Piet Devos

writer and literary theorist


As human beings, we have two ways of finding out about the reality that surrounds us: through language and through the senses. These two ways of obtaining information cannot be seen separately from one another. On the one hand, language is the means of expression par excellence with which we can communicate our individual sensory impressions to others and elevate them to the level of a shared, collective cultural view of the world. On the other hand, our sensory perception has a great influence on our use of language: our vocabulary and imagery often have a concrete, perceptual basis – just consider onomatopoeia, which imitates sounds, and clichéd metaphors such as ‘shed light on something’ or ‘the new year is ahead of us’. We need words to order and comprehend our sensations, but this also implies that our way of speaking adapts to the changing context in which we live and perceive. Growing up in a given culture implies that we learn to speak and perceive simultaneously: that colour is called ‘blue’, ‘fire’ burns your fingers, an ‘orange’ tastes ‘sour’ and so on. It is this fundamental, context-based relationship between language and perception that I have been studying for many years.

You can analyse the mutual relationships between language and perception from countless disciplines (psychology, linguistics, anthropology, etc.), but I do it from the perspective of literary studies. Literature functions as a sensitive seismograph that records cultural and social shifts, making it possible to interpret them and even predict them. The writers of literature are often the first to describe the perceptual effects of the advent of new technology, for example, or large-scale processes such as industrialisation, on the individual and the community. Authors often anticipate history and thus make things that do not (yet) exist tangible: whereas Jules Verne had his characters travelling to the moon back in 1865, Aldous Huxley was speculating about 3D film in the 1930s. In short, the literary imagination provides a fantastic object of study for the sensory analysis of culture, because it emerges at the intersection of language and perception: it experiments, creates meaning and archives its findings for a considerable period.

In the thematic section Research , you can read various academic publications of mine (in English or Spanish) based on this sensory approach to literature.