Sam Stoeltje

Real is a Feeling


ISSUE 61 | SENSE AND SENSATION | FEB 2016

When did feeling become the new thinking? I remember noticing it in college, when seemingly overnight, the expression “I feel like…” exploded into popularity. Where before people had thought things, suddenly everyone was feeling things – “I feel like the produce from the farmer’s market is more flavorful …” “I just feel like Obama never really advertised himself as a genuine radical…” Etc. If the idiomatic hallmark of the nineties had been the indiscriminate peppering of the word “like” into every utterance, “I feel like” served as a 2000s-era elaboration of that sentiment, and it was everywhere, ubiquitous as vocal fry. A thought-provoking article on the usage identifies it as first gaining traction in the seventies, followed by an exponential uptick as it was adopted by young women (historically the earliest adopters of new speech trends) in the 2000s. From the article:

The verb “feel”—when used in this way we’re talking about, e.g., “I feel like I’m not understanding this”—announces that a finite subordinate clause is coming even before you get to that “like.” […] Only four other verbs can be used to announce this kind of clause: “look,” “sound,” “seem,” and “appear.” These are all sensory verbs that we use to describe our perceptions of the world. In order to link one of these verbs—”feel,” “look,” “sound,” “seem,” or “appear”—to the finite subordinate clause, you need to get yourself a “comparative complementizer,” like “like.”

Of the five verbs the author identifies as enabling a “like”-based construction, “feel” is the only one that can take the “I” as a subject and make an assertion that isn’t self-referential. If one begins a statement “I look like,” “I sound like,” etc., one must follow it with a clause that refers to that same “I”: “I sound like I have a cold.” “I feel like,” however, can be completed by an observation bearing on, well, anything at all. This construction works because “feeling” can refer to sensations of both exterior and interior worlds; one can feel things both outside and inside oneself.

These two kinds of feeling, happening under the same sign, threaten to destabilize the “I” as a thing with an exterior and interior. By following the history and etymology of certain “feeling” and “thinking” words and expressions, we can trace this instability and see how it relates to fundamental questions about the knowability of worlds. My conviction is that the ontological and epistemological presumptions contained within words, grammar, and patterns of speech make for a good place to begin to challenge and even replace our presumptions on these matters.


The worlds of sensation come to us largely through the holes in our heads, i.e., the mouth, the nose, the ears and the eyes. Accordingly, our cosmology of sensation positions the head as the high-intensity nexus between interiority and exteriority, the narrow doorway through which the effects of the world must crowd, clown-car like, “into” consciousness. But feeling is different. Feeling happens all over, and reminds us of the way in which our bodies are extended into space--that our consciousness is not a point, but that it is rather distributed across three-dimensional space.

And yet it is specifically the hand that becomes the key instrument of feeling, its mascot, a kind of metaphor for the venturing out of consciousness into the world. Perhaps this is because of that distinctively human trait, tool use: we differentiate ourselves from other animals by instrumentalizing the world to remake it, and we do so with opposable thumbs. Heidegger, in Being and Time, placed the hand at the center of the phenomenon of consciousness, describing the quality possessed by things in the world prior to reflection as zuhandenheit (“readiness-to-hand”).

In our language, too, we can discover an occult tribute paid to the notion of the hand as a feeling and subsequently a thinking instrument, in the imaginary form of a “grasping” that signifies cognitive work. Through the metaphoricity that is the animating spirit of linguistic evolution, the hand reaches out across time and seizes us when we use words like “acatalepsy,” derived from the ancient Greek καταλαμβάνειν (katalambánein, “to seize”). “Acatalepsy” was a concept developed by the Skeptics, who posited that reality was fundamentally unknowable, incomprehensible, un-seize-able. For these ancient thinkers, the “grasping” hand of thought was a failed gesture, gaining no purchase and no mastery of its object.

We find this useful abstraction in the etymology not just of rare and obscure words like “acatalepsy,” but also in, for instance, acatalepsy’s more common Latinate synonym, “incomprehensibility,” a noun-ing of the verb “comprehend.” I’d like to give some attention to “comprehend,” and its close cousin, “apprehend.” Their shared root is the Latin prehendere, “to seize (before),” hendere having developed from the proto-Indo-European “gʰed-”, to “find” or “hold.” Like the Greeks, or appropriating from them, the Romans took the concrete action of “seizure” and transformed it into a mental process, thereby producing comprehendere and apprehendere. These concepts then made their way into modern English via the lexically hyperproductive Norman invasion.

Their meanings, of course, are different:

We apprehend many truths which we do not comprehend. The great mysteries of our faith, the doctrine, for instance, of the Holy Trinity—we lay hold upon it (ad prehendo), we hang upon it, our souls live by it; but we do not take it all in, we do not comprehend it; for it is a necessary attribute of God that He is incomprehensible; if He were not so He would not be God, or the being that comprehended him would be God also. But it also belongs to the idea of God that He may be ‘apprehended,’ though not ’comprehended’ by His reasonable creatures; He has made them to know Him, though not to know Him all, to ‘apprehend’ though not to ‘comprehend’ ‘Him.’

One can tell a lot about the divergence in meaning of these two words, inferring from the examples provided in this usage guide by 19th-century Anglican archbishop and philologist Richard Chenevix Trench. According to Trench, “comprehend” suggests a kind of totality, a completeness of knowledge, a possession of not only the what but the why, whereas “apprehend” refers to a partial kind of knowledge, a knowing of the surface. He points to the concepts of ineffability and divine mystery, describing God as “incomprehensible,” the transcendent thing which cannot be wholly known.

Trench is working with an epistemology far removed from the Skeptics’ acataleptic theory, with its un-seize-able everything, reality in toto. A distinction has been drawn between a superficial, knowable world of phenomena and a numinous, divine reality. The two words signify two kinds of feeling/knowing, one (“apprehend”) that is a touching of the surface, the exterior, and one (“comprehend”) that reaches into the interior, touching the substance. We apprehend things as they offer themselves to us but comprehend things as they are in themselves.

The concept of the object that these words and their usages presume is dual in nature. It has a surface that can be apprehended, which will produce incomplete, superficial knowledge, knowledge that is lacking. And it has an interior that can be comprehended to produce substantial, complete knowledge. If the object is an animal, it may be apprehended through careful study of its behavior, diet, mating rituals, etc., but to be comprehended it must be vivisected, taxonomized, genetically mapped. The split-object invites violence, in that its surface must be penetrated in order for it to be fully known, and so the role of such an object becomes clear within the context of colonization, patriarchy, anthropocentrism. These are narratives that require violable, penetrable objects in order to achieve their telos. To contradict them and to frustrate their efforts will require new kinds of object-relations, new grammars, new kinds of speaking, thinking and feeling.


Can the duality of the object be undone? There is such a word as prehension, which entered the language at roughly the same time as its cousins, and seems to have been used somewhat synonymously with “apprehension,” in its most common, criminological sense. But as the Online Etymology Dictionary notes, a new philosophical usage of “prehension,” distinct from “apprehension,” first emerged in 1925. This refers to the innovation of Alfred North Whitehead, a very unique, even bizarre philosopher who has lately been experiencing something of a revival. Whitehead first earned his reputation as a mathematician and logician, and is still best known for co-authoring the treatise Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. Having established himself as one of the eminent intellectuals of his day, he departed his native Britannia to lecture in philosophy at Harvard. (On the first day of class he pointed out that it was, in fact, the first philosophy lecture he had ever attended.)

In Whitehead’s subsequent work, particularly his magnum opus Process and Reality, he attempts to perform the most basic and most audacious philosophical task: to conceive of a new ontology, a new set of “metaphysical first principles” that have explanatory power over every instance in the cosmos, what we might call a “theory of everything.” This kind of project, to some postmodern ears, might sound laughably misguided – after all, as we know courtesy of Wittgenstein, Saussure, and their post-modern intellectual progeny, language is but a game, a playing with arbitrary signs, divorced from capital-R Reality, which is inexpressible and incomprehensible (if it even exists). Whitehead demonstrates an appreciation of these semiotic challenges: “Language…is always ambiguous as to the exact proposition it indicates. Spoken language is merely a series of squeaks.” (He can be quite funny.)

And yet for Whitehead, it is a game worth playing. At the outset of Process and Reality, he characterizes his practice as one of “speculative philosophy”:

Words and phrases must be stretched towards a generality foreign to their ordinary usage; and however such elements of language be stabilized as technicalities, they remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap…But, putting aside the difficulties of language, deficiency in imaginative penetration forbids progress in any form other than that of an asymptotic approach to a scheme of principles, only definable in terms of the ideal which they should satisfy. [PR 4, emphasis mine.]

He hasn’t yet introduced the concept of “prehension,” but we can begin to get a sense of it just by noting how Whitehead imagines the process of representation or expression. Language, like the thought it attempts to figure, is a “stretching towards,” an asymptotic function that grasps at the ungraspable.

Whitehead shares with the deconstructionists this admission of the inherent limitations of language, but where they choose to use language against itself, dismantling the narratives and logics of establishmentarian thought, he makes an attempt to “get around” language. This involves, among other things, an extensive terminological creativity, which pulls in words and expressions from various surprising contexts in an attempt to lead the mind to boldly go where it hasn’t gone before. Among these we find practically extinct words like “prehension,” as well as garden-variety words that would normally strike us as unfit for serious philosophical inquiry, such as “feeling.”


In Whitehead, a “prehension” is a grasping, following the most literal translation of prehendere, the gesture that occurs before the seizure. There is something passive about the prehension, suggesting almost a kind of absorption, or a mutual engagement, and it falls under the larger umbrella of “feelings” (which includes “negative prehensions,” i.e., non-engagements).

The feelings are inseparable from the end at which they aim; and this end is the feeler. The feelings aim at the feeler, as their final cause. The feelings are what they are in order that their subject may be what it is.

We see that by “subject” (or “superject,” a term he sometimes prefers), Whitehead means something very different from what the word has typically meant within a Western context. Whereas the subject is usually defined with respect to its object, for Whitehead, the subject/superject is defined by, or rather, created by the feeling that emerges between the two. This feeling, this moment of prehension, binds the two entities in question together – prehension is not something done to something else, but a happening that occurs, a mutual embrace.

Whitehead chooses these terms, “prehension” and “feeling,” precisely because of the productive ambiguity they create between our ideas about interiority and exteriority. He wants to confuse the two, in order to encourage a fundamental rethinking of object relations. In fact, the term “object relations” may not even really work for Whitehead, since he clearly has very different ideas about what a subject is and how it relates to a world. He writes and thinks against the world of the split-object, the distinct thing that exists apart from the self, across space, and that invites violence. His world is one of equally situated “actual entities,” which touch, and are touched, simultaneously. The sensation and act of feeling, then, is crucial for him, because feeling is the sense that occurs through touching, and touching belies the myth of the object.


Allow me to offer two models of the kind of thinking I believe Whitehead encouraged us to do. The first is a passage from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, in which the speaker reflects on his relationship to a world of objects:

To be in any form, what is that?
If nothing lay more developed the quahaug and its callous shell were enough.
Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.

The “instant conductors,” as Whitman describes them, seem almost to take the form of invisible tentacles, reaching out and prehending their surroundings. The effect is playful and affectionate, but also deeply weird. He imagines a relationship with the world that might be called “touchy-feely,” an affectionate and joyful playing with one’s surroundings that also destabilizes the boundary between self and other (other thing, other animal, other person). Whitman’s invisible tentacles cause him to seep out, and the world to seep in. They contaminate each other. It is as if the poet has become a microorganism with a semipermeable membrane, consuming but not digesting.

The leading thinker on indigestion is philosopher and creative theorist and Whiteheadian par excellence Donna Haraway. Haraway made a splash in the eighties with her Cyborg Manifesto, one of those “much discussed and little understood” works of cultural criticism. She has since engaged in all sorts of non-traditional theory, which might crudely be summarized as “speculative utopian ecocriticism in the face of dystopian ecological collapse.” Her work is vital in the most literal sense, and I cannot endorse it enough, but I’d like to gesture toward, principally, her concept of “symbiogenesis.”

Symbiogenesis is not originally Haraway’s term, but like Whitehead, she has enacted a creative détournment upon it to suit her purposes. Conventionally, symbiogenesis refers to a theory of multicellular evolution that explains the structure of certain microorganisms, specifically, their organelles. It does so by proposing a narrative in which certain single-celled organisms came into contact with other organisms and attempted to consume them but failed. This microscopic “indigestion” eventually stabilized, and the consumed organism became a persisting and living part of the consuming organism. The classic example of this is the proposed origin of mitochondria within animal cells, as originally distinct organisms, then endosymbionts, and finally “organelles.”

For Haraway, symbiogenesis works as an alternative model to, for instance, predation-based models of ecosystem emergence. This has consequences for our perspective of life on earth, and indeed, the cosmos. She writes:

Yoking together all the way down is what sym-bio-genesis means. The shape and temporality of life on earth are more like a liquid-crystal consortium folding on itself again and again than a well-branched tree. Ordinary identities emerge and are rightly cherished, but they remain always a relational web opening to non-Euclidean pasts, presents, and futures… These are the contagions and infections that wound the primary narcissism of those who still dream of human exceptionalism.

These ordinary identities to which we cling, however necessary they may be, are temporary, and they conceal the truth of a touchy-feely world. All things touch each other, feel each other, and become each other. To think otherwise is to perpetuate that primary narcissism which, paradoxically, can only end in suicide.


With apologies to Pictureplane, from whom I have borrowed my title.