I’ve searched it before and I’ll search it again: “Lost Lion Reunites with His Brother.” The title gives it away: In the last 30 seconds of the video clip, a gleeful lion wraps his paws around his long-lost brother’s neck and wrestles him to the ground. The two lie side by side, nuzzling snouts and batting one another in playful recognition. It’s a touching fit of feline affection — nearly 7 million YouTube viewers agree.

Richard Kearney, the author of “Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense,” might argue that watching the video is an example of our own “primal hunger” for more carnal contact, which we humans are desperately lacking. Kearney, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, aims to “get us back in touch with touch” — he traces touch’s etymological, literary, religious, mythic and psychoanalytic roots in an effort to reframe the sensation as an ineluctable part of human life. Touch — to use phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s words — is a “double sensation.” It is “reversible” because “we are both touching and touched at the same time” (I touch my cheek, and my cheek touches me in turn).

Touch needs attention, Kearney argues, precisely because in this doubleness touch cross-relates (and fully enables) all of our other senses: “When we speak of touch we are not just referring to one of the five senses. . . . We are talking about touch in a more inclusive way, as an embodied manner of being in the world, an existential approach to things that is open and vulnerable, as when skin touches and is touched. So let me repeat one of my central arguments: touch is not confined to touch alone but is potentially everywhere. It is present not only in tactility but also in visibility, audibility, and so on.”

Throughout the book, Kearney expands the bandwidth of touch’s capacity. In the book’s best bits, his broad thesis provides fertile ground for expansive and erudite associative thought. Kearney references artists and intellectuals from Aristotle to Shakespeare to Don DeLillo to Leïla Slimani. In understanding touch as the ur-sense, Kearney interrogates its use in trauma therapy (the “tactile” act of dance can help PTSD patients), depression treatment (a deep-tissue massage can stimulate the right neurotransmitters) and disability aids (think of Braille as word-touch). His by far most moving and lucid exegesis comes smack in the middle of his book, where in “Tales of the Wounded Healer” Kearney traces the lineages of touch and healing among the ancient and biblical. He maps out the central role touch plays in the lives of Odysseus, Oedipus, Chiron and — who else? — Jesus. “Christ came on earth to touch the wounded,” Kearney writes. “And, significantly, it is not only a matter of him touching others but of being touched by them in turn. This is crucial. Jesus is eminently tangible, and Christianity is a story of ‘Double sensation’ throughout.” Jesus — in his precise doubleness of touch — reads like the book’s raison d’etre.

That entry, however, comes a few chapters too late. Too much of the book — particularly the first and concluding sections — features Kearney earnestly positing tired questions and letting them lead him to equally banal conclusions. In his introduction he asks the reader if, for all our vast technological gains, “we are not perhaps diluting our sense of lived experience?” If, despite our “hyperconnectivity,” we perhaps feel increasingly alone? These questions have long been part of the public discourse. They’ve been asked and answered. (The answers, we know, are yes and yes.)

Part of the problem is Kearney’s broad thesis. The author purposefully obscures (or renders lesser) touch’s specific sensorial use, which is to tell me that a fire is hot despite my not hearing, tasting, smelling or seeing the embers; or that I’ve lost an earring despite not hearing, tasting, smelling or seeing it fall. At times, such an expansion of touch threatens to undermine the groundwork of the book: If touch is “implicit in every sense” — if it is “potentially everywhere” — then touch is also, mysteriously, nowhere. In being so diffuse, touch becomes unlocatable, diluted of serious and particular meaning. In Kearney’s book, this translates to a general insecurity of narrative. The endless rephrasings of his central argument begin to feel like grasps toward a center that — by Kearney’s own devices — will not hold.

Much like his introduction, Kearney’s conclusion reads less like a call to action and more like an amalgam of previously known information. Kids are hooked to devices that “connect them with virtual worlds while disconnecting them from real ones”; “we gain a digital universe but lose touch with ourselves”; “the one-way illusion of presence replaces mutual lived experience.” Unfortunately, Kearney’s recommendations are as stock as his diagnoses. Here are a few: As we continue to order books online, we cannot forget to “browse volumes in bookstores”; as we take e-courses, we cannot forget to “attend ‘live’ classes in the presence of living teachers.” As we enjoy esports, we must continue to huddle in stadiums. “Ultimately,” Kearney tells us, “it is a matter of both/and.” Kearney’s book has its own both/and: It is both bright with polymathic passion and is riddled with cliches and repetitions. I’m not sure if this is a doubleness worth engaging.


Our Most
Vital Sense

By Richard Kearney

Columbia University.
202 pp. $19.95