Is our life really in our hands?

The hands reveal (almost) everything about our inner workings

It is no coincidence that the hands are almost as busy as our brains when writing. Through their motor skills alone, they are significantly involved in the creation of thoughts.

In writing this article, I am doing some manual work. One could of course object that the movement of the fingers on the keyboard must be preceded by the development of ideas in the head. Apart from the fact that this is not always the case, as is well known, exactly the opposite happens when reading a book: it is the hands that open the book and leaf through it while they hold a pencil to underline lines and make notes in the margin write.

Indeed, there is no act of understanding and expression that does not go with the use of the hands. Even the British gentlemen, who found it improper to gesticulate when speaking, later had to use their hands themselves, for example handling tobacco boxes, sticks, fans and towels.

Why don't we pay attention to it? The psychoanalysts claim that the body with its destructive or self-destructive potential and its uncontrollable desires rooted in the deep past is also suppressed by neglecting the hands: Babies can already make a fist in the womb or suck the thumb, later they become them Experiencing the world through hand and mouth - a long phase that never quite ends. Manual, all-too-manual, would perhaps say the resurrected Nietzsche.

The best tool

We move our hands when we speak, not to make ourselves understandable - we also wave when we are on the phone and nobody sees us - but because these movements are part of the way we express ourselves. While listening, we take notes that we may never read, scribble something on paper, light (or at least light earlier) a cigarette.

If we are psychoanalysts, we are not satisfied with that. In his early days as a hypnotist, Freud treated with the laying on of hands; later he was content with caressing the little statues of gods that he kept in his practice. His daughter Anna had a large loom in her study, while Jacques Lacan spent his time tying knots, in which he saw his theory of the subject condensed in an esoteric way.

The hand discharges and manifests the body's forces and desires. At the same time, it allows them to be implemented by grasping objects, technically changing the world or writing about them. The words that someone used to describe Proust's last years also fit into this horizon: Locked up in his cork-clad room filled with inhalation fumes, the writer is only "a hand that writes".

The reference to technology implies that the hand not only serves to discharge urges, but also represents a tool. Think of the potter, for example, who has to use his hands like spatulas. For the boxer or the karateka, on the other hand, the hand is a weapon. The hand does not achieve the highest increase by pressing the red button that triggers the nuclear war (after perhaps, as in "Dr. Strangelove", it has defended itself unsuccessfully against its own impulse to jump up to the strong Hitler salute), but by she writes.

Euler claimed that all his math was concentrated in the pencil he used to do his calculations. Such statements are by no means paradoxical, but correspond to the concrete experience of every person who has ever written or calculated. Technical computing devices are indispensable for more complex calculations (unless the head has turned into a data sheet, as is the case with an “idiot savant”). At the same time, the ideas represent the result rather than the tacit, inner premise of the font.

Busy hands

Wittgenstein once wrote that the real intellectual work is expressed in the student who tries hard to write reasonably correct sentences. He must have thought of his Lower Austrian elementary school students, whom he terrified with his physical violence. His statement is still true. The spirit is not a ghost that wanders around in the head, but manifests itself externally, mostly in written form, and draws from the huge supply of manual skills that we call "culture".

Thought (like desire, hope or will) neither falls down on us from heaven, nor does it haunt our heads. Rather, it is the result of practices, habits and alienations that, in retrospect, create our identity. This also shows the deep wisdom of the saying "Pray, pray, faith will come" - a saying that may sound cynical, but which corresponds to the advice that Derrida (as he once told me) received from Foucault as a young man.

Derrida, who had to write his doctoral thesis, confided in Foucault, but no ideas occurred to him. Then Foucault: "Write, write, and the ideas will come." And they came, including the great intuition that writing - and thus the hand - is not external to thinking. Just when we could have turned away from writing thanks to cell phones, we are writing more than ever before. Day in, day out, we put our hands on buttons and screens, even if only to express our pleasure with a thumb pointing upwards.

Maurizio Ferraris is professor of theoretical philosophy at the University of Turin and is one of the founders of the new realism. Most recently published by him: “Nietzsche's Ghosts: A Human and Intellectual Adventure” (Klostermann 2016). - Translated from Italian by Federica Romanini.