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Aristotle on the Tongue

Alexander Robins

The tongue in Aristotle is a complicated sense organ with multiple functions. It is simultaneously the site of laudable speech, immoral gluttony, and two distinct sensations of taste and touch. In my paper I will survey Aristotle’s discussion of tongues throughout his authorship to point out some conceptual peculiarities and discuss their implications for Aristotle’s general theory of perception. Of primary interest will be Aristotle’s treatment of the tongue as an organ of both touch perception and taste perception.

At issue is the fact that the tongue can, unlike any of the other sense organs, perceive two kinds of sensations. It can discern flavors but also qualities of touch. This includes pressure, temperature, texture etc. This raises a set of conceptual issues about the relationship of taste to touch. Taste does not exist in the absence of touch, whereas touch does exist without taste. In De Anima Aristotle makes the crucial point that, “What can be tasted is always something that can be touched…” (Aristotle, De Anima, 422b1-422b9) This fact can be interpreted in two ways. First, taste is just a form of touch, different in intensity and sensitivity but related in kind. The tongue is itself and extension of skin and should not be conceptualized differently. This would account for why touch and taste occur together in the tongue.  Alternatively, it can be argued that the tongue is distinct from skin, and taste as a sensation is different in kind from touch.  While they occur in the same physical structure of the tongue both touch and taste can and should be conceptually distinguished.

Depending on how Aristotle comes down on this disjunction it has a broader impact on other parts of his philosophy. If Aristotle concedes that taste is a form of touch then he must give an account of taste perception that is consistent with his presentation of touch perception. Likewise he would need to give an account of why he even bothers separating out taste as a fifth sense. If we take this first option seriously then there should only be four senses. We would have to do some supplementary work to explain what the object of touch is such that it can have two qualities.   If, however, Aristotle does confirm that taste is distinct from touch he can preserve the idea of five senses and keep distinct the object of taste. This however fails to account for the undeniably close relationship between taste and touch.

I will ultimately argue that the sense of taste must be maintained in its autonomy, but that this requires a detailed look at several texts. To work through this issue I will turn to relevant passages in the De Anima, portions of Aristotle’s biology in particular Parts of Animals and History of Animals, and the Eudemian Ethics.

There is a limited amount of secondary material related to Aristotle and the tongue. This problem has yet to be addressed systematically. The tongue, however, and the sense of taste are regularly invoked by Aristotle, while it receives limited attention in contemporary philosophy. Aristotle’s most abundant interest in tongues is in lengthy discussions of animal tongue shapes and functions which are a regular feature in Aristotle’s description of any given species. This abundance has gone mostly unmentioned by later commentators, and there is no dedicated treatment of the tongue and no survey of its appearances in the Aristotelian corpus. This current project hopes to highlight the need to think about the tongue more seriously.

Session/Panel Title

Aisthêsis: Sense and Sensation in Greco-Roman Medicine

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