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A Philosophy of Tickling by Aaron Schuster

In art, biology, philosophy, psychology on January 11, 2015 at 05:39

From: A Philosophy of Tickling by Aaron Schuster, CABINET Magazine, http://www.cabinetmagazine.org

… Aristotle famously defined man as the rational animal (zoon echon logon), and as the political animal (zoon politikon). But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon, though no less profound, definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes: “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces a movement (independently of the will) in the intelligence which is recognizable. The fact that human beings only are susceptible to tickling is due (1) to the fineness of their skin and (2) to their being the only creatures that laugh.”1 Perhaps this notion of the “ticklish animal” was further elaborated in the second book of the Poetics, the lost treatise on comedy; indeed, the relationship between ticklish laughter and comic laughter remains an open question. Should tickling be investigated under the heading of comedy or of touch? Touch, Aristotle argues, is the most primary sense, and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch thanks to the delicate nature of their skin. Though other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, “man’s sense of touch … excels that of all other animals in fineness.”2 We might view tickling as a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Our peculiar vulnerability to tickling is the price to be paid for more sophisticated and discriminating access to the world.

Does not tickling violate the basic mechanism of cause and effect, the principle that every action entails an equal and opposite reaction? The tiniest stroking produces a wildly explosive response, while a more vigorous rubbing may hardly elicit any reaction at all. On the most stupid bodily level, there is something miraculous in the activity of tickling that seems to contravene the everyday experience of causality, turning us into spontaneous philosophical skeptics. It is as if the lived body were split into two: a practical body governed by regular principles and interactions, and an oversensitive flesh that, with the slightest tingle, is apt to plunge all coordination and mastery into spasmodic helplessness.

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Reposted with permission from: CABINET Magazine

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