A Rhetorical Prompt

Stuart Walton, In the Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling

Zero Books, 448pp, , ISBN 9781782790518

reviewed by Jeffrey Petts

In the Realm of the Senses is subtitled ‘a materialist theory of seeing and feeling’ and is suitably structured in two parts: a ‘theory of the senses’ and a second part divided between chapters on each of the five senses (plus, disconcertingly, one on ‘the sixth sense’). Concerns soon mount about the approach and scope of the book. The first sentence sets the tone for the whole work: ‘The realm of the senses, in which humanity has allegedly dwelt ever since its spiritual craft capsized in rough seas, has proved not to be the isle of the blessed that it might have seemed.’ Similar follows for 400 pages. The approach is broadly philosophical, at least in introducing ‘talk of the transcendent subject in Kant and Hume.’ But there is no theory of perception, not if we think the basic desiderata for one include: (1) some general introduction to the subject area and its goals; (2) outlining existing theories and areas of contention; (3) evidence and argument to support the theory.

Philosophical theories of perception focus on the relation between seeing and feeling and knowledge claims about the world. They examine whether human perception – effected as it is by the physical complexity of information channels like the eyes and ears, and then the brain’s neurophysiological coding of information – means some kind of veil exists between us and the world, thus undermining knowledge claims. Any ‘materialist’ theory, ex hypothesi, challenges such scepticism, making consciousness part of the natural world, and giving us reason to believe our senses do reveal the world sufficiently for us to adapt and flourish in it. But the author’s ‘theory’ concludes with: ‘a world in which everything is seen for what it is would be illuminated by the rising sun of a perception that thought had renewed, a perception absolved from the need to keep disabusing itself of what it perceives, its fierce unsparing light emanating from the only thing visible on the boundless precious earth that wouldn’t demand to be looked at.’

So if this is not a theory of perception, what is being argued? Walton intimates that he is challenging ‘the official version of cultural history.’ But what is that? Does ‘cultural history’ offer an ‘official’ non-materialist theory of perception? A supporting half-page sentence covering history, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, etc, hardly helps clarify things. A fairly typical few pages mention Milton, Hume, Napoleonic France, Georgian Britain, Descartes, the Book of Jude, Pavlov, Platonism, Walter Dill Scott, Shredded Wheat, Christian theology, Orwell, Aristotle, Newtonian physics, ‘a neuroscientist’, transcendentalism, Admiral cigarettes, the Romantic era and hallucinogens. Nothing is clearly developed from each, neither sources of argument nor evidence in support of a particular theory of seeing and feeling. Rather we are left to consider this vague conclusion: ‘the life of the senses, ostensibly liberated from the tyranny of mind ever since the modern mind was forced to acknowledge its own vital immersion in them, remains everywhere in chains.’

This all gives the book a conspicuous moral-political turn. Indeed, characteristically, the author’s own analysis is that ‘this project is imbued with all the ethical urgency that two millennia of regarding the body as a dungeon has produced.’ It is moreover a diatribe against ‘an intellectual life cleansed of the dirt-marks of physicality.’ But, again, what ‘intellectual life’ is this? Is it that Plato ‘disdains’ connecting the material and metaphysical? If so, then he ought to develop the case. But there is never any argument: this is not analysis but the sweeps and speculations of an uber-autodidact permanently at dawn.

Problems identifying basic philosophic issues about perception and related arguments and evidence are exacerbated by problems of style. The vast majority of sentences are compound, often presenting in one sentence two or more independent ideas or observations, sometimes seemingly unconnected. These sentences are also nearly always complex, containing various other dependent clauses. Worse perhaps, there is no index and no bibliography. Can any proper ‘theory of the senses’ really afford the luxury of being unburdened by specialist work in the area by philosophers of mind for example?

In the Realm of the Senses does not present a theory of the senses but, at best, an appeal for some re-education of the senses themselves. If this needs some theoretical grounding, then perhaps analysis is best directed at social conditions and how they limit human perception, sap moral energy? And if there is indeed a link between some philosophical accounts of the senses and our general moral climate, it’s hardly made here. We should in truth read the work not as a theoretical treatise but as a persuasive prose poem, an elegy for the ‘old’ five senses as the true human means to value, a rhetorical prompt for a materialist ethics and political philosophy.