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Woodcut image of a human head with lines extending from the tongue, eyes, ears, and nose into a common point beneath the forehead.
Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica. Freiburg 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The Other Common Sense, or, Why Your Student Isn’t a Cabbage

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“Just use some common sense” is not a phrase that Gregor Reisch (1467-1525) would have leveled against any of his students when the first edition of his textbook, Margarita Philosophica, was printed in 1503. By all accounts, sixteenth-century students were just as rambunctious as contemporary adolescents, so it is not that the Carthusian Prior of Freiburg may have been without occasion. However, in 1503, “common sense” did not refer to a person’s ability to reason. Dogs, sheep, and other animals had “common sense” or, in Latin, a sensus communis. This particular faculty of the mind was thought to be the single internal entry point for all external sensations: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

The Rosenwald Collection has a first edition of Reisch’s enormously popular text, which was reprinted at least twelve times during the sixteenth century. Organized after the university curriculum at Freiburg, the Margarita Philosophica begins by covering topics related to the seven liberal arts (grammar, logic rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy), which are followed by a three-book discussion of natural philosophy. In this section, Reisch borrows from famous medieval commentators on Aristotle to create an engaging dialogue about the three understood types of souls/minds: the vegetative soul, the sensitive soul, the intellective (rational) soul.

Woodcut image of a human head with lines extending from the tongue, eyes, ears, and nose into a common point beneath the forehead.
Gregor Reisch, Margarita Philosophica. Freiburg 1503. Rosenwald 595. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/48038600

The woodcut above depicts the mechanics of the second type of consciousness, the sensitive soul. The diagram illustrates the instinctive sentience shared by animals and human beings, a more sophisticated process of awareness than the vegetative soul of plants.

In the woodcut image, the sensus communis is shown as the first of the five “internal senses,” which look like floating brain bubbles within the human skull. The lines connecting the tongue, ear, eyes, and nose of the woodcut face represent the nerves that were thought to converge in the common sense or sensus communis. From that single, shared entry point, external sensory information had to travel through the cavities of the four other internal senses–imaginative, estimative, phantastic, and memorative— before the distinctly human powers of intellection could become involved.

Consequently, in 1503, the sensus communis was considered to be the gateway to a fundamental neural response to every-day stimuli. For Gregor Reisch, if his students weren’t using their “common sense,” they wouldn’t just have been silly; they would have been vegetables.

 

FURTHER READING

Knuuttila, Simo (2004). Emotions in ancient and medieval philosophy. Oxford : Clarendon Press ; New York : Oxford University Press. https://lccn.loc.gov/2004303417

Natural philosophy epitomised : a translation of books 8-11 of Gregor Reisch’s Philosophical pearl (1503). Translated and edited by Andrew Cunningham and Sachiko Kusukawa. Farnham, Surrey, England : Ashgate, 2010. https://lccn.loc.gov/2009912397

Comments

  1. Nice information dear friend

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