The Sense of Touch

From Anomaly to Paradigm
1 September 2019 until 1 September 2024
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Project type

Children are taught early on that there are five senses: vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. This list is, however, not at all self-evident. For centuries, in the Aristotelian tradition, touch was regarded as an ‘anomalous’ sense: while all other senses have their own organ (eyes, ears, nose, tongue) and their proper object of sensation (colour, sound, smell, flavour), touch is spread all over the body and has no obvious organ nor a proper object of its own. The seventeenth century turned this situation upside down, as touch became the ‘standard model’ for the working of the senses. In fact, the mechanical philosophy explained all sensation as the effect of particles impacting on our organs. The aim of this project is to map the views of the sense of touch between the late Middle Ages and the early-modern times. The period that I investigate are the centuries preceding the mechanical philosophy, that is, the period from the late thirteenth to the early seventeenth century. I especially look at selected case-studies from the history of philosophy and the history of medicine (John Buridan, Tommaso del Garbo, Blasius of Parma, Girolamo Fracastoro, Bernardino Telesio, Julius Caesar Scaliger, and Philip Melanchthon) with the aim of answering the following research question: How and to what extent did late-medieval and Renaissance views of touch contribute to the formation of the all-embracing view of touch of early-modern philosophy and science? The transition between pre-modern and modern science and the emergence of the mechanistic paradigm is therefore investigated from an entirely new perspective, namely the history of the sense of touch.


This research is sponsored by the Dutch NWO:


Contact information

Dr. Chiara Beneduce (chiara.beneduce@ru.nl)