Grasp the thought for a sense of the world

The Inner Touch
November 2, 2007

In this rich, scholarly tome Daniel Heller-Roazen presents the most comprehensive account to date of Aristotle's notion of a common sense and the philosophy that it inspired.

Aristotle seems to have maintained that in addition to the five "classical" senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, human beings have a sixth, common sense.

This is not the common sense of Thomas Paine's famous pamphlet (viz. the faculty through which the average person will or should find certain plain facts immediately obvious) nor that of so-called common-sense philosophers such as Thomas Reid and G. E. Moore (viz. what is generally or paradigmatically taken to count as knowledge), but a central faculty of sensation that enables animals to sense that they are sensing by "combining and comparing everything that is apprehended by the five senses".

The suggestion, then, is that we must posit such a unitary faculty in order to explain how it is that we can grasp what he referred to as the "common-sensible qualities" of objects. His account of these alters significantly from one text to another (the most significant being De Anima ), but there are at least three obvious candidates: (1) qualities that can be apprehended through more than one (classical) sense, such as those of motion, rest, shape, number, figure, unity, magnitude and so on; (2) combinations of qualities exclusively bound to different senses that we can nonetheless perceive simultaneously - for example, being both bright and sweet; and (3) the quality of sensing (hearing, touching, and so on) itself, which we are somehow able to sense in ourselves. In each case he reasons that, since none of the five classical senses appears capable of accounting for our ability to sense such shared common- sensible qualities, they must ultimately correspond to an over- arching common faculty of sensation (or sense).

Much of Heller-Roazen's instructive book is devoted to etymological, exegetical and hermeneutical questions relating to Aristotle and his legion of footnoters, from the early Hellenistic commentators to modern- day scholars (the motley crew of those whose work is discussed includes Augustine, Averroes, Avicenna, Bacon, W. Benjamin, Campanella, Descartes, Diogenes Laertius, Epictetus, Foucault, Galen, D. W. Hamlyn, E. T. A. Hoffman, Kafka, Kant, Leibniz, Locke, Merleau-Ponty, Proust, Rousseau, R. Sorabji, and P. Valery). The author is equally concerned, however, to offer an original account of what this elusive sense might be.

According to the most popular current account, Aristotle's elusive common sense corresponds roughly to our modern notion of consciousness. Heller- Roazen dismisses this idea quite early on with the cryptic suggestion that "it may be that the significance of the primary sensation of the classical philosopher lies not in its proximity to the modern notion of consciousness but to its removal from it". In a crucial passage that gives the book its subtitle, he then asks: "What if the activities of awareness and self-awareness were forms not of cognition but rather, as Aristotle maintained, of sensation? What if consciousness, in short, were a variety of tact and contact in the literal sense, 'an inner touch', as the Stoics are reported to have said of the 'common sense', 'by which we perceive ourselves'?"

But it is not until the very end of the book that the obvious question is finally asked: "What would it mean for touch to be the root of thinking and for thinking, in turn, to be in its most elevated form a kind of touch?" Alas, the reader is never offered a clear answer but is left instead with a sense of being cheated akin to that caused by a disappointing detective denouement.

Could Aristotle have really had in mind an inner touch in the literal sense? And if he did, should we not simply reject his account as nonsense? Indeed, it is unclear whether it is at all helpful (let alone necessary) to posit a new faculty for every kind of ability or power that we have, be it conative, cognitive, or sensory.

Mesmerising as the 25 jovial chapters that make up this book are, we are never quite told what lessons modern philosophy and/or the science of perception can learn from Aristotle and the schools that followed him. In this respect Heller-Roazen never quite reaps all that he has sown.

Be all this as it may, there is something important in Heller-Roazen's suggestion that we should set Aristotle's common sense apart from the highly cognitive modern notions of consciousness. The key to this lies in the fact that sentience need not involve sapience, or even representation.

Given that sentience requires intransitive consciousness, we might do better to save the baby from the bathwater by rejecting the premise that consciousness must involve sapience.

As it stands, Heller-Roazen's argument is a little touch and go, and the conclusion not commonsensical at all.

Constantine Sandis is a lecturer in philosophy, Oxford Brookes University.

The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation

Author - Daniel Heller-Roazen
Publisher - Zone Books
Pages - 288
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 9781890951764

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