The phenomenology of temperature perception

In the U.S., our weather reports respect both sides of the analytic/continental divide, giving us both the empirical temperature and a phenomenological account of what temperature it feels like (wind chill or heat index). This can lead to some confusion. For instance, I initially thought that it wasn’t that big a deal that temperatures were below zero — most winters, it seemed to me, there had been extended periods when it reached that low temperature. Then it struck me: while it felt like it was below zero during most of those times, now it literally was below zero.

I had experienced something like a temperature of 15 degrees below zero before, but I had never experienced it directly — after all, the temperature was a record low. When I was experiencing 15 degrees below zero, then, what was my point of reference? And now that I actually was experiencing the literal temperature of 15 degrees below zero, I found, to my epistemological dismay, that it reportedly felt like a much lower temperature. In a kind of meteorological différance, each temperature is divided within itself. No temperature “feels like” itself, but only refers to another temperature, which itself “feels like” another temperature, in an endless play of signifiers with no signified.

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12 Responses to “The phenomenology of temperature perception”

  1. Shala Howell Says:

    The Wind Chill Index from the National Weather Service nicely distills the only thing that really matters to me about the temperature/wind chill divide in winter: If I go outside, how long do I have until I get frostbite?

    http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/windchill/index.shtml

  2. Nathan North Says:

    I’m not sure if this piece is meant to be humorous or not, but I’ll assume the latter. A temperature isn’t gauged by how it feels – it’s gauged by how particles and substances react to it (such as alcohol or mercury). The mercury in our thermometer expands or contracts in reaction to the temperature of the medium the thermometer is immersed in, and the resultant volume of it indicates, according to the convention we have devised, this temperature. Now, when we ourselves are immersed in the same medium we do not necessarily feel this temperature on our skin – due to the oils that protect the skin surface. However, if these oils are stripped away – for example, by the wind – then we no longer have this protection and feel colder. So on a windless day when it is zero celsius, the surface of our skin tends to actually feel warmer than this. At the same temperature when it’s blowing a gale we are at the mercy of such temperatures. So there’s no paradox involved in how a temperature feels and what it actually is, because: we don’t measure temperature by how it feels (this would be a circular definition anyway, defining temperature in terms of itself); and we do not normally experience what the temperature is unless wind chill allows us to do so. The confusion is caused by our manner of saying, for example: “Today will be zero degrees but feel like minus ten”. In fact, when it is zero degrees with no wind chill factor we should instead say: “Today will be zero degrees, but the average person will feel five degrees warmer than that” – because that’s how the surface of our skin feels to us on such days.

    But if the piece actually was supposed to be humorous, then please disregard everything I’ve just said. :)

  3. Mark Says:

    Yeah, I hope this piece was tongue-in-cheek.

    Wind chill is based on wind and how that increases the heat flow out of a body due to convection, etc.

    There is no differance problem, because temperatures DO “feel like themselves” when there is no wind.

    “0 but windchill 15″ means that it’s zero but with a wind that makes it feel as cold as 15-without-wind feels.

    So your “point of reference” is simply a windless day.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You guys are breaking my heart.

  5. Will C. Says:

    This line of thinking really challenges the binary opposition between hot and cold, of course, which unfairly privileges of heat over cold. That false hierarchy has animated much of Western philosophy–Descartes in his oven, for example, and even Pascal’s fear of the “eternal silence of infinite spaces” is on some level anxiety over the vacuum’s endless inhospitable cold. Of course, heat is itself always-already cold in relation to another, even hotter, reference point.

  6. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Perhaps the truth of Adam’s point is revealed in a contradiction I repeatedly note. Usually, sometime at the end of October and certainly by mid-November, there will be a series of days that are only four or five degrees (celsius, obviously). People will rapidly shift from wearing light jackets or hoods and pants to wearing their winter jackets and start to complain about how cold it is. But, when the same thing happens in February or early march–when there are a few days in a row where the temperature is a few degrees above zero and it isn’t raining–it isn’t uncommon to see those very same people shedding their winter wear and jumping directly into shorts and t-shirts. (It’s significantly above zero today, but raining and there is residual ice storm on the sidewalks and streets, I would be surprised to see warm weather clothing today.) When it was warm for a few days around Christmas, I literally saw three teenaged girls at the mall talking about how much they enjoyed how hot it was and they were celebrating by wearing jeans and tank-tops.

  7. Mark Says:

    I assume by “breaking your heart” you mean that this WAS a joke. Fine. But no offense, it’s not very good, because a joke has to be rooted in something that IS actually analogous to the topic you’re mocking (in this case, postmodern whatever) whereas wind-chill is not a very good example of that because “feels like” does not stand on its own, it is with reference to increasing speeds of wind. Zero feels like zero when the air is still.

    You say, “I had experienced something like a temperature of 15 degrees below zero before, but I had never experienced it directly — after all, the temperature was a record low. When I was experiencing 15 degrees below zero, then, what was my point of reference? And now that I actually was experiencing the literal temperature of 15 degrees below zero, I found, to my epistemological dismay, that it reportedly felt like a much lower temperature.” Well, if you really wanted to feel -15 “directly”…then just go into an open garage or something that will shield you from the wind (while presumably leaving the air temperature the same). There, there is your “direct” -15. Or just wait till the wind stops blowing. Surely there have been windless days. Or, if not, then just find a wind shelter.

    Even for humor, it would have been better to pick an example that really DOES demonstrate the “differance” problem in order to have fun with trivializing it, rather than an example which is NOT actually related and that just makes you sound like you’re a neurotic geek with too much knowledge of philosophy but too little knowledge of meteorology.

    (Oh, and Nathan North is wrong, btw. It has nothing to do with “oils being stripped away”…that’s just silly. It has to do with how air passing over a body at different speeds leads to different rates of heat loss. We do not “feel 5 degrees warmer than zero when it is zero and windless.” Zero degrees with NO wind-chill…is just called “feels like zero” by meteorologists, regardless of whatever ambient heat-shield our metabolism may provide us with. It is the windless state which is the baseline reference-point for what a temperature feels like.)

  8. Mark Says:

    “Feels like” is NOT intended as some phenomenological claim. In fact, I rarely here meteorologists use “feels like” anymore. They tend to just say “This but wind-chill this.” There is not claim about subjective perception; Craig’s example is much better for that. The wind-chill is not some claim about a subjective effect wind might have on perception. It is simply an objective claim about the rate of heat leaving a body under various conditions. The colder it is, the more heat loss. But the faster the wind is, the more heat loss too. So you can combine temperature with wind-speed to get what the “equivalent” temperature is.

    Which is not to say there isn’t lots of debate in the meteorological community over what it should mean. For example, should it be based on a hypothetical naked body? Or rather a measurement that is per-unit-of-exposed skin? Etc.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m glad you were able to respond to the post in the spirit in which it was offered, Mark.

  10. Charles R Says:

    The thing is, Descartes doesn’t actually hold that cold is the absence of heat. When he discusses this in the Meditations, he calls it materially false because there’s no way for the thinking thing to know definitively if cold is the ‘positive’ for which heat is the lack of cold, or the other way around, or if both are ‘positive’, or neither are. The thinking thing just doesn’t have the right faculties in place to represent these things properly, since it’s imperfect. Arnauld tries to call him out on this, but this is what Descartes reiterates: We just don’t know whether or not the one (hot/cold) is the lack of the other or if something different is going on, and *that* is why it’s a materially false idea. It is obscure and confused about what the origin could be, and not because it fails to represent to us the proper or right case of “lacking of something.” The only way Descartes’ argument here will work is if he doesn’t accept that, materially speaking, cold is a lacking of hot. Because if he does think that, there is a right answer, and Arnauld’s objection has traction. I can see why Arnauld was so bothered by this: it means Descartes, for all this method is supposed to give us certainty, has just allowed for a radical and insoluble uncertainty between the world and the thinking thing through that method, and it’s not even theologically motivated. That’s serious, but it goes on. Descartes has to accept for himself that while it’s true something cannot come from nothing, all the more true that nothing *can cause* no thing, and so the mistaken thinking thing experiences its own internal lack of some thing that would make it perfect (since we lack that perfection is his explanation for why we have materially false ideas)—like a void or a vacuum in the thinking thing of whatever in a substance makes it divine unity—as no-thing, the be-ing of that absence of any clear and distinct idea is itself an idea confused and obscure. Descartes’ own method makes human be-ing have a void permanently in its thinking thing; being a human is being a void who thinks inside a thinking thing as it thinks.

    The short section in the Treatise of Man, though, seems to suggest cold and heat are *both* not about what’s happening outside, but inside as the relative change of stimulation the body recognizes as its own heart-pumped heat. We feel heat because the stimulation increases; cold because it decreases.

    Maybe this last bit also gets to the heart of Craig’s observation. Since the body only detects its own internal changes and the soul thinks those sensations, then it’s a question of temperature as a vector of change rather than an absolute measure. The body got used to a cold temperature. It warmed up, so it feels hot, even though its the same temperature it was when the atmospheric temperature fell to that number and people covered up much. Of course, given all above, this means when we feel the weather, the void feels us.

  11. Nathan North Says:

    I stand corrected by Mark about the wind “stripping oils from the skin” being the primary cause of wind chill. Although wind clearly does have this effect to some extent, wind chill is rather mostly caused by convection stripping away the insulating layer of air keeping the skin warmer than the surrounding temperature. But Mark still misses the point that to feel the real temperature insulation still has to be removed – whether this is air or skin oil. Wind-chill doesn’t lower the actual or perceived temperature, but instead it exposes us to the real conditions without insulation factors.


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