The Common Sense

I’ve recently finished reading my Christmas present book, ‘The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation’ by Daniel Heller-Roazen. It’s a fabulous book, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and a pleasure to read. The author looks at the idea that, underpinning the 5 traditional senses, there is another sense which co-ordinates them and, furthermore, that this underpinning sense is also the source of an innate sense that we exist. The author traces this idea from it origins in classical thought, primarily in the writings of Aristotle up to 20th Century psychology.

It seems that, in various texts, Aristotle argued that: We perceive the different elements of an object through our separate senses and that the different faculties by which we perceive are independent of each other. Nonetheless we perceive the object as a coherent whole, there must be another internal sense which co-ordinates these separate senses. Aristotle labelled this the ‘common sense’ (We later learn that the modern meaning of ‘common sense’ is Latin in origin but only came to be the dominant meaning of the phrase in the 18th Century.) Along side this Aristotle (apparently) argued that there must be a sense by which we sense that we exist. Later authors concluded that these two senses are one and the same faculty.

This is the starting point for a historical thread of ideas about the centrality of sensation for being, Heller-Roazen argues that modern writers and commentators have sought to bring this into line with more contemporary ideas of the self and consciousness which, he feels, does not do justice to the philosophers’ original intent. Rather, sensing is the essence of being.

Heller-Roazen lingers for a while with the writings of Liebniz. At the time that Descartes was arguing that thought is the irreducible hallmark of being and that all perceptions are deliberate cognitive acts, Liebniz was arguing that perceptions occur/exist beneath thought. In an interesting parallel with his differential calculus, Liebniz argued that there must be a range between the affections which sensing beings are aware of and those which they are not, these move in small differences from ‘small perceptions’ to ‘perceptions’ to ‘sensations’. These small perceptions are such that we are not consciously aware of them even though they are received by the body. Hence, for Liebniz, sensation precedes cognition.

Towards the end of the book, Heller-Roazen moves to think about pathological cases of 19th and 20th Century psychology. Here individuals whose ability to perceive (i.e. to experience certain sensations) were somehow impaired or disturbed experienced concomitant loss of self – they felt that were no longer themselves. This phenomena appeared to be the inverse of the phantom limb experience.

In a way the ultimate motto of the book is: I sense therefore I am.

In it’s trail through the history of natural philosophy, the book touches on a number of issues that are relevant to my interests:

In a book review in a recent edition of New Scientist the reviewer discussed the current vogue for neuroscientific work to to heavily emphasise the modularity of brain functions and to show how discrete regions deal with discrete aspects of brain functioning and human behaviour. The reviewer felt that whilst this approach (largely popularised through Steven Pinker’s book ‘How the mind works’ (on my books to read pile) had yielded many positive results they had failed to address one singular question: how the coherent self emerges out of the modular functioning. It’s interesting that Aristotle’s idea of the common sense, although couched in language alien to modern neuroscience, addresses this issue of coherency. The underlying, coordinating sensation does the job. Of course, if such a sense exists it would need to be identified. Nonetheless, Heller-Roazen’s book gives us something to look for.

Liebniz’s idea of small perceptions has many parallels with more contemporary notions that a lot of brain functioning occurs below the level of cognition or conscious awareness. But what Heller-Roazen has done is remind me of the wider implications of this – that we are not primarily thinking beings but rather sensing beings. During a lecture for the RSA, late in 2010, Prof. John Duncan made a passing comment that asking questions about ‘intelligence’ and ‘memory’ was fundamentally flawed because those notions were wrong. I wonder whether, in asking questions about object handling or objects and memory we are asking the wrong question because we give precedence to thought rather than to perception.

This idea of people as sensing beings also has parallels with comments made by Maria Parsons (Oxford Ageing Research Associates) at the second Holding Memories workshop: Maria exhorted us, when we were thinking about people with dementia, not just to think of people as malfunctioning brains but rather to think about people as a whole. This approach has parallels with the understanding of the self in the Bible (particularly the OT) as a psycho-somatic whole rather than opting for the mind (soul) – body duality.

So, again, people are sensing beings. In stimulating touch we are appealing to fundamental aspects of our being. We can ask how the sensations we induce influence our thought but we need to be careful about the priority we give to the various terms in the equation.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, Perception. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Common Sense

  1. Pingback: Doing perception | holding the moment of holding

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