10. Sensory Experience and Cultural Identity
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chapter 10 Sensory Experience and Cultural Identity I have used four broad claims concerning sensory orders, embodiment, identity, and well-being to structure ethnographic descriptions of AnloEwe sensory experiences and philosophical thought. I have argued that 1. physiological evidence suggests human bodies gain sensory information in a variety of ways; 2. a Western model of five senses is a folk model; 3. an Anlo-Ewe model is different, and it privileges balance, kinesthesia , and sound; 4. the impact of this model (or approach) can be seen in four areas, each of which affect the others: a. the use of language to describe the sensorium; b. moral values embedded in child-rearing and social development ; c. an Anlo-Ewe model of personhood; d. ideas about illness and health. In this final chapter, my goal is to develop these arguments in greater detail as a gesture toward providing an interpretive framework for the study of sensoriums and sensory experience and their place in our understandings of cultural difference. 227 Proposition One: Sensoriums differ as a result of cultural tradition In contemporary Western cultures (or at least in Euro-American contexts ) when we speak of “senses” we usually mean the five modalities of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Our taxonomy of senses is organbased , and sensing for us corresponds to a theory of how we apprehend stimulus from objects outside our bodies and then represent these sounds, textures, odors, and so on in our minds and to each other. Our definition of sensing revolves around the idea that we have bodily structures that receive stimulus from objects outside our bodies, and these organs then send messages to the brain that are registered and finally interpreted by the mind. Sensing for us is directly tied to the idea that some thing, some object makes an impression on our sense organs, and we thereby (somewhat passively, our ethno-theory purports) become aware or conscious of various elements in our environment. While we may be very attached to this definition of sensing and believe that it describes a kind of anatomical reality verified by medical science and psychology, it is, as I have argued before, a folk ideology. A burgeoning literature on the social history of the senses (e.g., Berman 1998; Classen 1993a, 1993b; Classen, Howes, and Synnott 1994; Howes 1991; Rivlin and Gravelle 1984; Stoller 1989b; Synnott 1993) demonstrates that even within Western culture there has been an evolution in the way sensing has been defined as well as in the number of senses included in any particular taxonomy. Furthermore, sensory scientists are in agreement that the exact nature and number of human senses is actually an open empirical question. In the ancient world of the West, Plato’s writings reveal a conflation of sensing and feeling. Sometimes his work discusses sight, smell, and hearing as senses, but he omits taste and touch. Instead he includes hot and cold, along with fear, desire, pleasure, and discomfort (see Classen 1993b:1–11; Synnott 1993:128–155). This taxonomy is significant because (as we have seen) the word feeling plays a significant role in translating the way Anlo speakers think of sensing, along with the fact that Plato did not confine himself to five modalities, which parallels the case of many non-Western cultural groups. It may be Aristotle who is responsible for the taxonomy of five senses within Western culture, or it may simply be that he reified and codified an idea that was circulating among scholars of that time. Noteworthy is that his rationale for limiting sensing to five modalities was quite different than that used by us today. Aristotle believed that there is an “intrinsic relationship between 228 Sensory Experience and Cultural Identity the senses and the elements—earth, air, fire, water, and the quintessence” (Classen 1993b:2).1 During the Enlightenment there emerged a rationale for the five senses that is distinct from Aristotle’s and begins to resemble our own tradition steeped in philosophical empiricism. No longer the subject of theological and allegorical interpretation, study of the senses moved into the realm of science and philosophy. Hobbes and Locke were in agreement about the senses being the foundation of thought—revealed in Hobbes’s statement that “there is no conception in a man’s world which has not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense” and in Locke’s declaration that “nothing can be...


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