The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses

Carolyn Purnell. Norton, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-24937-8
Purnell, visiting assistant professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, thoroughly yet lightheartedly explores the sensory theories of Europe’s 18th-century intelligentsia and how these ideas influenced culture, lived experience, and scientific endeavors of the time. Purnell finds an emblematic juxtaposition of concern and cruelty in the ways in which Enlightenment philosophes analyzed the senses, noting such examples as the Marquis de Sade’s fascination with intense pain, the founding of the first schools for the blind, and the use of a “cat piano” to help relieve depression. She also delves into the ways the physical senses could lead to increased social differences, as with gastronomes advocating both a “love of food” and a “form of elitism.” The use of color in clothing and furnishings accentuated class distinction, and smells—as from perfumed soaps or their lack—could help reinforce social status. Purnell shows that many modern attitudes were formed during the Enlightenment, including theories of “physical perfectibility” and a much-theorized reliance on visual communication and metaphor. As Purnell enlightens readers on the origin of the word “restaurant” or the medical reasons to “blow smoke up one’s ass,” she reveals the many subtle ways we make sense of our world. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 12/19/2016
Release date: 02/07/2017
Open Ebook - 288 pages - 978-0-393-24936-1
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