Science and the Senses: Integration

From the Series: Science and the Senses

Photo by Jean Bernard.

In our introduction to this session of Correspondences, we invited our participants—all scholars who work at the intersection of anthropology and the study of science and its objects and practices—to imagine how to take the senses seriously. Integral to the body that knows, the senses mediate the experience through which knowing is and can be done. And hence our challenge: how to account for such mediations? How to acknowledge, understand, and value them? And how to reintroduce them into the repertoire of knowledge-making practices?

By senses, we mean the senses in the broadest possible sense. For while some sensory faculties—such as seeing and perceiving—are notoriously included in and famously enhanced by the practices of science, others—such as touching, tasting, and even feeling in its many iterations—are underrated and, as such, typically written out of the accounts of how scientific discovery is done. While it is common to highlight accounts such as Louis Pasteur’s discovery of antibiotic capacity by seeing things grow and not grow, it is less widely known that geologists taste rocks or that some naturalists gain an understanding of their objects through dancing with plants.

Justine Laurent and Maja de Langen take up our invitation by asserting that it is not uncommon to acknowledge the senses as, somehow, carrying knowledge. Indeed, efforts to study the senses as object—what they are and how they work—and to study them as tools in knowing—nothing can be known without enrolling the senses in the process of discovery—are well-documented, even mainstream. Proposing a reverse move, Laurent and de Langen take up sensing as it is informed by knowing. Their explorations of regimes of pain management and bowel-movement regulation highlight how the processes of putting experience into words and numerical measurements in turn directly affects those experiences.

Filippo Bertoni outright challenges our premise. In the history of the sciences, as in their current practices, he submits, the senses are present, respected, and of use. True, accounts of scientific work do not explicitly acknowledge sensory practice, but, he reminds us, the actual carrying out of such work is unimaginable without mindful and attentive sensory engagement. There is perhaps an interesting difference here between how scientific work is done and how it is described; between how the lab functions and how the functioning of the laboratory is taught; between the context of justification and the context of discovery. Yet the work of each of our correspondents aims to undercut such discrepancies, showing that description reduces and that practice is richer than its accounts allow.

Bertoni takes us further in this direction in two ways, one more explicit and one less. Explicitly, by attending to what he calls the planetary sensorium, the unbearable force of the Anthropocene is called out and a hesitation to adopt it along with all of its terms called in. Read as the ultimate Enlightenment move to remake the planet in the human’s image—both in content, as the very name hails human making of the planet as fact, and in sensibility, as it renders the planet incapable of resisting—the Anthropocene, its concerns, its vested interests, and its effects deserves scrutiny. Implicitly, Bertoni asks us to adopt new strategies: to hesitate and mind the hesitation. To be distracted and attend to that which distracts. To equivocate and imagine sensory apparatuses and sentience elsewhere than in the human body alone.

For David Serlin, this body—especially insofar as it lacks “normal” sensory and sentient capacities— stands as a locus for, and issues a call to, resistance. Attending to the differently sensing body means resisting the pressures of common sense, which too often reduces the sensory to seeing and hearing and not much beyond. Here, too, hesitation and equivocation are at work, rather than judgment and reduction. We were struck by the story of the strangely matched socks, as it seems to tell all. What magic it would be if one might, without judgment or explanation, categorize socks on the basis of touch, warmth, or what they do for the feet, rather than on the ways in which they complement an outfit or match each other!

Unmaking the fantasy of the normal subject with full command over its sensory modalities, Serlin argues that such modalities are, after all, hardly a matching set. Rather, some are overly privileged, while others are woefully underdeveloped and wildly underrated. Via the differently sensing body of those who are blind, hard of hearing, or prone to so-called category mistakes, Serlin calls attention to what he terms discrepant sensorialities: multiple and incommensurate sensitivities that are perhaps more common than what we think of as the norm.

This makes us wonder about the normativities inscribed in the terms we choose, the theories we adhere to, the categories we mobilize, and the actions to which we subscribe. As we think alongside our correspondents, we cannot help but think alongside our nieces and nephews and dogs. As we walk with them, we notice that they sense and categorize the world very differently from the ways in which we have been socialized. This, in turn, calls our attention to what routinely goes unsensed or unacknowledged. Mouths and noses, as well as hands, ears, paws and eyes, are used to investigate everything. Socks may match, but according to a logic we are not familiar with; they, like other bits of clothing, often end up on parts of the body they were not intended for. Yes, there are dangers inherent in these approaches, both physical and social. Yet at the same time, they offer new routes into knowing that rewrite relationships of expertise and power, offering what Sandra Harding (2015) might term “another logic of scientific research.” Perhaps the most significant normative move made in these pieces is the call to decouple sensing from the human body and to begin to take it seriously, in and of itself.


Harding, Sandra. 2015. Objectivity and Diversity: Another Logic of Scientific Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.