Photo of Richard Kearney by Lee Pellegrini.
A lot has been lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the earliest causalities were handshakes and hugs, as people were told to maintain physical distance in order to stay safe—and the effect has been profound, according to Richard Kearney, holder of the Charles Seelig Chair of Philosophy.
“The more touch is impossible, the more one wants it and appreciates how vital it is to our being,” he said.
Kearney had been thinking about the hunger for touch even before the pandemic, and his new book, Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense, offers a timely, clarion call to reemphasize the importance of touch, an essential essence of our humanness and conduit for well-being.
According to Kearney, we are living in a digital age, an age of excarnation (flesh becoming image) that delivers connectivity but not necessarily closeness. In Touch, he cites studies from AARP and Cigna Health that show an epidemic of loneliness, particularly among millennials and Generation Z.
And while Kearney is not advocating for a rollback of technological advances, as a philosopher and public intellectual, he asks, “What do we lose when our culture goes 90 percent digital? What does it mean for human communication at the level of person to person?”
These are questions Kearney discusses with his students in Philosophy of Imagination and Plato and Desire classes.
“Skin is our largest organ,” said Kearney. “And tactile communication—to touch and be touched—is absolutely fundamental and so important to our physical and mental well-being. But we have forgotten how important touch is. And pre-pandemic, we took touch for granted.”
Kearney notes that touch differs from the other senses due to its reciprocity nature, or double sensation. “You can see without being seen, and hear without being heard, but you cannot touch without being touched,” he said.
In Touch, Kearney traces the idea of the primacy of touch to Aristotle who said it was the most philosophical of our senses and leads to vulnerability, sensitivity, and empathy and to a more ethical human being. Plato argued for the primacy of sight over touch, notes Kearney, an optocentric perspective that ultimately prevailed in Western thought.
Likewise, in the United States, writes Kearney, the Hippocratic method of medicine has sidelined the Asclepian approach, with pharmaceuticals and diagnostics seen as superior to tactile and natural methods.
But touch is central to healing, Kearney said, noting that tender touch alleviates anxiety, lowers blood pressure, bolsters immunity, and aids sleep and digestion. In the book, Kearney explores the powerful role of touch in healing, palliative care, trauma recovery, and therapy.
"Tactile communication—to touch and be touched—is absolutely fundamental and so important to our physical and mental well-being. But we have forgotten how important touch is. And pre-pandemic, we took touch for granted.”
Touch is also a family affair for Kearney: His wife Anne and daughters Simone and Sarah provided illustrations for the book, and he cites the role of touch in the work of his brothers, Michael, a palliative care specialist, and Peter, a cardiac surgeon.
Kearney’s thoughts on touch go beyond human to human contact. He writes about the therapeutic powers of touching animals, such as dogs, horses, and dolphins. He also extends the notion of touch to planet Earth itself, whether it is the benefits of gardening or the need for humans to be better in touch with nature.
“The pandemic, along with the ecological crisis of climate change, is a double wake-up call for the need for touch,” he said.
In his conclusion, Kearney calls for mutually enhancing symbiosis, an interconnectedness of the digital and the tactile that calls for striking the right balance between the two, not choosing one over the other. “Ultimately, it is a matter of both/and [not either/or]. It is clear that to live fully in tomorrow’s world we will need both virtual imagination and incarnate action.”
Kathleen Sullivan | University Communications | March 2021