Understanding the Senses: Past and Present

2015 – 2017

Principal investigators


The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Universty of Bern, Schweizerischer Nationalfonds, Burgergemeinde Bern.


Professors Elizabeth Robertson (English Language) and Fiona Macpherson (Philosophy) of the University of Glasgow in collaboration with Professor Annette Kern-Staehler (Literature) of the University of Bern are running a project on the senses. It will bring experts in the history of the senses in the medieval and Early Modern periods in the fields of linguistics, philosophy, literature and art history into conversation with scholars of contemporary philosophy and disabilities studies and with an award-winning Scottish poet to probe how discourses of the past about the nature, function and affect of the senses from a variety of disciplinary perspectives can inform discourses of the present and vice versa. The ultimate goal is to reach a deeper understanding of the mechanisms, affective dimensions, and subjective experiences of the senses of sight and touch in and of themselves, and in interaction with each other, both in the past and in the present.

In order to facilitate productive interdisciplinary discussion, six workshops will be held to in three meetings held over two years, each with a different primary disciplinary focus: philosophy, linguistics, literature, art history, and disabilities studies. Each of the morning sessions will be led by two experts in that discipline but will include formal responses from members of the team in other fields. Formal presentations will be followed by an afternoon roundtable. A visiting leader from each discipline will attend at least three sessions. In addition, a partially sighted Scottish poet will attend all the meetings and develop a poetic response to the discussions.

The project will bring internationally known scholars of medieval philosophy, art history, literature, linguistics and disability studies to the University of Glasgow who will be introduced to the research of the Glasgow participants in the project including those involved in the production and development of the world-famous Historical Thesaurus for English Language and the research projects currently in place connected to the Thesaurus (Mapping Metaphor and the Samuels project) and Philosophy’s Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience.


Network Meeting One: 4 June 2015

Location: The Reid Room, Department of Philosophy, 69 Oakfield Avenue, University of Glasgow

  • Workshop One: 10:30–12:30 The Language of Sight and Touch
    Workshop led by Professor Mark Amsler (New Zealand) and Dr. Javier Enrique Diaz Vera (Spain)
    Responses by Professor Annette Kern-Stahler (literature), Dr. Giovanni Gellera (philosophy), and Professor Kirk Ambrose (art history)
  • Workshop Two: 1:30–3:30 The Philosophy of Sight and Touch
    Workshop led by Professors Robert Pasnau (Colorado) and Fiona Macpherson (Glasgow)
    Responses by Professor Vincent Gillespie (literature), Dr. Mark Amsler (linguistics), and Professor Kirk Ambrose (art history)
  • Roundtable Discussion: 4:00–6:00
    Discussion led by Professors Maura Nolan and Richard Newhauser, and Drs. Marc Alexander, Katie Walter, Nuala Watt and David Bain
Network Meeting Two: 6–8 July 2016

Location: The Hutcheson Room, Department of Philosophy, 69 Oakfield Avenue, University of Glasgow

  • Workshop Three: 6 July 2016

    2.30–3.15pm: Art History and the Senses
    Presentation on Art History by Professor Kirk Ambrose (University of Colorado at Boulder),"The Frailty of Eyes"

    3.15–3.45pm: Tea and Cake

    3.45–5pm: Responses by:
    • Professor Sarah Stanbury (Holy Cross) (literature)
    • Professor Mark Amsler (University of Auckland) (linguistics)
    • Professor Edward Wheatley (Loyola University) (disability studies)
    • Professor Fiona Macpherson (University of Glasgow) (philosophy)

    5.30pm–7pm: Reception and an event in Special Collections in the University of Glasgow Library for the public as part of the Understanding the Senses: Past and Present project. It consists of a room displaying visual, audio and cross-modal illusions, illustrating the work of the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience and a display of some of the library’s collection of manuscripts and early printed books relating to the history of the senses together with a presentation on the material by Lynn Verschuren.

  • Workshops Four and Five: 7 July 2016

    9.30am: Coffee

    10am–12.30pm: Literary Representations of the Senses

       Presentations by:
    • Professor Elizabeth Robertson (University of Glasgow) (English Language)
    • Professor Richard Newhauser (University of Arizona) (English)
    • Professor Annette Kern-Stahler (University of Bern) (English)
    • Professor Maura Nolan (University of California at Berkeley) (English)
       Responses by:
    • Professor Jose Felipe da Silva (University of Helsinki) (philosophy)
    • Professor Kirk Ambrose (University of Colorado at Boulder) (art history)
    • Dr Katie Walter (University of Sussex) (Literature/History of the Senses)
    • Professor Edward Wheatley (Loyola University) (disability studies)
    12.30pm–2pm: Lunch

    2–4.30pm: Disabilities and the Senses

    Presentations by:
    • Professor Chris Baswell (Columbia University) (English and comparative literature)
    • Professor Edward Wheatley (Loyola University) (English)
    Responses by:
    • Professor Lennard Davis (University of Illinois at Chicago) (Disability Studies)
    • Professor Mark Amsler (University of Auckland) (Linguistics)
    • Dr. David Bain (University of Glasgow) (Philosophy)
    • Professor Kirk Ambrose (University of Glasgow) (Art History)
    • Professor Sarah Stanbury (Holy Cross) (literature)
    5–7pm: Lecture and Poetry Reading by Dr. Nuala Watt (University of Glasgow) (English literature) : The Gilchrist Club, University of Glasgow

    7.30pm Dinner at the Ubiquitous Chip

    Roundtable: 8 July 2016

    9.30am: Coffee

    10am–12pm: Roundtable and Future Plans Workshop: Elizabeth Robertson, Fiona Macpherson, Jose Felipe da Silva, Mark Amsler, Lenny Davis, Sarah Stanbury


Workshop Six

Location: University of Bern


Tuesday 10 October 2017

19.00 Conference warming: Altes Tramdepot

Wednesday 11 October 2017 (Room B-102
Uni-S Schanzeneckstrasse 1 3001 Bern)

10.00 Welcome

10.15- 12.00 Multisensoriality

Mark Amsler (Auckland), ‘Can’t Touch This: Signifying and Sensing in Play Space’

Group discussion of extracts from the Digby Magdalene Play and “A Complaint against Blacksmiths”

Mary Flannery (Geneva, Bern), ‘A Sense of Disgust: Repellent Fashion in “The Parson’s Tale”’

Shefali Lal (Bern), Multisensoriality and the Lake in Le Morte Darthur

Group discussion of extracts from “The Parson’s Tale” and Le Morte Darthur

12.00- 13.30 Lunch

13.30- 15.00 Shaping/Training the Senses

Kelli Rudolph (U Kent), ‘Theorizing the Senses in Early Greek Philosophy’

Richard King (Bern), ‘Counting the Senses: The Example of Taste’

José Filipe Pereira da Silva (Helsinki), ‘Reverse Engineering the Senses’

Katie Walter (U Sussex), ‘Reduction’

Group discussion of extracts from Aristotle’s De sensu, Alcmaeon’s On the Senses, Richard of St Victor’s The Twelve Patriarchs, and The Fyve Wittes

15.00- 15.30 Coffee break

15.30- 16.30

Arthur Russell (Case Western Reserve U), ‘Haptic Hesitations’

Group discussion

16.30- 17.15

Patricia Baker (U Kent), ‘Accessing Haptic Experiences in Early Roman Gardens through Paintings and Objects’

Sarah Stanbury (College of the Holy Cross), ‘Touching Sound: Speech Scrolls in the Carthusian Miscellany’

Group discussion of images in folder

17.15- 18.30 Pain

David Bain (Glasgow), ‘Pains that don’t hurt?’ Elizabeth Robertson (Glasgow), ‘Christ’s Pain’ Nicole Nyffenegger (Bern), ‘Mary’s Perpetual Pain’

Group discussion of “Stond wel, moder, under rode”, extracts from the Ancrene Wisse, as well as extracts of papers on pain

18.30 Apéro Riche, Uni-S

Thursday 12 October: Sensory Communities

9.30- 10.30

Richard Newhauser (U Arizona), ‘Touching the Peasant Sensory Community’

Group discussion (images in folder)

10.30- 11.30

Yannis Hamilakis (Brown U), ‘Sensorial Fields, Sensorial Assemblages, Sensorial Clashes’

Group discussion

11.30- 11.50

Kirk Ambrose (U of Colorado, Boulder), ‘The Communal Life of Spectacles’

Group discussion (images in folder)

12.00- 13.30 Lunch

13.30- 14.30

Maura Nolan (Berkeley), ‘Face and Sensation, Medieval and Modern: Jean II le Bon to Nicole Eisenman’

Group discussion (images in folder)

14.30- 15.30

Edward Wheatley (Loyola U, Chicago), ‘People with Disabilities in Community’

Group discussion

15.40 Departure for Blindenmuseum Zollikofen

16.15- 18.30 Blindenmuseum Zollikofen
guided tour: exhibition “anders sehen”

19.00 Conference Dinner (Kornhauskeller)

Friday 13 October 2017

10.00 Meet in front of the Minster

10.00- 11.00 Tour of Minster

11.00- 14.30

Workshop resumes in the Muensterturm, including a light lunch

Discussion led by the co-principal investigators of the research group (Kern-Stähler, Macpherson, Robertson): stocktaking and discussion of grant application

14.30 End of conference



Workshops are free and open to the public. If you would like to attend, please notify Elizabeth Robertson.

Pictures of the Understanding the Senses manuscript exhibition, curated by Lynn Verschuren, can be found here.