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Three German Commentators on the Individual Senses and the Common Sense in Aristotle's

Psychology
Author(s): Irving Block
Source: Phronesis, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1964), pp. 58-63
Published by: BRILL
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4181735 .
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ontheIndividual
Commentators
"ThreeGerman
Sensein
andtheCommon
Senses
Pychology"
Aristotle's
IRVING

This

BLOCK

paper is undoubtedly pedantic but the point at issue is im-

portant for the understanding of Aristotle's psychological


writings. It is that the De Anima is an incomplete and immature
working-out of Aristotle's views on sense perception, whereas Aristotle's matured and crystallized views on this subject are to be sought in
the Parva Naturalia, particularly in the De Memoria, De Somno, and
De Insomniis. This is a long point and has been argued elsewhere.'
The fulcrum of that argument turned on showing that as we read
from the De Anima through the Parva Naturalia we note a development in the notion of the common sense, and see the rise of a more
sophisticated and adequate outlook on the relation between the
individual senses and the common sense.
Here I wish to bolster that argument by giving an account of a
discussion that took place among three German scholars in the latter
part of the 19th century. Their discussion, detailed and keen in its
way, illustrates the frustrations and contradictions awaiting anyone
who accepts the De Anima as Aristotle's final word on the nature of
the senses. In conclusion I will indicate how their apparently insoluble
difficulties disappear when the viewpoint we propose is embraced.
The discussion was initiated by Herman Schell in 1873 in a book
entitled Die Einheit des Seelenslebens aus den Principien der Aristotelischen Philosophie Entwickelt. As the title suggests, Schell maintained
that the primary or common sense is the only genuine sense faculty,
the individual senses being aspects or functions of it. A few years later
in 1877 C. Baeumker's Des Aristoteles Lehre von den dussern und innern
Sinnesvermogen appeared in which he criticizes Schell and claims that
the individual senses are distinct from the primary sense and are seated
in the external organs of the eye, ear etc. A year later in 1878 J. Neushauser published his volume on Aristoteles' Lehre von dem Sinnijchen
I

See "The Order of Aristotle's Psychological Writings", American Journal

of Philology, Jan. 1961.

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Erkenntnisvermogen und seinen Organen, which in turn criticized


Baeumker and reaffirmed the view of Schell. Let us review the salient
points of this discussion.
Schell begins by making the important observation that Aristotle
uses perceptual terms ambiguously. Sometimes he means by "sight"
merely certain physical motions connected with seeing and sometimes
he means the psychological act of seeing. In the former case he talks
about sight being connected with the eye. This applies to all those
passages in the De Anima, the Parva Naturalia and the biological
works where Aristotle seems to say that the individual senses are
"seated" in the external organs of the eye, ear, etc. Ultimately the
only sense faculty is the primary sense connected with heart and only
when the proper motions reach there from the external organs is there
any sense-perception. As Schell says "To be sure, in that place where
the motion (which began by proceeding from the object) is concluded
and comes to its final point, there must also be found the psychic
representation (die Vorstellung). This place, however, is in the heart"
(p. 70). In the external organs there are only motions and "... these
are not any psychic phenomena, but are organic effects (Nachwirkung)
which come to their psychic appearance for the first time in the heart
or more particularly in the central organ. For wherever the &pXiJis
not to be found, in that place there cannot possibly be any psychic
representations (Vorstellen)." (p. 76). Schell claims that this is not
only Aristotle's view in the De Insomniis, chapter 3, upon which he
is commenting in the above-quoted passage, but that it is his view
in all his writings including the De Anima. Schell therefore has difficulty
with certain passages in the De Anima, especially 412b 19 where it is
implied that sight is the actuality and form of the eye as the soul is
the form of the entire body. It can not be said that Aristotle means
physical motions by "sight" in this passage for physical motions alone
do not represent the actuality or the form of the eye. Unless there is
sight in the perceptual sense there is no eye except equivocally as
Aristotle says (412b 21.). What this passage seems to say is that sight
is seated in the eye and this contradicts Schell's view.
Schell explains this passage by resorting to the position that Aristotle does not mean this analogy to be taken literally. What Aristotle
intends, so Schell says, is that if the psychic act of seeing were seated
in the eye, the eye would be to sight as the body is related to the soul.
But of course it isn't.
Neuhauser in his book presents much the same argument. He also
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holds that genuine acts of perception are not carried out by senses
supposedly seated in the external organ but by the internal or primary
sense. The external organs are merely receptors and relayers of physical motions (p. 66). The individual senses in actuality are only powers
(verrnzgen)of the central sense and related to it as parts are related to
a whole (p. 67). Neuhauser admits the difficulties of this view in the
De Anima where it is often said that the individual senses are functions
or powers residing in the external organs. Neuhauser attempts to
explain these passages by maintaining that Aristotle is speaking
metaphorically in those instances. In the case of the passage about
the eye he clainms that Aristotle's language here is a concession to
common speech but is not intended literally. Aristotle is interested in
illustrating the relation of the soul to the body and since most people
talk of sight as being "in" the eye he is willing to acquiesce in this
common though erroneous conception in order to get across clearly
his notion of the relation of the soul to the body. He uses this illustration of the eye for pedagogical purposes, but Aristotle is not proposing that sight is seated in the eye.
Baeumker objects to this "explaining away" of this passage (p. 268)
as well as others that occur in the De Anima. It is hard to believe that
Aristotle is talking about physical motions in those frequent passages
where sight is closely associated with the eye. In De Anima 425b, 23 it
is said that the "sense organ is the reception of the form without the
matter" and that "for this reason when the external stimulus goes
away the sensation and image remain in the sense organs. (ev Totg
Since the plural is used here Aristotle must be talking
oCOzyr-JpLOGL)."
about the external organs and if so this passage leans more toward the
view that the external organs are the seats of perception. What could
be meant, Baeumker asks, (p. 74), by the statement in 426b 8 that
'Each sensation is concerned with its own proper sensible which
exists in the sense organ as sense organ (Evrx aOLq-pp(y hac0:-p[ov)"
To interpret these passages as saying merely that certain physical
motions take place in the eye whenever sight is actualized is not
convincing.
Baeumker criticizes the attempt to belittle the importance of the
analogy Aristotle draws between the eye and the body as a whole.
Aristotle is not speaking hypothetically for the sake of comparison
when he says that the pupil and sight compose the seeing eye as the
body and soul compose the living organism and that an eye in which
there is no sight is an eye only in name but really no more an eye
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than a stone. It is unrealistic not to take Aristotle at his word here


and Baeumker concludes that "Really according to Aristotle, the
eye is the seat (Sitz) of the sense of sight, and the psychical act of
seeing first occurs in it and not in the central organ." (p. 81).
Sensing the difficulty inherent in such a view, Baeumker attempts
to clarify the relation of the various psychic acts initiated by the
several individual senses with the psychic act carried out by the central
or common sense. The individual senses have a certain amount of
independence but it is of a relative nature. For though the individual
senses function in separation from the central sense, in our experience
they "run together" (Zussamlaulen) at the central sense (p. 74).
Indeed "... . genuine full-blown knowledge (or awareness) belongs to the
common sense." (p. 65).
There are a number of serious objections to this kind of view. First
of all, on the basis of De Somno Chapter 2, 455b 1-14, the individual
senses can enjoy no independence whatsoever. There can occur no
senses to "run together" at the central sense for this passage says
that when the central sense is inactive the individual senses are likewise inactive but when one of the individual senses ceases to function
this does not affect the functioning capacity of the common sense.
Baeumker's "running together" of the individual senses implies that
they stand separately before they begin "running" and this contradicts the De Somno passage.
A non-textual and more serious difficulty is that the notion of
separate psychic acts blending into a single unitarv act is meaningless
and possibly contains a contradiction. It is meaningless in the sense
that no one ever experiences seeing as a kind of awareness distinct
from hearing or from the psychic act of experience as a whole; and it
probably contains a contradiction because it is inconceivable what
such an experience could be like. In any event an act of seeing,
isolated from the other aspects of experience is not "had" by anyone
and it would seem an odd contradiction if one were to claim the
existence of psychic acts of which no one is aware.
Even assuming that this view does make sense and is not contradictory it has a very un-Aristotelian consequence. If it is the eye that
perceives color, the ear, sound, etc., what does the central sense perceive
when full-blown experience is present? Baeumker answers that it is
the sensations of the individual senses (p. 77). In other words, the
primary sense never perceives the qualities of objects but only copies
of the qualities registered in the external organs. As Baeumker says
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" . . . the objects of this general sense are not the external objects - for
the external senses perceive these - but the sensation. It perceives
the external object only insofar as it perceives that representation
(Bilder) of it. Aristotle unnecessarily says the same thing abotit
memory which really does not differ from his peculiar doctrine of the
internal sense" (p. 77).1
That this is not Aristotle's meaning is abvious from a cursory
reading of some of his remarks on the primary sense. In the De Anima
this sense is spoken of as the individual senses taken as one sense
(h da) that compares the objects of the individual senses with one
another (425bl); and in De Sensu (449a8ff) and De Somno (455a20)
the primary sense is said to be that faculty whereby everything is
perceived. Aristotle never indicates that the primary sense perceives
only images as when we imagine or see hallucinations. Imagination
is only one function of the primary sense (De Memoria 450a 10), not its
entire function. If Baeumker is correct, Aristotle locks us in a Kantian
world of phenomena played back to the common sense from the
individual senses. This conclusion alone is sufficient to make us sceptical of this interpretation.
To summarize, Schell and Neuhauser are correct in their interpretation as opposed to Baeumker, but they fail to account satisfactorily for the contradictions that appear in the De Anima. Particularly,
the eye passage in Book II, chapter 1, is the rock upon which Schell and
Neuhauser's view founders. Baeumker would seem to be correct in
maintaining that this passage as well as othiers seems to be saying
that the individual senses are seated in the external organs but this is
really an impossible position as we have indicated.
It is at this impasse that the development hypothesis becomes
attractive. If we understand the De Anima to represent an early stage
in Aristotle's thinking on sense-perception before he fully developed
his notion of the common-sense the puzzles raised in the above discussion dissolve. In the De Anima the only genuine sense faculties are
the individual senses, and the "single sense" to which there is allusion
(425bl, 426bl7ff., 431al9ff.,) seems nothing more than a sum total
of the individual senses. At such a stage Aristotle might have entertained the idea of the individual senses as separate powers seated
in the several organs. Indeed there is little alternative for the individual senses are the only senses discussed at any length in the De
1

Baeumker here is undoubtedly alluding to De Memoria. 450a 23ff.

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Anima, and therefore the passages in this work lead one to the view
Baeumker proposed when one tries to square them with the statements
of the De Somno and De Insomniis. The truth seems to be that as
Aristotle expanded his notion of the common sense in the Parva
Naturalia he placed less emphasis on the individual senses until they
lost all independence and became mere faculties of the primary sense.
This is why two powers - the ability to distinguish sensibles of the same
sense (426b 10ff.) and the act of being conscious that one is perceiving
(425b 12ff.) - which are attributed to the individual senses in the
De Anima are given over to the primary sense in the De Sensu, 449 8ff.
and De Somno, 455a 17, respectively. On the other hand the view of
Schell and Neuhauser is amply corroborated in the Parva Naturalia,
but their attempt to make De Anima fit this view is futile. A realization
of a development in Aristotle's thinking on this subject is a successful
solution on all hands.
University of Western Ontario

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