2. senses

Themes of the body and feelings of movement are being developed in my next book project, Movement, Measurement, Sensation: How We Became Sensory-Motor. 

From my doctoral thesis onwards, I have been interested in historicizing the senses. First, touch, and the role of touch in historical conceptualizations of blindness and vision impairment. Then the muscle sense, proprioception, fatigue, pain – the way that those sometimes vague and indistinct sensations (so different from Descartes’ famous ‘clear and distinct perceptions) become subject to sustained scientific inquiry and measurement. For my most recent book I have concentrated on the period 1833-1945, with its innovations in laboratory science and instruments of measurement of the body. Accelerated through innovations in laboratory-based physiology, and then ‘extra-mural’ observations in field stations and factories, cumulatively this led to a novel neurological cartography of the body.

My overall argument asserts that these sensations became measurable only as a result of innovations in the instruments of scientific measurement from the mid nineteenth century, but also as a result of processes of the particular forms of industrialization that occurred around munitions factories in World War One. One of the key figures in my narrative is the famous British physiologist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington, who not only wrote on the ‘muscular sense’, and mapped the motor cortex of primates, but was also appointed first Chair of the Industrial Fatigue Research Board in July 1918. As my chapter on fatigue details, Sherrington actually cycled from Oxford to the Vickers-Maxim munitions factory in Birmingham not just to observe workers on the production line, but to take part.

Another crucial idea around this time was that of British neurologists Henry Head and Gordon Holmes’ ‘body schema’ in 1911, which still has currency in cognitive science, neuroprosthetics, robotics, and elsewhere. The scientific work of identification necessitated an inventiveness not only in the building of specialized instruments for empirical research, but also in the conceptual framework, inevitably leading to shifts in terminology between time periods and disciplinary areas. The explosion in empirical and conceptual work between 1833 and 1945 included experiments in psychology and psychophysics (e.g. Weber and Fechner in Germany); physiology (Sherrington in Britain); neurology (Head and Holmes in Britain, Goldstein in Germany); neurosurgery (the mapping of the human motor cortex by Penfield in Canada); the tracking of animal and human locomotion through chronophotography (Muybridge in the US, Marey in France); the measurement of fatigue in the laboratory and then the factory (Mosso in Italy, Amar in France); and the radical return to embodied consciousness in phenomenology (Straus, and Merleau-Ponty who explicitly adopts Head and Holmes’ ‘body schema’). Accordingly, each chapter focuses upon a particular thematic related to bodily sensation, including pain, fatigue, balance, proprioception, and the ‘muscle sense’, and engages with the corresponding scientific background, including the design and application of specialized measuring instruments. Successively, a picture of how these scientific discoveries informed new approaches to the body emerges.

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