The philosophical systematic reflection about the abilities, that characterizes what we have been calling Pensamiento Hábil (skillful Thinking), has a special attraction to manual ability, in the sense that manipulations would occupy a very important place in the origin of our own rationality, as Piaget's Evolutionary Psychology would have proved, mainly. But the great Swiss psychologist's obsession would have been, in his researches about children's psychology, the bodily abilities in general (buccal, locomotive, manual, linguistic, etc.). The manual ability is very important in Piaget, but it is not obsessively thematized. The exclusive study of the hand is more recent. Its fundamental role in learning began to be emphasized in the last third of the past century by the paleoanthropology, neurology, linguistics, when they approached questions about the manual changes brought about by the construction and the use of tools in hominids, or the role played by the proto-linguistic symbolic gestures that served to organize and transmit the construction procedures of axes and other technical instruments that became transcendental for the survival of hominids.
Frank R. Wilson's book The Hand. How its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture (Pantheon, New York, 1999), was an important landmark by reaching the general public (the book was nominated as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the category of science popularization) with the scientific thematization of this humble part of the body, to which not much importance was ascribed when dealing with such important issues as culture or human intelligence. This traditional understatement of the hands is now presented to us, after this new scientific contributions, as a long-standing prejudice that would take us back to Aristotle, who would have distorted the phrase attributed to Anaxagoras that “man is the most intelligent of animals because he has hands” (Aristotle, De Partibus Animalum IV.10, 687 a5-b24). The evolutionary paleoanthropology has pointed in the opposite direction to Aristotle by claiming that the human brain could have made a decisive jump from the size of a monkey brain to the much bigger size of the human brain, due mainly to the use of tools made possible by the transformations in the hands. Therefore, that the brain grew when the hands improved and not that the hand came from a superior brain previous to them.
Frank Wilson, who relates in his book in a rigorous and entertaining way a lot of these scientific findings in the evolution of hominids, came across the theme of the hands as a consequence of his profession as neurologist at his practice in the Peter F. Ostwald Health Program for Performing Artists of the University of California in San Francisco. Treating professional musicians who suffered serious injuries or cramps in their hands that stopped them from continuing their profession or a brilliant career as a pianist or guitarist, he was obliged to understand the hand as an organ much more complex and mysterious as it used to be seen by classical medicine. Because the cause of the hand movements of a musician cannot be explained without going further than the wrist, for there are tendons and nerves under the skin extended over the arm, which is a sort of very complex crane equipped with its own biomechanics. But the nerves don't end in the arm, they rather continue until the spinal cord, which is in connection with the brain. In turn, we know that injuries and illnesses that affect certain zones of the brain can have characteristic effects in manual mobility. For this reason, Wilson concludes: “
“We need go no further than this to realize that a precise definition of the hand may be beyond us. Although we understand what is meant conventionally by the simple anatomic term, we can no longer say with certainty where the hand itself, or its control or influence, begins or ends in the body”. (p. 9).
The relation between the hand and the brain, that part of the brain which continues to be little known, despite the advances of the last decades, causes that we cannot know what a hand can do. In a similar way, the philosopher Spinoza, when dealing with the philosophical relation between the body and the soul, approached in a dualist manner by Cartesianism, wrote:
“ … I can scarcely believe, until the fact is proved by experience, that men can be induced to consider the question calmly and fairly, so firmly are they convinced that it is merely at the bidding of the mind, that the body is set in motion or at rest, or performs a variety of actions depending solely on the mind's will or the exercise of thought. However, no one has hitherto laid down the limits to the powers of the body, that is, no one has as yet been taught by experience what the body can accomplish solely by the laws of nature, in so far as she is regarded as extension. No one hitherto has gained such an accurate knowledge of the bodily mechanism, that he can explain all its functions” (The Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, Part. III, Prop. II, translated from the Latin by R. H. M. Elwes, 1883).
Today, like in the times of Spinoza, we could say that we don't know what a hand can do because we still don't know completely the factory of the body, above all the complicated brain functions. But Wilson goes beyond and pretends to carry on a deeper consideration than the merely scientific, a more basic consideration that affects the sense of human life:
“Bodily movement and brain activity are functionally interdependent, and their synergy is so powerfully formulated that no single science or discipline can independently explain human skill or behavior. In fact, it is not clear that what we have asked can be called a scientific question. The hand is so widely represented in the brain, the hand's neurologic and biomechanical elements are so prone to spontaneous interaction and reorganization, and the motivations and efforts which give rise to individual use of the hand are so deeply and widely rooted, that we must admit we are trying to explain a basic imperative of human life”. (p. 9).
The hand appears here in relation to a basic imperative of human existence, with something which may hide its deeper meaning, for, as Wilson writes:
“... the hand is not merely a metaphor ora n icon for humanness, but often the real-life focal point –the lever or the launching pad- of a successful and genuinely fulfilling life” (p. 14).
To justify such statement Wilson refers to the experiences in treating the musicians to whom their manual, widely developed and exercised, constitutes a source of immense satisfaction which fills fully a whole life. A satisfaction that can be related with the one searched by so many office workers or those who carry out repetitive and automatized tasks who try to vent their impulses and residual manual abilities during their leisure with spectacle sports, hunting, fishing, computer games, filmic violent phantasies, etc.
The hands can be seen, then, as a lever or a springboard with a deep and basic philosophical meaning, in the same sense in which Descartes saw the cogito, in the mental activity, the springboard, the safe rock or fundamentum inconcusum, that allows us to reach the existence of a loving and wise God who acts as the guarantor of the rationality of the world in which we live. The hands, a sort of “I”, of flesh and bone ("de carne y hueso"), as the spanish philosopher, Unamuno, said, appears now to us, in a critic philosophical position of idealism and dualist mentalism, – which brought Cartesianism as its sequel, so denounced by the present neuroscience –, as the new springboard or firm foundation from which we can rediscover the rational and hidden sense of the living everyday world, – what Husserl called Lebenswelt and understood as the foundation or base of the world of the consciousness –, in which we unconsciously move and adapt ourselves everyday, abiding the tough law of our existence. Wilson reminds us about this in the Prologue of his book:
“Each morning begins with a ritual dash through our own prívate obstacle course: objects to be opened or closed, lifted or pushed, twisted or turned, pulled, twiddled, or tied, and some sort of breakfast to be peeled or unwrapped, toasted, brewed, boiled, or fried. The hands move so ably over this terrain that we think nothing of the accomplishment. Whatever your own particular early-morning routine happens to be, it is nothing short of a virtuoso display of highly choreographed manual skill. Where would we be without our hands? Our lives are so full of commonplace experience in which the hands are so skillfully and silently involved that we rarely consider how dependent upon them we actually are” (p. 3)
(Translated into English by Luis Fernández Pontón)