What is the connection between bodily awareness and the sense of touch?
By Amelia Wood
There are various approaches to how connected these two concepts are. For the sake of this essay, I shall put aside the arguments which attempt to show there is no connection between these two and make the presupposition that a connection is present. The view that I will be adopting is the understanding that bodily awareness is sufficient for touch as contact with something involving sensations, but it is possible to conceive of it without it. Furthermore, we can understand that our bodily awareness provides a location for our sensations. Not just that we locate the contact point on the end of our finger, but we also locate the object in the wider world. The work of O’Shaughnessy and Martin will develop the overall argument of a sufficient connection between the concepts. The argument could be demonstrated as follows:
- Premise 1: When we touch an object, we have a tactual experience of it;
- Premise 2: Tactual experiences have a location on our body, and we are able to identify this location;
- Premise 3: Bodily awareness allows us to be aware of the position of our limbs without needing to observe them;
- Premise 4: As awareness allows us to locate the tactual experience of an object on our body, we can then understand the location of the object within the external space due to bodily awareness;
- Conclusion: Bodily awareness is sufficient for touch.
The argument is attempting to claim that bodily awareness is sufficient for touch as it is bodily awareness that allows us to locate the sensation of physical contact on our body. This information can then be applied to the external world to identify the location of the object. If we look at the first two premises, it is clear that contact through touch has a location to it as we feel a sensation on the part of our body. However, this doesn’t mean that awareness is necessary as we understand it is possible to touch something and not have a sensation of it. Examples of this can involve someone with damaged nerve endings or when a certain body part was anaesthetised; these, however, are exceptions. When talking about locations of sensations, it is our bodily awareness that allows us to identify where these sensations are. If we are to touch a wall behind us, we do not need to observe our hand touching the wall to recognise that is where the sensation is located. Rather we feel the sensation behind us but are aware that it is at the tip of our finger because we are aware our hand is also behind us.
This understanding is supported by the work of Brain O’Shaughnessy, who argued that bodily awareness is sufficient for touch. This is because we can conceive of coming into contact with something without sensation in the body part, but it is not the normal case. In his approach to tactile perception, he claims we are aware of “something solid here” (O’Shaughnessy, 1989), referring to our point of contact with an object. For example, when we touch something, there is a sensation on the tip of our finger, which is caused by the object pressing against our finger. This makes us aware of the contact on this body part as relative to our whole body. This is one meaning of when he refers to ‘here’. However, it also refers to the position of the object in relation to the external space. Bodily awareness allows us to understand the spatial positions of our limbs and the external space that they occupy. This means we are able to identify the position of external objects due to the connection between touch and bodily awareness, as demonstrated in the argument above.
O’Shaughnessy further demonstrates the sufficient connection between bodily awareness and touch by exploring our tactual experience of objects which we cannot experience as a whole in one moment. This example helps to develop the last premises of the argument above, demonstrating the cause bodily awareness has on locating external objects, or in this case, recognising large shapes. He offers the example of a straight edge which we can locate on the edge of a desk. There is a distinction made between our ability to visually observe the straightness of the desk edge and how we are able to experience this straightness through touch perception. In the case of vision, we are able to experience all the straight-edge parts of the desk in one visual field. But when we make contact with the desk through touch, we just feel a sensation of the desk edge preventing our finger from moving further. There is no sensation of ‘straightness’ at a singular point of touch. Movement of our finger along the edge of the desk would result in an unchanging sensation as we continue to feel the edge against our finger. We feel the same sensation at different moments in time and so are unable to build a sensation of ‘straightness’ with just touch sensation alone. O’Shaughnessy concludes this point by saying, “we do not perceive the straightness of an edge through immediately perceiving the straightness… of a sensation which represents that straightness, either instantaneously or across time” (O’Shaughnessy, 1989). Instead, we become aware of the straightness of the object due to the awareness of the movement in our body. Our bodily awareness allows us to be aware of the position of our limbs in relation to our bodies. We gain a sense of ‘straightness’ as our bodily awareness recognises the straight movement of our hand along the desk edge. This approach to the connection of bodily awareness demonstrates how it is sufficient for touch with our ability to experience touch sensations but not the touch sensations of ‘straightness’.
Developing the last premise of the argument, it comments on the significance of body awareness in identifying the location of external objects. This premise refers to locating objects in the space around us. It also refers to the ability that allows us to identify the limits of our body. Our bodies only take up so much space, and we are aware that there is an end or a limit to the space we take up. This means when referring to ‘external space’, we refer to all the space that is beyond the limits of our physical body. Michael Martin develops this understanding by commenting, “there must be a contrast between where it is possible to feel sensation, the apparent limits of the body, and where one could not be feeling a sensation, that which lies outside the body” (Martin, 1992). This premise adds to the overall argument that bodily awareness is sufficient for touch. This awareness of limits allows us to know that the touch sensations we feel are internal and located in us. An awareness of the spatial limits of your body can provide a sense of touch. This is possible due to bodily awareness.
- Martin, Michael (1992). Sight and Touch, In Tim Crane (ed.), The Contents of Experience. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- O’Shaughnessy, Brian (1989). The Sense of Touch Australasian Journal of Philosophy 67 (1):37 – 58.