A brief note on knowledge in the hands

Will Snippets 5 Comments

Some time ago, in a post on learning Chinese and the Bulgarian bagpipes, I wrote about the notion of concepts expressed in the hands, about the way in which learning a new skill—whether speaking Chinese or playing the bagpipes—goes beyond the acquisition of information, and instead involves the formation of particular kinds of bodily habit. Some time after writing that, I came across the following snippet from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, and I thought that it was worth sharing here. Here’s the quote:


To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body… It is possible to know how to type without being able to say where the letters which make the words are to be found on the banks of keys. To know how to type is not, then, to know the place of each letter among the keys, nor even to have acquired a conditioned reflect for each one, which is set in motion by the letter as it comes before our eye. If habit is neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action, what then is it? It is knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort (166)


Comments 5

  1. I have pondered this issue with respect to playing the guitar. I can for instance without thinking consciously about the detailed movements required, play an E7#9 at the 7th fret (the Hendrix chord) my will is apparent only at the level of the chord itself – not in the individual movements, I don’t need to consciously will my fingers individually. My conscious thought is directed to a higher level of the operation. I might also give consideration where to go next – Am7 maybe or a passing E7b9 chord. If I can’t move around without considering every mechanical detail I lose sight of the over-view.

    Again if I am improvising a melody over a chord sequence I don’t have to think about individual finger movements. But this is not the same as habit. Habit would be playing the same notes each time, but I’m free to play other notes if I wish without having to invoke individual finger movements – my will still appears to me to be directed at higher level e.g. the decision to switch from a pentatonic approach to a myxolydian mode approach to creating a melody. So there would seem to be two distinct phenomena – one is consciously thinking about a higher level of organisation while the lower level is taken care of unconsciously. I’m not sure what I’d call this. Echeloned willing?

    Habit by contrast is a programmed response to a situation. If I’m trying to create an original melody on the fly I must rely on ability to focus on a higher level of events and actions and try not to allow habit to let my mind head down well known ruts (unless I just want to hear a favourite riff). Additionally this ability to have echeloned willing makes it easy to learn new chords and new sequences. Habit would seem to impede learning.

    Apropos this, have you heard of the “rubber hand illusion”? Where the brain can be tricked into including an inanimate rubber object into it’s body map to the extent that seeing the hand stroked can cause us feeling sensations? Similarly those who use equipment incorporate frequently used tools into the body image so that we align of our reflexes to take account of them – watch a skilled carpenter at work and you’ll get the idea. The boundaries of the physically located aspects of self are quite porous it seems.

  2. Post

    Yes, I think you are right: if habit is simply repetition or programmed response, then there’s more to this than habit. And the question of body image is interesting: skilled drivers who can fit through gaps, the end of a blind person’s cane, the accomplished carpenter, all kinds of tool use…

    The other interesting thing, apropos the guitar, is that when you accidentally focus in on the mechanical details, suddenly the whole thing falls apart. Presumably because this kind of focus or attention simply works too slowly or has too narrow a bandwidth, and therefore trips you up. As a mainly classical guitarist, on those rare occasions I play in public, I find myself having to make sure that I forget to think about what I’m doing at a lower level, so that I can maintain what I am doing at the higher level of organisation. Nerves, when playing in public, can drive you down to that lower level attention, with terrible results…

    I tried the rubber hand thing once, after reading about it in Ramachandran, when we were sitting around idly with a rubber glove ready-to-hand (as Herr Heidegger would put it), but I couldn’t get it to work, which was a shame. I’ll have to have another bash at it, as it would be kind of fun…

  3. Ha. I tried and couldn’t get rubber hand to work either – I even wrote to Thomas Metzinger for advice on it and got a helpful reply. I suspect the hand has to be quite realistic to fool the brain.

  4. I also couldn’t get the rubber hand to work! But tried by myself. Maybe it takes two people.

    This is an interesting subject. I suspect that whenever the analytical mind is engaged there is always a level of abstraction and distance and that this impedes the flow. Is it possible to know oneself in a way that is immediate and true and not commentary on a projection — holding oneself at arms length? In other words, is the mind like a knife that can cut itself or an eye that can see itself? I suspect that the answer may be yes — but that it is not the analytical mind that applies logic that can see in this way. That mind is always dealing with abstractions and making distinctions based on qualities and characteristics — which implies past and future and a reference point of concepts as an overlay to perception.

  5. Post

    Thanks for the comment, Jim. It appears that there’s a double mysteriousness when it comes to the rubber hand: the mysteriousness of it working, and the mysteriousness of how hard it is to get to work, compared with the accounts in books…

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