Early psychological studies on touch in France

Yvette Hatwell and Edouard Gentaz

In France, early psychological studies on touch belong to two domains which developed quite independently in the 18th, 19th and the first part of the 20th century. The first one concerned speculative (philosophical) and/or informal considerations made by practitioners and observers on the functioning of touch in early blind people, and more incidentally in cognitively impaired children. In the middle of the 19th century, studies on blindness led to the major invention by Louis Braille (1829 and 1837) of the raised-dot alphabet, universally used today, which allows early blind persons to have tactually access to written culture. The second trend is scientific and experimental. In the 19th century, this research concerned mainly the anatomy and physiology of somesthetic sensory receptors, neural pathways and cortical projections. Simultaneously, the methodological bases for experimental sciences were established. Further, and especially during the first half of the 20th century, studies labelled ‘physiological psychology’ were introduced in the academic institutions in Paris. Finally, thanks to the French psychophysiologist and psychologist Henri Piéron (1881–1964), true experimental psychology appeared in France at the beginning of the 20th century. Regarding touch, these experimental works were mainly psychophysical and concerned the cutaneous and kinaesthetic sensibility of sighted adults, but higher levels of touch functioning were also studied. After the Second World War, the two trends mentioned above were associated and the experimental psychology of touch extended to blindness and sensory compensations [1, 2].

Early analyses of touch and touch-vision relations in blindness and education

Although the nature of the sensory experiences and the mental representations of complete congenitally blind people were already questioned in the Greek and Roman literature, thinking about blindness became central in a number of eminent philosophers’ writings during the 18th century (the ‘Enlightenment’). Initially, the reasons for this interest were not to provide practical help to the blind, but to obtain philosophical arguments challenging the dominant inneist conception of the origin of knowledge proposed by Descartes and others. Later, this focus on the blind and the observation of the capabilities of some of them led to the search of how the use of touch could allow them to receive instruction and train for a job.