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Common Sense

from ENTRIES

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2016

Dennis L. Sepper
Affiliation:
University of Dallas
Lawrence Nolan
Affiliation:
California State University, Long Beach
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Summary

Common sense or common sensation – sensus communis in Latin – was an innovation of Aristotle (De anima, 3.1) adopted by ancient physicians as they assigned physiological locations to psychological powers. Aristotle differentiated the proper sensibles (sense qualities, like color in vision or tone in hearing, that are specific to a single sense) from common sensibles like unity/number, magnitude, shape, motion, and duration, which appear to more than one sense. Common sensation unites proper and common sensibles in the fully articulated sensory field of ordinary experience. Aristotle located this function near the heart, but later Aristotelians quickly adjusted to the consensus of physicians, who placed it in the brain. It was temporally and logically the first of the inner (inward, internal) senses. These included memory, imagination, the animal ability to quickly “estimate” whether what presented in sense appearances was noxious or good, and even the human capacity to name forms presented in sensation.

Having the authority of both Aristotle and physicians, this general schema was almost universally accepted by thinkers and natural philosophers well into the early modern period. It was the psychophysiological basis of Islamic and Western medieval theories that understood cognition as requiring the abstraction of intelligible forms from sense experience. Common sensation receives and unites sensible images of things, called “phantasms.” Higher animals can retain, reproduce, and process these phantasms by means of memory, imagination, and estimation. In human beings, this work of the inner senses “prepares” phantasms for the final step, in which active intellect illuminates the phantasms and thereby abstracts from them an intelligible species, which is impressed and preserved in potential (passive, receptive) intellect and produces cognition (see species, intentional).

Medieval theorists often increased the number of these basic powers by distinguishing and subdividing their functions. Following the existing medical conceptions about brain location, they distributed them to different locales in the ventricles (the hollows at the base of the brain produced by the anatomical enfolding of the left and right cerebral hemispheres). Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century psychophysiology simplified this scheme by reducing the number of psychological powers to common sensation, imagination, and memory.

Descartes began with this tradition and eventually arrived at his theory of the pineal gland as the focus of nerve and animal-spirit functions. Like many physicians, he assigned the psychological powers to organs in the brain rather than to the hollows preferred by late Scholastic philosophers (see animal spirits). A first step occurs in Rule 12 of the Rules for the Direction of the Mind.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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References

Azouvi, François, and Kambouchner, Denis, eds. 1991. “Le sensible: Transformations du sens commun d'Aristote à Reid,” special issue of Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 96, no. 4.Google Scholar
Bitbol-Hespériès, Annie. 1993. “Descartes et Regius, leur pensée médicale,” in Descartes et Regius, autour de L'explication de l'esprit humain, ed. Verbeek, T.. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 47–68.Google Scholar
Gregorić, Pavel. 2007. Aristotle on the Common Sense. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lokhorst, Gert-Jan C., and Kaitaro, Timo T.. 2001. “The Originality of Descartes’ Theory about the Pineal Gland,” Journal for the History of the Neurosciences 10: 6–18.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

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  • Common Sense
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.060
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  • Common Sense
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.060
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Common Sense
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.060
Available formats
×