lunes, 16 de abril de 2012

The Thinking Hand of Juhani Pallasmaa

The question of the “being of the hand”, philosophically said, is a question that has begun to be considered in the twentieth century philosophy. However, already Anaxagoras had highlighted the importance of the hands as organs of the human body that have made us more intelligent than animals. But it is, above all, in Heidegger’s famous work Being and Time, where the importance of the hands returns to the philosophical foreground, given that in this work the German philosopher introduces the hand to confront it to sight, in the sense that our immediate relation to the world does not take place through that which is available to us “before our eyes” or present-at-hand (vor-handen),  but ready-to-hand (zu-handen). This way Heidegger criticizes the so called Western Metaphysics, which, since Plato, would had hampered the understanding of our relation to the world by considering objects as something which is understood inasmuch as they are essentially related to sight, Ideas or visions that we have of them, not through the senses, but through reason, understood as a vision or ideal contemplation of the prototypes of things.

For Heidegger,  influenced by Husserl’s Phenomenology, a more fitting description of humans’ relation to the things that surround them, understanding humans essentially as beings “being-there” (Da-sein), is not mainly a mere visual relation, but a relation through utensils (hammers, axes, etc.), whose handling requires consideration of manual abilities. For these reason, for Heidegger, the understanding of the world is before manual than purely “mental”. The world is pre-understood when we unconsciously handle ourselves in it, before than when we subsequently represent it consciously in our “mind” through images from the brain. That is why the sense of tact must precede the sense of sight in the genesis of our position in the world. The world as what is ready-to-hand must precede the world understood as what is before our eyes. The Western Philosophy, according to this, has been marked by a visual prejudice, taking the shape of what Heidegger calls a “metaphysic of presence”, generated by Platonism. However it was also held and enforced by the realist Aristotle, who interpreted Anaxagoras’ well-known claim about the importance of the hands for the superiority of human’s intelligence in the sense that the extraordinary manual abilities of humans could only be explained as derived from the greater capacity and size  of the human brain, where principally a mind dwelled, in which ideas as copies of things came inside through sight and by a process of abstraction. However, modern Evolutionary Anthropology has corrected Aristotle in favor of Anaxagoras, given that the greater size and capacity of the human brain compared to that of our closest relatives, the simians, would be due to the appearance of an exempt and progressively more skillful hand following the consolidation of bipedalism in hominids, as the reconstructed hand of the famous Australopithecus Lucy. Frank R. Wilson’s book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture (Pantheon, 1998) offers plenty information about the actual consideration of the study of the hand in modern biomechanical, neurological and functional Anatomy, and at the same time notes the most recent developments of Evolutionary Paleoanthropology (see on this blog : “We don't know what a hand can do”, 9-1-2013).

To all of this has joined recently the publication in Spanish of an extraordinary book of an important and internationally recognized Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa, titled: The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture (John Wiley & Sons, 2009; Spanish edition: La mano que piensa, Gustavo Gili, Barcelona 2012), in which it is analyzed the important role of the hand in handicrafts, in literary writing, and in architecture. Pallasmaa relies on the analysis of The Hand, of Frank Wilson -who’s importance for the compilation of the materials and themes for his book is highlighted in the Acknowledgements chapter-, to write this book, in which he analyzes, quoting his own words, “the essence of the hand and its seminal role in the evolution of human skills, intelligence and conceptual capacities. As I argue – with the support of many other writers – the hand in not only a faithful, passive executer of the intentions of the brain, rather, the hand has its own intentionality, knowledge and skills. The study of the significance of the hand is expanded more generally to the significance of embodiment in human existence and creative work.” (p. 21)

What is new about this book about the hand, is a deepening of his critic against the dominant visual paradigm of today’s most influential architecture, already analyzed in his previous work, The eyes of the skin (Academy Press, 2005), in the sense of correcting the mistaken belief that spatiality is something that ends in vision and can do without the tactile senses or kinesthetic, who’s main focal point is constituted by the hand. For this reason the hand is the main theme of a book that, after an approach to a scientific updated understanding of what a human hand is, accompanied by quotes from artists and philosophers like Goehte, Heidegger, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, Lakoff & Johnson, among others, explores its relation to architecture and other auxiliary trades, like drawing, handicraft trades, and even computer designs, today indispensable for architecture, although not exempt of dangers, for they tend to eliminate the manual and tactile aspects of the designed spaces, in favor of the purely visual.

In this sense, Pallasmaa, professor as well as architect, proposes a deep reform of the teaching imparted in Architecture Schools so that manual knowledge’s directing point of view prevails over the merely visual: “Western consumer culture continues to project a dualistic attitude towards the human body. On the one hand we have an obsessively aestheticized and eroticized cult of the body, but on the other, intelligence and creative capacity are equally celebrated as totally separate, or even individual qualities. In either case, the body and the mind are understood as unrelated entities that do not constitute an integrated unity… This division of the body and mind has, of course, its solid foundation in the history of Western philosophy. Prevailing educational pedagogies and practices also regrettably continue to separate mental, intellectual and emotional capacities from the senses and the multifarious dimensions of human embodiment. Educational practices usually provide some degree of physical training for the body, but they do not acknowledge our fundamentally embodied and holistic essence. The body is addressed in sports and dance, for instance, and the senses are directly acknowledged in connection with art and music education, but our embodied existence is rarely identified as the very basis of our interaction and integration with the world, or of our consciousness and self-understanding. Training of the hand is provided in courses that teach elementary skills in the handicrafts, but the integral role of the hand in the evolution and different manifestations of human intelligence is not acknowledged. To put it simply, today’s prevailing educational principles fail to grasp the indeterminate, dynamic and sensually integrated essence of human existence, thought and action.” (pp. 11-12)

The key is then in not having grasped the manual essence of human existence. But Pallasmaa is not alone in this new understanding which demands the formation of a new educational and philosophical paradigm, indispensable, in his view, to “shake the foundations” (p. 22) of the erroneous paradigm actually dominant, not only in architecture, but also in philosophy. For a philosophical trend parallel to Pallasmaa’s proposal of an embodied image would be the philosophy of the embodied mind advocated by Lakoff, Thompson or Dan Zahavi. For our part, though lectures imparted in the Universidad de Oviedo (Spain) and publications, we have made an effort to develop the foundations of a philosophical thought about the manual ability as the core which yields human knowledge in what we call Pensamiento Hábil (see Manuel F. Lorenzo, Introducción al Pensamiento Hábil) and as a base for a new philosophy which needs a new method, in this case inspired by the  manual operativity or surgical (see in this blog: “Fenomenología y Operatiología” (I-II), 8-8-2011 and 9-1-2012; also, “La mano como raíz generadora del conocimiento humano”, 5-9-2011). With other colleagues of the Universidad de Oviedo, it looks like we are pioneers in Spain of what we could call the development of “the philosophy of the hands”.

Juhani Pallasmaa, for his prestige and international influence as an architect, and moreover, his wide and well assimilated philosophical culture, is called to open again the doors of the Architecture Schools and Faculties, and of Art in general, to the need to incorporate this new trend of philosophical thought related to what he names thinking hand, to try to reform the actual too computerised and technified education, and what is worst, dominated by a bad philosophy unconscious of the alienating visual architecture so in vogue. Read his important book.

(Translated into English by Luis Fernández Pontón)

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