Haptic Skepticism: a study of doubt as the force that sustains ethics and desire

The activity of probing the shortcomings of epistemology places us squarely within the difficult and delicate work of ethics, which demands that we respond to the other even without knowing how. Our inability to know the best course of action with certainty does not prevent skepticism from having an ethical response to our social and political landscapes. Our uncertainty—and the moment of crisis that this uncertainty inspires—is where ethics begins.

The object of our epistemological desire withdraws from the horizon of our vision and taps us on the shoulder from behind to request a different sort of engagement. In response to this ethical call, I propose the framework of haptic skepticism, which identifies the combination of sensation and hesitation as the condition for the mutual transformation of desiring subjects that come into touch.

Haptic skepticism decouples ethics and epistemology while aligning ethics and aesthetics. I currently advance this orientation in dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas, who identifies a kind of erotic touch that is guided by uncertainty,[1] and Audre Lorde, who identifies the transformative power of eros to shake social dogma.[2] My approach to ethics drives towards a heightened sensitivity toward sensation, including a sensitivity toward what is unknown.

Preliminary Research

As a postdoctoral researcher at the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies, I investigated the theme of touch at the heart of skeptical and anti-skeptical debates about what we can know about ourselves, others, and the world. The theme of touch—shaped by shifting cultural attitudes towards touching—drives major shifts in the questions posed by philosophy. And yet, despite the persistent question of touch at each philosophical stage, this key aspect of skepticism had not yet been named or acknowledge in mainstream scholarship.

I developed the study of haptic [haptein: to touch] skepticism to highlight the relationship between touch and doubt in the history of Western philosophy. My publications and teaching bring focus to this topic in ancient philosophy (especially with Plato and Augustine), nineteenth-century German philosophy (especially with Hegel and Marx), and twentieth-century Continental thought (phenomenology and psychoanalysis).

Haptic skepticism initially took shape as area of inquiry at the intersection of epistemology and psychoanalysis: our desire to know what lies beyond our reach. However, I now see the potential for haptic skepticism to have the greatest impact in both academic philosophy and our current cultural landscapes by yielding a new ethical framework that speaks contemporary social crises surrounding desire and touch-relations.

Questions to be explored

The foundational work for this research project took place against the backdrop of #MeToo. My ambition for my next book is to read haptic skepticism through a feminist lens to respond to this crisis through a new ethical framework. The crisis of course is not new, but during the last few years it has pushed its way to the surface of our social existence and has made itself felt as a global crisis to be grappled with by all. What is at stake when a culture instills certain individuals with dogmatic certainty in their right to touch? And what kinds of experience or action is required to shake the certainty of the dogmatist’s desire to master the other through a touch that does not question itself?

A common response to this crisis has been to call for greater clarity around touch relations, by calling on epistemology and language to rescue touching from ambiguity. On one side, there has been a renewed dialogue that emphasizes the importance of clear consent. On the other side, those who are violated by touch are cast under suspicion by this same logic: did they make their desire or lack of desire known beyond a shadow of a doubt?

Our accounts of our own desire and body must count, both in private relations and before the law. And yet the imperative to translate desire into a rational account evades the complexity of desire and ethical responsibility. Even if desire could be clearly understood, articulated, and respected, does perpetual questioning continue to serve a role? Should doubt persist even in the presence of consent? In what way can we see doubt as fueling, rather than inhibiting, relationships of touch? As I pursue these questions, I explore how an epistemological framework fails to provide an ethical response to relations of touch.

What’s at stake

A culture of sexual harassment and assault deprives us of a genuine moment of skeptical crisis in touch relations. Those one who unreflectively acts on their impulses will not experience the transformative power of touch, which is found in what cannot be known or mastered in another. This dogmatic touch only serves to reinforce their assumptions about what they hold to be true of themselves. Those who are violated by the desire of the other are denied their own moment of autoerotic questioning, the experience of oscillating between considerations of how they desire to be in touch with others and the world. I see the global protest against harassment of all kinds as the uprising of what Lorde identifies as the political power of eros. In this spirit, I seek to develop haptic skepticism as an ethics that acts for the sake of revolutionary sensuality.

[1] See for example, Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979)

[2] See for example, Audre Lorde. “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007), 55-59.

[3] Sext. Emp. Pyr. III. 168-279.


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