The Five Senses - an introduction by Jacob Vivian Pearce

I spent a period of time reading a goodly bit of work on Anglo-American philosophy of language texts that dealt with how words relate to objects - designation, reference, naming, and the relationship between knowledge and language. That was for an MA thesis that is now well in the rear view mirror. However, given the folded nature of time, I now find myself re-working that manuscript both as an exercise in remembering and as a way of re-engaging that body of work after having spent years reading and working in other areas. It's been very rewarding.

In The Five Senses, Serres’s aim is to show that the development of language has both veiled and overtaken the primacy of the senses; or in the translators’ words, the “glories of our initial sensuous perception of the world” (xi). The cataloging nature of science and information technology has marginalised our relationship with the empirical and the authenticity of the  experiential. Similarly, in certain philosophical circles, especially within the analytic tradition, the philosophy of language currently dominates over phenomenological accounts. Serres believes that the goal of philosophical inquiry is not to develop abstracted formal languages that narrow rather than enlarge human experience and deliberation.

The Five Senses is a not only a reaction against the importance of the philosophical question of language, but against language itself. “The linguistic school is a school with no sense of smell, and no taste” (Interview, 53). But this is more literal than ļ¬gurative. “We refer to a thing, but there is no name for the smell” (Interview, 53). This is one of Serres’s main points about human beings—we have forgotten that as Homo sapiens we are “he who knows how to taste. Sagacious: he who knows how to smell. All of these things are vanishing under the weight of logic and grammar."