Feeling feeling

Brian Dillon

  • The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation by Daniel Heller-Roazen
    Zone, 386 pp, £21.95, June 2007, ISBN 978 1 890951 76 4

We learn a lot about ourselves at the moment when we lose our balance. In the canon of philosophical pratfalls, a tumble taken by Montaigne, and recounted in his essay ‘On Practice’, is among the most instructive. Out riding one day with his retinue, Montaigne was seated (as M.A. Screech’s translation has it) on ‘an undemanding but not very reliable horse’. A careless servant rode too close; master and mount were overthrown and pitched, heels aloft, some distance apart, leaving the horse ‘stunned’ and its rider in a trance. ‘That is the only time I have ever lost consciousness,’ Montaigne writes of his brief aerial adventure and sudden lapse on landing. His household at first supposed he had died; for several hours he languished between life and death. His senses deserted him, and yet he was strangely aware of his predicament: ‘It seemed as though my life was merely clinging to my lips. It seemed, as I shut my eyes, as though I was helping to push it out.’

What the author of the Essays had lost as he hit the ground was not consciousness as such. Montaigne still thinks, and knows that he thinks, but his actual ‘self’ is bound up with his rapidly diminishing sensorium. As Daniel Heller-Roazen argues in his rich and elegant book, a more enigmatic formulation of the sense of self than we are used to was still at work in the 16th century: its place had not yet been usurped by the bullying cogito which obscures, today, Montaigne’s precise meaning. This ‘unnamed king’ of the senses, this ‘inner touch’ or ‘common sense’, a feeling (if that is what it was) that had been sketchily described for centuries in philosophical and literary texts, was in no way reducible to the Cartesian vanishing point of pure consciousness. Nor had it much in common with the human soul as imagined, say, by St Augustine. It was not really a matter of being, either. In the case of Montaigne, grovelling on the earth, we might legitimately ask what else he had left.

The answer is a certain sort of sensation: a feeling that has always been present but mostly unacknowledged in the history of Western philosophy. Over and above the five senses, we can discern, says Aristotle – in whose writings Heller-Roazen first discovers the notion – a kind of governing master sense. Actually, ‘over and above’ is not quite right: we might as easily say that this ‘common sense’ subtends or grounds the others; but this is in fact just one of the physical and metaphorical confusions that are the subject of The Inner Touch. Aristotle is already ambiguous on this theme; he seems unsure whether the sixth, master sense is a higher or a lower power: a synthesising faculty or crude animal awareness. In his wake, a philosophical tradition develops according to which the sensation at issue constitutes both the founding condition of the five senses and the faculty that governs their action. It also gives rise to a stranger, discrete phenomenon: the feeling of being a feeling being.

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