The Commensurability of Incommensurable Sensations

[This is a fun post because I want to write down something I found philosophically interesting]

In this essay, I want to show that time is the reason why certain sensations which are incommensurable appear commensurable in some way to us.

I started thinking about this when my girlfriend mentioned to me that the tea which she got tasted sharper than usual. Wait a minute, sharp is a term referring to a physical quality corresponding to our sense of touch. Whereas the quality she was picking up was a quality of taste. The two sensations are clearly incommensurable – yet, something didn’t feel right. It is possible that the word ‘sharp’ might just be used incidentally to describe these two qualities which had nothing to do with each other, but intuitively the two ‘sharp’ sensations had something in common, they appeared commensurable in some sense. One possible linguistic program that could be undertaken to strengthen this is to do a survey to see if the word ‘sharp’ in various other languages are used to describe both the taste of sharpness as well as the touch sensation of sharpness — this seems to be the case for mandarin, we describe certain foods as 尖. (at least I think we do, my mandarin is quite bad and this could just be a singaporean thing where we use a literal translation of another language in our vocabulary to stand for the thing in the original language)

How do we make sense of this apparent commensurability? There is another sensory realm where such physical or ‘touch’ descriptions also frequently apply. This is when we describe auditory sensations, or sounds. I just pick one example which I think will illuminate how a relationship with time connects two sensations that are incommensurable. Sometimes music can be described as broad, the Italian term Allargando is often used for this direction. Broadness, however, is clearly a physical conception and has nothing to do with sound at all. The reason the two are connected is because we usually have a spatial conception of time. We conceive of the music as stretched out across temporal space (note the spatial metaphor already) and we imagine rhythm as a series of patterns in that stretched out space. The rhythm is broad when the interval between each imagined pattern becomes larger. This allows us to connect and use the term ‘broad’ for both the auditory and spatial sensation. This usage is not incidental, but there is a real connection between the two.

Applying this to the case of ‘sharp’ we see that something similar is going on as well. The touch sensation ‘sharp’ is usually a burst of (painful) sensation i.e. a substantial quantity of sensation over a short time. Similarly the tastes that we describe as sharp are also the result of a burst of taste, again a substantial quantity of sensation over a short time. It is the connection to time that connects these two qualities in our head and allows as to call them by the same name ‘sharp’. My guess is that when we consider other qualities that appear incommensurable but have some kind of connection that is revealed by our linguistic usage, some sort of temporal connection is also present. As Kant noted, time is one of the forms of our sensibility and structures all of our experience including phenomenologically diverse and incommensurable ones, and yet by being the one form that binds them all, it also links them all and allows us to compare them. As indeed we do through our linguistic usage of certain words for multiple sense modalities.



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