A theory of knowledge holding that whatever is intelligible is also sensible. Sensists make sense perception the primary function of the cognitive process, and regard memory, imagination, and reasoning as activities of the same faculty that receives external sense perceptions. They tend to regard man as differing from other sentient beings only in degree. Representative thinkers in this tradition include democritus, lucretius, T. hobbes, J. locke, D. hume, A. comte, A. Bain, James mill, T. reid, and H. spencer. Many contemporary schools of psychology also teach an implicit sensism. Examples would be the structuralist school, which equates ideas with images; the behaviorist, which identifies thought with tacit vocalization; the Gestalt, which views all intellectual acts as self-regulating cortical patterns; and the Freudian, which considers all human activities as emerging from instinct. G. E. Moore, B. russell, and logical positivists also implicitly hold a sensist theory of knowledge.
Most realists, taking into account the full spectrum of phenomena given to human experience, acknowledge that knowing involves an immaterial principle. They affirm a functional relationship between sensation and reasoning, but maintain also that a distinct faculty is necessary for the abstraction of universals from particulars. Thus they make a real distinction between the image of sense and the universal concept or idea. An abstract and universal character is not found in sensations or images, for these always represent particular concrete objects. The eye does not see color as such, abstracted; it sees this particular colored object existentially present. The common image of Locke and J. F. Herbart is an insufficient explanation of the universal idea, for conscious experience affirms that the image remains in some way concrete, possessing sense qualities. If the imagination represents an angle, it is a certain kind of angle, obtuse, right, or acute, whereas the concept of angle prescinds from every size and kind.
If man is regarded as a psychosomatic unity, his sense knowledge is merely a primary source of knowledge. Moreover, his intellect has a dynamic orientation to possess intelligible being, which is realized in its intentional possession of the forms of material realities.
See Also: phenomenalism; sense knowledge; knowledge, theories of.
Bibliography: m. j. adler, ed., The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, 2 v. (Chicago 1952); v. 2, 3 of Great Books of the Western World 2:706–729. r. f. o'neill, Theories of Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1960. p. coffey, Epistemology, 2 v. (New York 1917; repr. Gloucester, MA 1958). f. van steenberghen, Epistemology, tr. m. j. flynn (New York 1949). r. e. brennan, Thomistic Psychology (New York 1956).
[m. m. bach]