<< Themes and Questions for Exploration >>

This sections focus on themes and questions that can help to think about the senses in relation to self, society and history in a class context and for group activities in the city or a museum.

i. Self

Some philosophers argue that our sense of self is mediated through perception: I sense therefore I am. Every individual has sensory experiences, regardless of age or disability that position her in an environment. Before addressing how sensing is shaped by social factors, it is therefore worth to ‘feel’ ones own senses and engage in a debate about what sensations in a given environment are shared by different members of a group and which sensations are not.

ii. Society

Sensing is not only an individual process but also a social one for a number of reasons. For example, humans interact, and this interaction is always sensory in some ways and therefore involves a negotiation of ‘personal sensory space’. Moreover, our ideas about the nature and meaning of the senses are shaped by social factors. Different societies evaluate the meaning of sensations (and even the number of senses) in different ways and therefore have different norms with regard to sensory behaviour. Lastly, place experiences are linked to cognitive processes: the stories, myths and representations associated with particular places, these meanings are shared by groups of people and expressed in language, as the urban planner Kevin Lynch has argued: “Cognition is an individual process, but its concepts are social creations. We learn to see [and sense] as we communicate with other people.”

Both neuroscience and semiotics offer an interesting and complementary vocabulary to think about the difference between ‘sensing’ and ‘sense-making’. Neuroscientist call the first ‘sensation’ and the second ‘perception’, semiotics uses the idea of ‘denotation’ (observing a sensation) and ‘connotation’ (giving meaning to it).

Further Reading:

K.Lynch (1976) ‘Foreword’, in G.T. Moore and R.G. Golledge (eds) Environmental Knowing. London: Hutchinson.

iii. History

History can give insight into both the physical development of spaces (why are certain things present why others are absent) as well as into changing attitudes. By placing individual experiences in relation to those of people in the past, we can better reflect on both enduring as well as changing factors, opening up a dialogue about the future.