotle examined the living body’s encounter with the world, the sage Confucius was teaching his disciples a way to live in it. One idea he turned to again and again is that of zhi, written in hanzi as 知 or 智.

Zhi is generally translated into English as “wisdom” or “knowledge,” but these translations fall far short of communicating what zhi is and how it functions as an inflection point in the process of sound human life in the Confucian model.3 It is, in part, a kind of understanding that is like touch—a honed, discerning sensitivity of experience that is unmediated, fine-grained, and, perhaps most importantly, responsive. This manifests as a kind of foreknowledge very different from that of the visionary prophet. The later Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu describes those who employ zhi (here rendered “the wise”) thus:

The wise discern calamity and fortune from a distance and know benefit and harm early on. When things [first] stir, they know the course of their transformations; when incidents [first] arise, they know their outcomes. They observe beginnings and know their ends.4

The practitioner of zhi can predict the future because he knows what can flow from the present by virtue of the dynamic sensitivity of his understanding of what’s immediate and its role in the system of which he is a part. He knows “from a distance” not like the prophet spoken to by God, but because he can sense (it seems correct to say “feel”) how things “stir” and knows “the course of their transformations.” The seasoned fisherman with his hand around the base of his pole feels the hooked fish’s motions and skillfully guides it first to exhaustion and then into his boat, playing off of the possibilities of each moment to bring about an appropriate end. He knows what comes of what, but also that to be in contact is to be part of the event. Someone with zhi understands the world as though his hands rested on its thousand tiny heartbeats: it is, in a sense, foresight through sensitive contact.

But this is only one aspect of zhi. In contrast to the prophet who points and warns and lets others choose whether to act, in the concept of zhi there is no difference between knowing what will happen and acting to effect what should happen. It’s not merely a sensitivity to the stirrings of the present, but the capacity to judge which of the foreknown possibilities is the best development of the present and to orient oneself effectively to realize it. It is simultaneously to understand and to respond well. Dong Zhongshu continues on the topic of the wise:

Their actions will be suitable; their affairs will be appropriate; their conduct will be efficacious; their name will be praised; their persons will enjoy many benefits and will be free from calamities; their good fortune will extend to their sons and grandsons; and their virtue will cleave to the multitudes.

The practitioner of zhi is regarded as an upstanding, practical pillar of family and society—quite a contrast with the marginalized, mystic prophet of the wastes! This manner of living doesn’t flow from zhi alone, but from a complex of practical human virtues that together describe a way to act effectively and harmoniously in every area of life, and which fully implicate the individual in the events of which his actions are part. Zhi gives knowledge that is like touch rather than sight in part because the knower who practices these virtues together can’t hang back and watch. He responds.

And so we get two routes, if you will, towards foreknowledge, which correspond to two understandings of knowledge itself. On the one hand, you can hone your practical sensitivity to the already-available particulars of immediate experience, developing a keenness of discernment and dynamic response that lets you guide the world around you to the particular fruition you foreknew to be best. On the other, you can sacrifice not only your physical sight (or half of it) but also your place within the landscape of practical understanding for knowledge that is available only in an extraordinary manner. The prophet archetype of antiquity trades literal sight away for metaphorical sight, not anything else. But within the same mythopoetic lexicon we do find a place where sight is actually relinquished for touch: the healer.

Laying on Hands

Enter the centaur Chiron (whose name means “hand”) and the god Asclepius. Chiron was wounded by Hercules’ spear, thus sustaining both an eternally unhealing wound and the ability to heal others, and retreated in his agony to a mountainside cave. Those in search of his powers would enter the darkness there and submit to a laying-on of hands. Asclepius, whose snake-twined caduceus adorns ambulances today, was Chiron’s disciple and the patron of his own cult. His supplicants would inter themselves in dark catacombs to await his healing visitation in serpentine form. To be healed, by this logic, one leaves the world of sight and descends into the world of touch—to a darkness that is at once the grave and the womb and within which only the body can have its way.

Even aboveground, the laying-on of hands is synonymous with healing, whether physical or spiritual. We see this most clearly in Biblical accounts, but the intuition has passed seamlessly forward to the present. For the Romans, dissection was verboten: the body’s opacity to the eye was to be maintained, mirroring its living processes’ epistemic inaccessibility. European monarchs were thought to possess a healing touch. Today, I can turn on the TV and watch a Baptist preacher press his hand to an arthritic congregant’s forehead. The healer often closes his eyes, like a musician absorbed in his instrument’s vibrations. An emerging body of clinical evidence shows that touch can decrease pain and even speed postoperative recovery.5 Our myths, our intuitions, and our scientific findings agree that touch is what’s needed for healing. This is because the sense of touch is how the body heals itself.

Health must be realized in the ill or injured body as a possibility it already contained, a harmony towards which it can be steered. This requires a fine-grained and textural understanding of its tendencies, possibilities, and current state that is responsive, sensitive, and up-close. The body heals itself in this manner, because it understands itself the way it understands everything else: by touch.

Your flesh heals itself without recourse to distanced assessment or broad decision-making, but only via minute discernments of how each tissue should respond to what it feels from its neighbors. A healing wound moves through the process of replacing the damaged or lost tissue in a blind, almost automatic manner informed only by the shape of the wound and the affordances and necessities of blood, skin, and organ. The activity of healing is guided by the body’s awareness of itself—its apparent experience of itself as something that must be realized in a certain way again. On a conscious level, to rest when ill, to drink lots of fluids and avoid solid food, or to move carefully to protect a cut or bruise are all ways you help heal yourself by feeling what the body needs and doing it. It is an effortful surrender to the minutiae of the body that nonetheless effects a future state of health. One could extend the same analysis from the regenerative work of “healing” a wound to the everyday work of the body’s ceaseless, semiautonomous self-upkeep. Even the homeostatic and hormonal adjustments the body executes in itself in response to minute changes in chemical gradients rely on its basic capacity for self-sensing. All this relies on the body’s ability to sense itself, and do so with the blind, immediate discernment of touch.

Gripping the Egg

So is healing a kind of prophecy? Is simply living—eating, growing, working out—altogether reliant on a kind of foreknowledge? If you think about it for just a second, of course it is. If I eat too much la zi ji ding with the chili pepper seeds in, I will spend the next day indisposed. If I drink too much tea in the morning I will feel dizzy. If I grab my ankle and pull my foot over my head too far, I will pull something, and I can feel where that something is even if I don’t know what to call it. In each case I cannot identify, name, or point to what exactly is happening just by sensory experience as if I could see it, but I know it and its relation to me intimately, in a way that closes the distance between knowing what will happen and what should. In each case that “too much” and “too far” is a very, very specific amount, as specific as the amount of force needed to grip the egg securely and not break it. I have to know what happens if. Paying attention to my body gives me genuine predictive power over a complex and fairly opaque system.

This threatens to either make prescience boring or to drag us into the epistemological weeds, but it remains remarkable that we are able to operate our bodies at the cusp of the future as powerfully and effectively as we do. If there is foreknowledge here, it is much more like what manifests in zhi than like prophetic vision. Perhaps even very much like zhi, because we could say that the practitioner of zhi is in the world in much the same way you are in your body. Always in contact, with incredibly high sensitivity and responsivity. And here’s where we see the stakes of this discussion: if the mundane experience of physical touch gives you the ability to heal and sustain yourself, then the quality of your contact with the world determines your ability to heal and sustain it.

There are a great many things I could say here, and questions I could ask. Does this idea of touch-like knowledge change our understanding of sight-like knowledge? I haven’t looked at all into the relationship between the two. How does contact come into play when I’m looking at a painting? What about when I’m looking at the debris left in the wake of a tornado? If it’s my own house? If it’s on TV? What are the implications of touch-like knowledge in the sphere of mental illness? Diagnosis seems firmly in the optocentric paradigm that points and identifies, but does it have to be? What of cancer, of HIV, of chronic illness—what goes wrong on the level of touch when the body does not heal itself? And can my capacity for understanding break down the same way, so that I’m unable to “feel” the world stirring and respond well? Are there disorders of knowing? Is fine-grained, touch-like experience feasible when we get so much through screens and corporate software? Does the way global supply chains are invisible to consumers degrade our contact with our world?

In every case, is there a wound there? Could it be healed?

1 The term “optocentrism” and its counterpart, “haptocentrism,” are developed in philosopher Richard Kearney’s extensive work on touch, and it is there that I was first introduced to this particular reading of De Anima as well as the contrast with Plato.

2 While much of this could indeed be seen as a paraphrase of ideas that Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (among others) would propose and extend considerably around 2,000 years later, I will not be alone in contending that they were, inadvertently or not, building on Aristotle.

3 My understanding of zhi owes much to scholar Roger T. Ames’ work on Confucius. Ames translates it, after much discussion, as “realization” (as in “making-real”), which emphasizes the responsive, active, future-actualizing character of zhi above its epistemic character. Both are essential.

4 These quotations are from the book Luxuriant Gems of the Spring and Autumn, attributed in whole or part (scholarship differs) to Dong Zhongshu and here translated by Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major.

5 As per these two surveys of recent studies, among a great many others.

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