Common Sense and Idealism: A Response to Scott Roberts

This is a response to an essay by Scott Roberts on Bernardo Kastrup’s site:

It is the result of a conversation taking place on this thread:

I found your essay extremely interesting. I also am drawn to thinking about how the experience of the world has changed over the millennia, which we do primarily through the words used, poetry, and art. By looking at the confusion accumulated over time in the meaning of “common sense”, I propose a different framework from yours which reveals a different picture.

The meanings of “sense” and “common” have completely changed over time in the Western World beginning with the Pre-Socratics, and I believe in a way that helps to illuminate the changes in how we experience the world.

Aesthetikos is the Ancient Greek work for the senses, which carried a different meaning for the Pre-Socratics, such as Homer, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras, than later for the Socratics. More than we can now imagine, these Greeks lived esthetically, and truth was experienced as such. Heraclitus felt the tactile passage of time in a world of perpetual becoming; Pythagoras felt ultimate truth in music, and Homer produced a world of the senses, where song, Eros, and whispers of physically manifested gods directed the course of events. Logos was the poetic apprehension of the physical powers of the world, and it is fitting that we know this world primarily from the poetry of Homer.

There are some important points to note about this time. “Physis” had not yet broken down into Physics and Metpahysics, but was the all-encompassing non-reductive world of experience. Logos had not yet been reduced to logic, but was non-reductive poetic speech. There is no separation of mental from physical, and no notion of Idea. There simply was the experience of the senses thought poetically and musically. Esthetics was not yet reduced to The Beautiful, but was the entire truth in all its beauty and brutality.

The gods were also of this world. It was Dionysus who played the prime role for Pythagoras, whose ecstatic dance was the physical presence of Dionysus playing himself out through man. For Pythagoras, music was pure sensation through which we had unmediated access to ultimate truth. For Homer, we see in your given example Athena effecting her presence through her sensible inspiration of Achilles. As music was for Pythagoras, Logos was for Homer, and in this example we see Logos as the unmediated experience of the fundamental physical power of Athena, which he in turn relays to us through his poetic logos.

From the above, I would take exception to your claim that these Pre-Socratic Greeks were naive Idealists. This would not be possible until Socrates. Homer’s gods were physical, not transcendent, beings of elemental power, living atop Mt. Olympus. Dionysus was a physical power inherent in music and wine. There simply was no idea of mentality apart from physicality. There was no notion yet of “common sense”, but simply a shared esthetic “being in the world”.

With Socrates we first begin the physical/mental duality with the splitting of physis into physics and metaphysics, thereby exerting a power over our experience of the world unequaled even by our splitting of the atom. Ultimate truth was removed from our presence, rendered beyond the senses, and now imagined as pure Idea – non-physical mentality. With this began the confusion over “sense” which continues through today.

The first mention of “koine aesthesis” “common sense” I know of comes from Aristotle, who used it in a very different way from today. He introduced it still in the original meaning of sense as pertaining to the five senses, and proposed an additional sense common to all five which combined them into one perception, as opposed to the later meaning of common as the everyday understanding within a culture. But, already in Aristotle we see the disconnection of knowledge from pure sensation, with a mediation between thought and sensation a first step in the transition from sensation to sensible as a rational trait. “Koine aisthesis” would be transmitted in its Latin form “sensus communis” through the Medieval Scholastics to the Enlightenment, when it completes its transformation into the opposite of its origin: the ability commonly shared of acting reasonably.

It is in the fog of this confusion that we attempt to reconnect to our origins of Western thought, but I see a far distant beacon calling to a third option to the two you present. If we take the Pre-Socratics as inherently non-reductive physicalists rather than naive Idealists, we can perhaps find our way home to the esthetic experience of reality – the original grounding that we lost through metaphysics.

Just as we cannot unsplit the atom, we cannot unsplit “physis” – our technological world is built on the pragmatics of that split. But we can adjust our attitude toward it and seek a more authentic grounding of truth beyond objectification, not the “beyond” of metaphysical invention, but through esthetic exploration in this physical world as it reveals itself.

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