Western philosophy, onward from Plato through Descartes and Locke, could be called the philosophy of mind-body dualism. For those not acquainted with the term, the theory posits that mind and body are separate and distinct substances; the body coming from matter or physical nature, and the mind arising from “soul” or “spirit” and existing distinct from the body. While modern science has categorically rejected this conception and the majority of philosophers now accept physicalism, remnants of the dualist view still persist in modern Western thought.
The meme that identity rests exclusively within the mind is particularly ubiquitous. One need look no farther than the myriad angsty comments on the nature of “true love” plaguing the internet to understand what I mean. The tacky bit of cultural wisdom that we must “find someone who appreciates us for us and not our body” is commonplace. This abstract conception of love comes from a larger rejection of physicality by the Western world. Westerners do not identify themselves with their bodies, at best they view them as a tool of the mind, and at worst as a prison to be reviled and hated.
The dualist conception encourages objectification of the body ipso facto, as one’s self is not one’s body. This objectification and subsequent denunciation of body can be seen throughout the history of Western thought. Plato, specifically, speaks of attachment to one’s body as foolishness, and it is here that we find our first rejection of touch:
The unwise soul has always associated with the body and cared for it and loved it, and has been so beguiled by the body and its passions and pleasures that nothing seems real to it but those physical things which can be touched and seen and eaten and drunk and used for sexual enjoyment… – Plato’s Phaedo, 81b
Plato believed the body was nothing more than something involuntarily holding the soul captive; it was seen as an obstacle to pure philosophical thought. He speaks here of the body and its passions as beguiling the soul – only the unwise soul would be enamored with petty bodily pleasures such as touch or sexual enjoyment. While all of the senses were noted by Platonists to have a tendency to mislead, it was sight that was held above all to be most important, and touch to be the least. To quote this article from the New York Times Opinionator:
The Platonic doctrine of the Academy held that sight was the highest sense, because it is the most distant and mediated; hence most theoretical, holding things at bay, mastering meaning from above. Touch, by contrast, was deemed the lowest sense because it is ostensibly immediate and thus subject to intrusions and pressures from the material world.
Plato believed that the eyes were the entrances of divine inspiration. He similarly rejected the divinity of touch; concerned with nothing more than the physical and worldly, touch was a hindrance to philosophical thought. We see similar rejections of touch in the work of Thomas Aquinas (quoted in this paper by Charles T. Wolfe):
Those senses are most concerned with beauty which are most concerned in apprehension, namely the sight and hearing, which ministers to reason. For we speak of beautiful sights and sounds but do not give the name of beauty to the objects of other senses…
The same paper also quotes Ficino in his commentary on the Symposium as believing the lower senses, such as touch, are the source of lust and madness.
This fear of touch extends into Western conceptions of religion and spirituality, as well. Interpersonal touch is one of the most heavily moderated actions in Judeo-Christian conceptions of morality. Take, as examples, Galations 5:19 or Colossians 3:5:
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality… 21 those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
The story of the crucifixion per se represents the crucifixion of the flesh, with its passion and desires. The death and resurrection of Christ, the pinnacle story of Christian mythos, can be seen as a metaphor for the destruction of body and the subsequent rise of the soul:
The first Christians, at least up to and including Paul, thought Jesus’s “soul” was taken up to heaven and clothed in a new body, after leaving his old body in the grave forever.
Thus, we see that early Western religion, just like early Western thought, maintained an unhealthy rejection of the body as unclean, base, and sinful. Touch, therefore, as the mediator between bodies, was seen as similarly vile.
Contrary to the opinions of the body-phobic philosophers of the old world, touch is a fundamental sense with amazing physical and emotional benefits. In our evolutionary history, touch helped maintain group cohesiveness, suggest empathy and compassion, and encourage reciprocity. According to Dacher Keltner, Ph.D:
Nonhuman primates spend about 10 to 20 percent of their waking day grooming each other… touch builds up cooperative relationships—it reinforces reciprocity between our primate relatives, who use grooming to build up cooperative alliances.
Many may be quick to (correctly) observe that with the advent of bathing, clothing, and other modern luxuries, grooming in this manner is no longer necessary for our health. But touch has many other psychological and physiological benefits. It can reduce feelings of loneliness and induce feelings of love and connection. Again quoting Doctor Keltner:
Touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response, and a simple touch can trigger release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone.”
This makes sense. Touch is, in fact, the first sense to develop in humans. We do not console babies by placing them in front of a television with the sights and sounds of soothing waves: we hold them close so that they may feel the warmth of our bodies. Touch signals trust and connection, it makes us feel safe and wanted.
In the West, unfortunately, this kind of touch is rare. Physical contact is one of our largest cultural taboos. We speak of “personal bubbles” and irritation when strangers are in our space. We rarely greet each other with any form of physical touch at all, and when we do it typically amounts to nothing more than a handshake. In fact, according to research done by Sidney Jourard (as quoted in this article by H.E.F Donohue) Americans at a table in Florida were observed touching each other only twice in one hour, and similar observations of Londoners found they did not touch at all. Contrast this to the 110 touches per hour observed in France, and it is no small wonder that French culture is less aggressive. Here is a discussion of another study conducted by Tifanny Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami (the full study can be found here):
We compared the way parents touched their small children in playgrounds in Paris and Miami, and how adolescents touched each other in McDonald’s restaurants in those same cities. The French children received more physical affection from their parents and were less physically and verbally aggressive towards their peers in the playground. The French adolescents were also more physically affectionate towards each other and showed less verbal and physical aggression.
The article then discusses the litigious nature of touch in Western societies. It speaks of the mandates against touching which are becoming commonplace in American school systems:
Teachers are not allowed to touch children, and children are chastised for being affectionate with each other.
This kind of isolation from touch can be incredibly damaging. People who are deprived of touch are more prone to chronic depression. They do not gain the benefits of low blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol that touch can offer. Touch deprived individuals have even been shown to be more prone to compulsive sex, violence, and rape. Women with anorexia and bulimia report greater rates of touch deprivation, and this deprivation may play a role in body image pathologies.
Unfortunately, this kind of isolation from touch is only becoming more commonplace. I have discussed technology’s role in limiting our face-to-face interaction before, and the same applies to physical touch. Technology is increasingly becoming the preferred environment of human interaction, and increase in its use implies a decrease in touch.
Similarly, recent moral panics and the negative treatment of touch in the media have discouraged everyday touch. When covered in the media the focus is almost exclusively on unwanted touching – sexual assault, child abuse, some guy grabbing people’s butts – contributing all the more to our view that touch is somehow unclean and distasteful.
I do not mean to undermine the importance of consent to be touched – researchers and feminists alike correctly note that unwanted touch has detrimental effects – but we must be careful not to become so concerned with the negative aspects of touch that we refuse to recognize its benefits. While touch can indeed be used to subvert and to harm, it can also be used to uplift others and recognize their humanity. But touch of any form, even touch that is nonsexual in nature and intended to comfort, is now regarded as inappropriate and creepy.
Much of this is due to the oversexualization of touch in Western culture. Many people intimate that they are not physically affectionate with others because they find this kind of affection overtly sexual – simple acts such as a hug, proximity, or cuddling while watching TV, we unfairly leave to the realm of lovers. Men in particular are oppressed by this phobia of touch; many fear that touching another man will make them appear gay or unmanly. While this certainly points to an underlying homophobia present in masculinity, it also indicates an unhealthy conflation between touch and sexual touch that is all too common in the West. It is why we create and enforce laws prohibiting teachers from touching children; an encouraging pat on the back, or a massage of the shoulders after a fall, is seen not as a valid form of human connection but instead as a pedophilic outrage. It is why we often no longer allow therapists to touch their clients, despite the therapeutic benefit it may have. It is why many people get angry when their romantic partners touch others in an empathetic manner. Touch is viewed as a sexual connection rather than a human connection.
Aversion to touch is a huge problem in the West. From the Platonists onward, touch has been at best considered trivial, at worst sinful and unclean. Touch deprivation contributes to the overwhelmingly common sense of loneliness in the West, and deprives us of countless physiological and emotional benefits.