Theory of Knowledge 1: The exterior senses and the common sense
By Orlando Fedeli - The theory of knowledge in Saint Thomas Aquinas, part 1 of 3
Note from the translator: Here is Chapter 1 of the 4th Part of the book “In Wonderland: the burlesque Gnosis of the TFP and the Heralds of the Gospel”, where Orlando Fedeli explain the theory of knowledge according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, before exposing how Plinio thought knowledge happened in men. In this series of posts, we are only interested in Fedeli’s interpretation of Aquinas. I am taking the freedom to break it in 3 posts
The exterior senses and the common sense
Imagination, cogitative, and the intellect (coming soon)
The irrationalist error in knowledge (coming soon)
According to Saint Thomas, there is nothing in the intellect that has not passed through the material senses. Since man is a rational animal, his five external senses capture external reality, transmit images of external things to his internal senses, and aim at intellectual understanding.
As is well known, man’s external senses are five: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Of these five senses, the properly cognitive senses are vision and hearing, whose organs, as Hugh of Saint Victor noted, are placed higher in the human head. Smell and taste are external senses more focused on maintaining physical life through food, while touch is the least aware and is spread throughout the body, aiming at the reproduction of the human species.
In man, teaches Saint Thomas, there are also four inner senses:
Two of these four inner senses are receptive: common sense and cogitative; the other two are unreceptive. One of them, imagination, is reproductive, and the other, memory, retains images or “species”.
By common sense, one should not understand a single sense common to all human subjects. Common sense is not so called because it is common to all, but because it synthesizes the various impressions received through the five external senses into a single unit. There is only one sensitive knowledge of real things in the unit of the judgment of all the images captured by the five senses. This unity is produced by common sense.
Common sense plays the role of a connecting link between the outer senses and the inner sense of the man.
On the one hand, common sense is like the root or trunk of the life of the rational soul, which communicates its action to the external senses as its instruments of action. Then it receives all external information from them and transmits what it received diversely, in a unified way, to the other internal senses.
Common sense uses the five external senses of man as if they were instruments.
Common sense has two functions, according to Saint Thomas:
Perceive the activity of the other senses.
Distinguish the sensible qualities of the different external senses.
The life of the soul reaches the five outer senses through that single, intermediate source, which is common sense.
The external senses are wholly turned towards the reality external to man, each perceiving a particular aspect of that reality. The five senses capture different aspects of an object and transmit these particular sensations to each of the senses to the interior of man. Common sense receives these impressions, judges them, knowing their origin, and reintegrates them into a single whole.
The function of common sense, integrating the impressions or species that are contributed to it through the five senses, is always subjective. For this reason, personal impressions are subjective, improper, and imperfect.
(In the next post, we will see Imagination/Phantasy and an introduction to Cogitative)
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