The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

Sensation is inextricably linked with both knowledge and illusion.

The senses are, of course, our earliest experience; indeed, they are arguably our only experience. Their nature and the role they play in our intellectual life are accordingly perennial topics of the “Great Conversation.”

Aristotle discussed and classified the senses in On the Soul: he divided the types of soul, or life, into vegetative, sensitive, and rational. Vegetative soul bestowed the capacities of life and growth, while rational soul denoted the intellect; sensitive soul, possessed by animals as well as humans, bestowed independent movement and sensation. The traditional five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch were paired with five interior senses, or wits, of which the “common sense” was believed to synthesize the input of the senses.

More important was the role the senses played in the process of knowledge. A famous slogan among the Scholastics, picked up from Aristotle, was nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu: “there is nothing in the intellect which was not first in the senses.” This is the basic premise of empiricism, a theory of knowledge shared by several schools of philosophy. Though it is often associated with strict skepticism today, the great Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was an empiricist in this sense, as were Protestant thinkers like Francis Bacon and John Locke. Locke famously described the mind as a tabula rasa or “blank slate” before education. One form empiricism takes in our day is that of scientism, which classifies the experimental sciences as conferring the only important kind of knowledge, or even treats things as necessarily imaginary if the sciences cannot study them.

Empiricism and scientism, however, stand in contrast to other systems in which sense data is incomplete, secondary, or even entirely unreliable. The obvious weak point in empiricism, after all, is that our senses often give us flawed or inconsistent data. In seventeenth-century France, Descartes attempted to establish an irrefutable system of knowledge by admitting every doubt he could, including doubting the evidence of his senses. It was thus that he arrived at his maxim Cogito ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am”—reasoning that his own existence was something he could not doubt, independently of sensation. Descartes stands at the beginning of a long tradition of modern European idealism, a group of schools that consider mind the root or primary reality (whether this means the human mind or some other, such as the mind of God); many other great philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, Georg W. F. Hegel, and Arthur Schopenhauer, have been idealists. Along slightly different lines, Christian Platonists (beginning with St. Augustine) have argued for a divine illumination of the human mind from within, considering this an essential ingredient to our capacity to make sense of sensory input.

When the mind is not dissipated upon extraneous things, nor diffused over the world about us through the senses, it withdraws within itself, and of its own accord ascends to the contemplation of God.

However, the practical uses and abuses of the senses are at least equally significant topics in the history of thought. Religious authors in particular have concerned themselves with the way sensory pleasures capture our attention, distracting us from higher things. The Christian doctrines of creation and the Incarnation notwithstanding, Christianity has produced a vast literature exhorting people to moderate and even forsake sensuality, from reducing or eliminating meat and alcohol to adopting celibacy to dispensing with all property beyond the necessities of staying alive. Indic religions also display strong ascetic traditions: the Bhagavad Gītā describes unenlightened minds as beguiled and led astray from the Godhead by the senses, in both the pleasures they afford and the pains they threaten. The yogī, or sage, must transcend these sensory distractions in order to be united to the deity.

But this is not the only role allowed to the senses by the “Great Conversation” and its participants. In the Symposium, Plato, for all his focus on the trans-sensory world as being nobler and more eternal than our own, nevertheless starts from an explicitly sensuous experience of pleasure in bodily beauty as the first rung on a ladder whose top lies in the spiritual contemplation of the Forms. A similar approach was taken by Dante in the Divine Comedy, where his love for Beatrice is his first experience of the glory of God, and sincere pursuit of that beauty leads him leads him beyond Beatrice herself and to the God she reflects. Charles Williams, a friend of C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, described this approach to sense experience as “the Way of Affirmation, the approach to God through these images,” and much of his writing on romantic love (in essays, poems, and novels) is concerned with sense experience as a starting point for the experience of God.

Lastly, we would be remiss not to make some note of the sciences and their relation to the senses. From the ancient world until the sixteenth century, the sciences relied on a mixture of experiment and a priori reasoning, with the latter having the upper hand. For instance, the planets were assumed to have perfectly circular orbits; not until Kepler was this flawed assumption corrected by closer analysis. Giving pride of place to experiment, which uses sensory data not only to extrapolate from hypotheses but to correct hypotheses themselves, made all modern science (and thus, all modern technology) possible.

Suggested reading:
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
Plotinus, Enneads IV.6
St. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate X
Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning
William James, The Principles of Psychology
Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice


If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other content here on the blog, like this discussion of what makes a classic book, this reflection on the work of Tolkien, or this “Great Conversation” piece on the idea of oligarchy. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

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