We Rep [Ideas]

A Return to the Sensus Communis

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How is it that we truly know the world?

What is the true nature of things?

Science tells us that the true nature of things lies beneath the surface. If we look upon a chair and ask, what is that, the common answer would be, but of course – a chair. And who would deny this? It is after all what we have learned.

A chair is not a chair however. Beyond the surface of the chair are a whole series of phenomena that are invisible to the “naked” eye. The chair is actually made up of atoms, tiny particles that are the building blocks for everything. A desk, a chair, even humans are made up of atoms. And atoms themselves are made up of even smaller subatomic particles.

Science and the scientific pursuit have proven this to us through instruments that measure, and through experimentation. The scanning tunneling microscope used for observing atoms, for example, presents us with a reality that is objective and rational. Or so it seems.

But is this really how we know the world?

Knowing seems to be indicative of a deeper visceral engagement with the world. One that is mediated through the senses and understood only after repeated sensory impressions.

Experience is the mother of all invention.

Reality is not objective and rational. Rather it is a subjective experience dependant on the one doing the perceiving. And it is precisely this dependency that has given birth not only to the apparatus for sensing, but also to that which the senses pick up. There is a certain mutuality or reciprocity to the phenomenal world in the way that acts of expression and perception form mutually co-dependant relationships. If the bee cannot smell the pollen what good is it to the pollen producing plant? Thus, our perceptual ways of knowing are tethered to the world itself, intimately weaved, and not separate from it.

Science and technology however have distanced themselves from these corporeal ways of knowing preferring instead a rational and objective outlook. And has as a result of these extensions created a gap between nature and us. Between the mind, and the body.

Take for example, the term “naked eye” as it is used above. As if the eye that is naked is insufficient without the prosthesis of scientific technology. The assumption itself that the eye is naked to begin with is skewed. These assumptions, that have in essence made their way into a common language suggests a deeply engrained prejudice that displaces the senses from their natural ability to pick up what is given, and instead suggests that the true nature of things somehow lie beneath all appearances. This way of thinking has not only displaced the senses from their inherent right to know, but has distanced us from what I would call proper ways of thinking about the world and our place in it, by privileging a rational techno-scientific outlook over one grounded in the bodies corporeal ways of knowing.

I would like to close that gap and reclaim the rightful place of the Sensus Communis as an intelligent and rational faculty that can, and should inform our forages into technological and scientific pursuits.

Over the past several years I have been deeply engaged with a body of work that advocates for the inclusion of the human senses into a common practice. One that states that the senses are the foundational support for everything we experience and for everything that we create as a result of those experiences. As such, the senses are something we should be paying more attention to, and giving them their due credit.

In consideration of the many facets of multi-sensorial intelligence, this paper will briefly touch on three aspects I think are important in bringing to bear the relevance and significance of a return to the Sensus Communis.

FOOTNOTE: “Sensus Communis”

Aristotle postulated a central faculty capable of uniting all the senses, synthesizing what each sense picked up to form a coherent whole in the mind. He called this the “Sensus Communis”.

The first will explore the senses as primary media in how the whole world is mediated through the senses. And look at the senses as natural communication systems as a way to understand the mechanisms that place and register meaning through experience.

In the face of the technologization of human and social capability this trajectory gives voice to the dimensions of analogue human ability. Arguing for the often-neglected abilities of the human senses as a way to challenge the technologization of perception working towards the inclusion of the analogue senses into the dominant discourse.

The second focuses on the senses and society, viewing every object as the subjects of perception, as things that mediate our interactions and contribute to the construction and diffusion of a techno-scientific outlook. An outlook and a way of thinking about the world that has affected the very way we see the world and thus, how we perceive it, unquestionably having significant impacts into our social and cultural production.


Our first and best way of engaging with the world is through the senses.

We see, hear, taste, feel, smell and move about in the world – all visceral experiences.

The primary mechanism through which our reality is grounded in the world is through our senses. We know the world through the senses.

When we touch the world, that world equally pushes back. And thus that thing is registered through the sense of touch as a thing, but as a thing that is sensed through my hands as a cup; its weight, the heat of its contents, whether is it full or empty, and not what is just thought to be a cup, or a wall for that matter. Although haptic feedback in definition is limited to that of touch, but extends as a metaphor for lack of a word, and translates into the domains of the other senses.

What is the haptic equivalent for smell, for sight, sound for movement, etc? We push and the world pushes back. With every step I take the ground pushes back equally on my foot, this is a true registering of the world. I do not need a formula or a theorem such as gravity to understand this. I know through repeated sensory experience that it is so. No theorem, explanation, or description can beat that.

The world is out there, whether we are here or not, whether we act out in it or not. Things happen in it all the time.

If the senses mediate the world and the world mediates the senses then when we look out, the world looks back at us, we touch and get touched back, we call out and the world calls back.

Each of our senses provides us with a different way interpreting and comprehending the world. A tree looks a certain way, feels a certain way, sounds a certain way, and each sense is finely tuned to pick up all these things. It is the picture built up by the senses together, the synthesizing act of the Sensus Communis that registers the tree, or rather the experience of the tree, as it is felt, seen, heard.

Can I describe a tree and have you comprehend it if you have never seen, heard or touched a tree ever? Probably not.

As children we learn from our exploratory forages and inquisitive natures through our experiences – through our sensorial experiences. These are grounded in reality by way that is not abstract, it is real, it is felt, it is tasted, it is heard, and thus the senses as primary media are the go-link to the phenomenal world and in turn inform all our ideas thereafter.

Piaget wrote of infants, that the world was essentially a thing to be sucked, indicative of the primacy and intimacy of the senses in discovering and knowing the world, in this case through taste; the mouth and the sense of taste conferrable to the act of living.

Taking the Sensus Communis as the experiential grounding of the world into a reality that we can understand and grasp at deep visceral levels, proposing that the world is not made up of things or objects, but rather of experiences, considering the nature of experience as more real than things. For things only have meaning once we know what they are. And how we know what they are is deeply entrenched in our interactions and experiences with them.

The senses are primary media that are intelligent so to speak, they don’t lie and we are tied to the world, part of it, not separate from it.
As a young adolescent teen I had the unpleasant experience of being told not to trust my own common sense. The setting was a mathematics class where I had told the teacher that the method by which I had come to my conclusions was as a result of my own common sense. The teacher was unimpressed and stated very flatly that my answer was not good enough – that my answer was not really an answer, and that I must use the proper theorem to prove it. What better proof is there than a common sense I thought. My attempts to stand up and argue that my common sense answer made more sense than that of the theorem did little to impress my teacher, in the end earning me only partial marks. Needless to say, that I was upset and depressed about having to forfeit my deeply sensed intuition to some theorem.

What I have realized since then is that what at the time to me was just common sense was actually superior to that of the theorem, simply because the theorem was an abstract representation of the original insight that gave rise to it in the first place.

What I had, and what my teacher missed was that my common sense had a real and tangible quality to it, a reality that had as its basis the phenomenal world, a reality placed and registered through experience.

Instead of capitalizing on these insights I was steered away from the opportunity to expand the horizons of perception, and perceptual ways of knowing.

I was being asked to deny what I felt viscerally, intuitively through the body so to speak and accept an abstracted reality, one step removed from what I could see, hear, touch, taste, and move through.

These are our first ways of knowing the world – the senses inform our world – they are the primary medium through which we touch taste feel the world. They inform our ideas of the world in a visceral manner; they explain the world through deep mechanisms. The rest are ideas about our experiences, one step removed from reality so to speak.

(rough draft 1 – 2 sections to go)


Written by sducros

March 19, 2008 at 9:40 pm

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