In the Folds of the Flesh: Philosophic Reflections on Touch

Sandy Krolick, Ph.D.

Because such fingers need to knit
         That subtle knot which makes us man,
So must pure lovers’ souls descend
         T’ affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
         Else a great prince in prison lies.
To our bodies turn we then, that so
         Weak men on love reveal’d may look;
Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,
         But yet the body is his book.

John Donne, The Ecstasy

A Tactile Ontology

Following a path charted by the late Hans Jonas, I would suggest that an inquiry concerning our sense of touch best proceed from the vantage point of agency as well as that of the percipient body. In other words, we need to grasp our haptic sensibility in terms of its spontaneous movement between acting and feeling. We must try to articulate how in its very intentionality — extending oneself, bodying-forth, reaching out, or embracing another — touch is concurrently open and receptive, eliciting a response from within the very folds of our flesh.

And, as Professor Jonas himself affirms:

The living body that can die, that has a world and itself belongs to the world, that feels and itself can be felt… this body is the memento of the still unsolved question… ‘What is being’? 1

If Jonas is correct here, and I believe he is, then understanding the phenomenon of touch would require an ontology of the flesh, of the body — as both subject and object in a tactile world. In short, human being must be understood in terms of embodiment first and foremost — one’s capacity to touch and to be touched, to feel and to be felt. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty confirms: “I delve into the thickness of the world by perceptual experience.”2 Accordingly, we now seek to articulate human existence from within the ‘thickness’ of its fleshiness.

And The Word Became Flesh

The primacy of touch in human life and relations has recently been thrown into high relief as a result of the novel coronavirus circulating among us, along with the on-again, off-again isolation and attendant loneliness suffered in its wake. In point of fact, a person cannot long ignore the pleadings of the flesh or the deep-seated need for touch in concrete everyday relations. Similarly, one cannot fail to recognize the continuous and deliberate attenuation of both in the increasingly virtualized life-world that has come to characterize normal life today. So we ask at first: Is not touch my body’s original experience of itself as it palpates the world? While my eyes engage things and other persons through mediated palpation, touch presupposes the immediacy of contact — of friction, of resistance — the pressure of my body against another physical presence within my environment.

What I had discovered years ago while browsing Vladimir Dal’s nineteenth century opus, An Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language, confirmed what I already learned from life on the Siberian taiga — that is to say, the primacy of touch. According to Dal’s lexicography, our five senses could easily be reduced to haptic perception alone: the tongue and palate, touching food; the ear, touching sound waves; the nose, emanations; and the eyes, rays of light. The sense of touch would thus appear to define the very interstices of my world through location, movement, and the reach of my flesh — both inline and outline of the lived-body-world at one and the same time. Or as my late professor Paul Ricoeur might have stated, quoting his countryman Maurice Merleau-Ponty: flesh is a chiasm, the intersecting of body-as-subject and world-as-lived by the body, affording the very possibility of tactile experience — of touching and being touched. As Merleau-Ponty reminds us, quoting David Katz in The World of Touch:

[t]he movement of one’s own body is to touch what lighting is to vision. And like the exploratory gaze of true vision, the ‘knowing touch’ projects us outside our body through movement. When one of my hands touches the other, the end that moves functions as subject and the other as object. 3

Now, if we understand him correctly, in the phenomenon of touch we discover a natural intertwining of self and world, or self and other. And as the philosopher further suggests: “I cannot forget in this case that it is through my body that I go to the world.”4 And Merleau-Ponty concludes:

Experience discloses beneath objective space, in which the body eventually finds its place, a primitive spatiality of which experience is merely the outer covering and which merges with the body’s very being. To be a body is to be tied to a certain world. 5

In short, my body articulates itself spatially vis-a-vis my comportment within the world; my eyes opening into a world which touches, receives and includes them; my gaze encountering things already there, standing out within an encompassing horizon. Looking out into this horizon, something appears, a certain determinacy occurs. As my sight begins to focus, objects take on specific shape and size; they reveal a natural spatiality. But the presence of such objects within my visual field only occurs because I am not simply a gaze; I too am spatially present. “Not primarily in space, but of it,” I am always, already attuned within a world through my body-as-subject. 6 As embodied, the movements and postures I assume both constitute and are constituted by the world that touches me as I reach out and touch it. There is a natural reciprocity or openness to the flesh: touching, I am also touched — both actor and recipient, subject and object of the sensation at one and the same time. Here is the real entwining of self and other, at the interstice of my body of flesh and the flesh of the world.

Even prior to opening her eyes, a newborn feels her body through the intimacy of a mother’s embrace — that is, through the sense of touch. Beginning with that first caress, the world becomes a sensual playground for her infinitely excitable flesh. For this infant, even the inanimate objects of her surroundings, what we adults might call dead matter — a stone, a tree, wind, water, fire and ice — even these entities are alive under her touch; they are filled with life, passion, and being — just as they were for our primeval forbearers, where vitality was everywhere, and being was the same as being alive. As Jonas reminds us;

[T]hough this is forgotten, the cosmos was once alive as perceived by man, and its more recent lifeless image was built up, or left over, in a continuous process of critical subtraction from its fuller original content. 7

What we moderns dismissively label animism or vitalism — the attributing of life and intention to inanimate objects or nature — was for the many millennia of pre-civilized hominid existence a simple acknowledgement of the power, the force, the capacity of nature to act; and since we are intimately part of that nature, it is a recognition of the power enabling our own movement as well. Insofar as all things share in this ability, this pouvoir, we are basically of the same essence, the same substance. I became acutely aware of this while resident in Siberia, living somewhat closer to the land — to nature and its power — understanding that we are a part of the earth, the soil, as it is a part of us; we share the same flesh, the same destiny!

Even my own body does not initially present me as an isolated entity, separate from the world — an ego locked up within a bag of skin. Rather my flesh articulates my facticity as well as my tactility — a dwelling place within the powerful continuum of life. Neither am I simply a static presence within this field. I too exhibit motility and intentionality; a spontaneous capacity to move and to engage — the act of touch itself suggestive of such inherent potency, along with the dynamic configuration of space, as realized in dance, the hunt, and play, as well as in eating, sleeping, and sexual engagement.

From the simple positioning of my body, whether passively suffering or forcibly acting, my flesh exhibits a natural reflexivity, a turning back upon itself, both the breach and bridge that constitute my being-situated. This somatic facing in two directions, both inward (proprioceptive), and outward (tactile), is the ground of my own ecstatic existence; it is a pre-reflective experience of doubling, whereby I understand the potentiality of being both myself and being other than myself, immersed in the power of life: my flesh, the flesh of the world!

Body and mind are like the inside and outside of our skin—two sides of one sleeve. And since actuality is what allows for empathy with others, a civilization that loses touch with flesh loses touch with itself. 8

Tactility and Empathy

In this current post-modern predicament, the question must be raised: Have we and our civilization already lost touch with our senses, with ourselves? Have we lost touch with the flesh and with one another? Recall what Adam and Eve had discovered back in Big Daddy’s garden of earthly delights — nakedness, intimacy, sexuality — the feeling of flesh against flesh: a primeval condition perhaps more eloquently expressed by the poet.

When love with one another so inter-aminates two souls …
So must pure lovers’ souls descend
to affections, and to faculties
Which sense may reach and apprehend. 9

This question then — of losing touch with ourselves and our capacity for touch — lies at the very foundation of our current dilemma, a situation made yet more poignant, impactful, through inconveniences created by a novel coronavirus. But perhaps, just perhaps, there’s a remnant, a small crease in our historic march to a post-Covid world, that still allows for our being-with-one-another, intimately engaged, both touching and being touched.

However, we should understand that touch is not always or only about physical communion per-se, but about being ‘in-touch’ as well — a much broader medium of engagement or ‘being-with’ the Other. As Richard Kearney suggested above: there’s a genuine sense in which touch is also a ‘feeling-for,’ ‘caring-for,’ or empathically ‘being-with’ the Other. Of course, this may be why our most primal forbearers sensed their own totemic identifications not as metaphors or illusions, but rather as a means of genuine engagement-with and being touched by something beyond themselves, an experience of having an identity greater than oneself, attached to something more — a Platonic metaxis of sorts. And, perhaps touch or tactile intimacy within the most primal of human communities is not simply a matter of flesh upon flesh (although it is surely that as well);10 rather, it may be as much about the natural folding-in or conjoining of oneself symbolically with the Other as seen in relations adhering among most kinship-based societies.

In kin relationships, others become predicates of one’s own existence, and vice versa… It is the integration of certain relationships, hence the participation of certain others in one’s own being. As members of one another, kinsmen live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths… [I]n kinship, as in relations to the cosmos in general, alterity is a condition of the possibility of being. 11

In such settings, the very notion of ‘self’ as an isolated ego — a relatively unspoken assumption undergirding our modern conception of individuality — was either non-existent or not of primary consideration among our pre-modern predecessors. In fact, for kinship-based cultures, the individual was meaningfully constituted only in his or her tangible (felt) relations with other members of the tribe or clan, including a rather fluid identity shared among totem and tribe within their natural surround. Here we may note, for example, that encounters with ancestral spirits among the Amazonian Piraha — whether in dream or awake — were as real as any concrete relations between tribal members themselves. 12 In fact, within most pre-civilized cultures, the person is rarely if ever seen as a purely independent, isolated interiority struggling against a foreign environment. Rather, the individual exists as an embodied instantiation of a much more encompassing sense of self-in-community. As Marshall Sahlins continues:

Ethnographic reports speak of ‘transpersonal self’ (Native Americans), of self as a ‘locus of shared social relations or shared biographies’(Caroline Islands), of persons as ‘the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them’ (New Guinea Highlands). Referring broadly to the African concept of ‘the individual,’ Roger Bastide writes: ‘He does not exist except to the extent he is outside and different from himself.’ Clearly, the self in these societies is not synonymous with the bounded, unitary and autonomous individual as we know him… Rather the individual person is the locus of multiple other selves with whom he or she is joined in mutual relations of being… 13

Of course there are other examples among primitive and pre-literate cultures, far too numerous to recount, where departed kinsmen, helper spirits, or other phantom guides, engage auditorily, visually, and even tactilely with those still among the living — with countrymen, friends, family, shamans, priests, or visionaries. In short, embodiment in one form or another — being touched, in-touch, or even touching the hand of God — remains central to our human tragedy. And, remember that even the risen Jesus of Nazareth appeared to his disciples in the flesh.

The Frailty of Flesh

There is an important distinction still to be drawn between our simple tactile sensations and the unparalleled feel of flesh upon flesh. The impressions I receive when I reach out and touch something are not quite the same as what I experience when I feel or embrace another person. And this is the real mystery of flesh, where a “mere touch-impression” is transformed from a simple “tactile encounter” into an act of “feeling another body.”14

Touching the Other elicits a singular sensation, originating in the natural reflexivity of the act itself. Touching another individual, I am acutely aware of how he or she feels when being touched by me. This experiencing of one’s own flesh in and through touching or being touched by another is at the heart of our experience of sexual intimacy. In no other tactile encounter is the flesh so utterly absorbed — and two souls so completely inter-animated — as in the ecstatic feeling that occurs in the mutuality of carnal relations. Here the intimacy of touch viscerally reveals the transcendent possibilities of embodiment — the potential for being myself and being other than or greater than myself. Once more, I recall the words of the poet.

Our bodies why do we forbear?…
We owe them thanks, because they thus
         Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their senses’ force to us,
         Nor are dross to us, but allay.
On man, heaven’s influence works not so,
         But that it first imprints the air;
So soul into the soul may flow,
            Though it to body first repair. 15

The feel of my lover’s body, the pressure of flesh against flesh, generates heat, stimulating as well our sense of smell and taste, while the tongue, in licking — like the hand, in touching — body’s-forth this same cutaneous experience, making direct appeal to appetence and its pressing fulfillment. The eyes are perhaps the least engaged in this intimate play of the flesh, with almost all awareness gathered around touch, smell and taste, and to some degree hearing — listening to one another’s sounds, breathings, and silences.

What is it about touch, and in particular the feel of another’s flesh that we find so welcoming and yet, at times, so fearsome? Of course, there is a deeply emotional satisfaction in human touch: the hearty handshake, an extended arm to hold, a shoulder to cry on, an affectionate hug, a gentle caress, a loving embrace, or a warm body to envelop me. But there is another, darker side as well: the battering, assault, beating, trauma, and the attendant suffering of pain.

The more I reflected on our current historical circumstance, the clearer it seemed that the world today was in desperate need of pleasurable touch. Of course human life is and remains a mediated existence — sensual fulfillment always something outstanding, still to be realized anew, again and again. But, it is this very mediation between self and world, or self and other, that gives rise to appetition in the first place. As Hans Jonas summarizes: like all animal existence, human being is and remains essentially passionate. 16

Throughout my youth and early adulthood, I had never seriously considered the degree to which the touch of the flesh was such an elemental need. But once discovered, never would that recognition be forgotten. And as I later came to see, the primacy of our haptic sense — of touching and being touched — provided the somatic basis for a more organic mode of recollection. In short, there seemed to be some primal, if not instinctual, memory-trace associated with tactile sensation itself — a muted, natural recollection buried deep within the folds of my flesh. In their own work, Sex At Dawn, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha are clear about this hard-wired need — not simply for physical connection, but for intimacy as well.

Homo sapiens evolved to be shamelessly, undeniably, inescapably sexual… But these preconscious impulses remain our biological baseline, our reference point, the zero in our own personal number system. 17

On the other hand, physical isolation, if even for only brief periods, can prove psychologically unsettling — a result of internality, being cut off from normal human interaction — the inability to reach out and touch one another in friendship, intimacy, or even in conflict. Our body of flesh is not so much an accoutrement, additive to our human nature; it is part and parcel of who we are, as well as how we see and position ourselves vis-a-vis the other. Yet, in an increasingly digitized, virtual life-world, further accentuated by the likes of a novel virus, many of us have literally been left desperate for even the most casual experience of human touch. And there is a kind of melancholy tied directly to this inability to reach out and touch one another, to bind ourselves through being together in the flesh.

Today, separated from countless strangers by only thin walls, tiny ear[buds] and hectic schedules, we assume a desolate sense of isolation must have weighed heavily on our ancestors, wandering over their windswept prehistoric landscape. But in fact, this seemingly common-sense assumption couldn’t be more mistaken… The social lives of foragers are characterized by a depth and intensity of interaction few of us could imagine (or tolerate). From the first morning of birth to the final mourning of death, a forager’s life is one of intense, constant interaction, interrelation, interdependence. 18

‘Touched by’ and ‘Cared for’

It would seem in conclusion that we are by nature intertwined, inter-involved and, to that extent, responsible for one another; indeed, this all-too-human burden is reflected in the very structure of our being. We are, as the philosopher says, fundamentally ‘being-there’ alongside and with other people, even when we are ostensibly alone. This existential structure of ‘being-with’ implicates us in a profound circle of reciprocity whereby care for the Other — including the sharing of vital resources — seems only natural. 19 It is simply the human thing to do, rooted in the genetic makeup of the species and our Pleistocene heritage. Martin Heidegger designates this the essential Care-structure (Sorge) of human existence. It is also significant to note that etymologically ‘Care’ derives from Old English (caru) as well as Old Saxon and Gothic (kara) — referring to one’s ‘concern’ or even ‘anxious apprehension’ attendant upon recognition of one’s finite nature. In any event, Heidegger reminds us of its import with a short fable recorded by Franz Bücheler — a myth concerning the nature of Care — linked as it is to our concrete relations, including our fundamental vulnerability.

Once when ‘Care’ was crossing a river, she saw some clay; she thoughtfully took a piece and began to shape it. While she was thinking about what she had made, Jupiter came by. ‘Care’ asked him to give it spirit, and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed upon it, Jupiter forbade this and demanded that it be given his name instead. While ‘Care’ and Jupiter were arguing, Earth arose, and desired that her name be conferred upon the creature, since she had offered it part of her body. They asked Saturn to be the judge. And Saturn gave them the following decision, which seemed to be just:“Since you, Jupiter, have given its spirit, you should receive that spirit at death; and since you, Earth, have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since ‘Care’ first shaped this creature, she shall possess it as long as it lives. And because there is a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called ‘homo,’ for it is made out of humus (earth).” 20

Here we come full circle, acknowledging the tentative and precarious nature of life in the body, accepting the reality of death cradled within our own flesh; at the same time recognizing the world-openness which this concrete body of flesh affords us, including our capacity to touch and be touched by the Other. Herein lies the foundation of our quest for genuine human contact — not only for physical touch and the intimacy afforded by the flesh, but for caring and being cared-for by one another. As Jonas concludes:

That life is mortal is indeed its fundamental contradiction, but this also belongs inseparably to its essence. Life cannot at any time be imagined apart from its mortality… [we are] free, but dependent; isolated but in necessary contact; seeking contact, but destructible because of it: conversely, no less threatened by want of contact: endangered thus on both sides, by both the tremendous power and brittleness of the world, and standing on the narrow ridge between. 21

Positioned on a kind of precipice — open to the Other, but distracted by our own frailty — we venture out hand-in-hand, bodying-forth our fears as well as our desires, displaying our concern as well as our profoundly human capacity to care-for and be cared-for.

In the folds of our flesh — where the most visceral and engaging state of human existence lies; the very concreteness of life in the body is reflected by our various moods as well as our approach to the Other: anxiety, worry, apprehension, concern and care. Recognition of our own finitude, of our own potentiality for not-being, is what provides the impetus, the desire, to seek out and embrace the Other — to commune, conjoin, and enjoy the camaraderie as well as the intimacy of being together in the flesh. We long for the Other, for connection, for mutual support — to touch and to be touched — physically as well as emotionally and psychologically. These are the hallmarks of human life in the body in the world.


1 Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, p. 19
2 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 204
3 Ibid, p. 315
4 Ibid, p. 316
5 Ibid, p. 148
6 Ibid
7 Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, p. 12
8 Richard Kearney, Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense, p. 47
9 John Donne, The Ecstasy
10 See, for example, the study by Chris Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex At Dawn
11 Marshall Sahlins, The Western Illusion of Human Nature, pp. 46-48
12 Daniel L. Everett, Don’t Sleep There are Snakes, p. 137
13 Marshall Sahlins, pp. 46-48
14 Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, p. 141
15 John Donne, The Ecstasy
16 Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life, pp. 106
17 Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn, p. 46
18 Ryan and Jetha, p. 87-88
19 See Morton Fried, The Evolution of Political Society: An Essay in Political Anthropology
20 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 25
21 Hans Jonas, Memoirs, p. 230

About kulturcritic

With a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Virginia and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, Sandy had a ten-year academic career, with appointments at University of Virginia and the Colorado School of Mines. He spent the next twenty years in executive ranks at several of America’s largest international firms, including Computer Sciences Corporation, Ernst & Young, and General Electric. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe and North America, as well as parts of Eurasia and Africa. For the past five years Sandy has been living in Western Siberia with his wife and young child, teaching at the Pedagogical University and the Altai Institute for Law and Economics in Barnaul, Russia. Published works include VERONIKA: The Siberian's Tale (a novel), (Islands Press 2011) Apocalypse Of The Barbarians: Inquisitions On Empire (Islands Press, 2010), The Recovery of Ecstasy: Notebooks From Siberia (Booksurge, 2009), Recollective Resolve: A Phenomenological Understanding of Time and Myth (Mercer University Press, 1987), Ethical Decisionmaking Styles (Addison-Wesley Press, 1986), and Gandhi in the Postmodern Age: Issues in War and Peace (CSM Press,1984).
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3 Responses to In the Folds of the Flesh: Philosophic Reflections on Touch

  1. deenastryker says:

    Hi Sandy,

    Can’t open this document, even aftr download!

    🙂 Deena

  2. Lucy Lettis says:

    Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.

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