Understanding the Senses: Past and Present

Understanding the Senses: Past and Present

2015 – 2017

Principal investigators


The Royal Society of Edinburgh

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, five workshops will be held to in two 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

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.