This Decaying Sense

The Elizabethans categorized five types of wit. The self-deprecating aside, the broad bawdy tale, the absurd jest, the clever quip, and the knock knock joke. Of course, this isn’t what they meant at all, although the etymology of the word “wit” weaves together a beautiful mixture of knowledge, consciousness, vision, and humor. (And “humor” also described the four humors, or body fluids, which determined a person’s state of mind.) The Elizabethans defined five wits to correspond to the five senses. “The five wits were sometimes taken to be synonymous with the five senses, but were otherwise also known and regarded as the five inward wits, distinguishing them from the five senses, which were the five outward wits.” The five inward wits are common wit, imagination, fantasy, estimation (instinct) and memory.

In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which dates from a similar time, he explains at great length how this works. When a person senses something physically, it makes waves inside of them as the wind makes waves on water. This decaying sense leaves an impression or an image, and this is the source of imagination or fancy. “And it is found in men, and many other living Creatures, as well sleeping, as waking.” This decaying sense, as it recedes, is called memory, and memory of many things is called experience. The imaginations of them that sleep are called dreams, and such imaginations that we don’t recognize as occurring during sleep, because the sleep is so quick, are called apparitions or visions. Imagination expressed in words or any other voluntary sign is Understanding, and “is common to man and Beast.”

I love to read about people attempting to explain the strange workings of the world around them and inside of them. I love to think about how carefully Hobbes defined vagaries of sensations and emotions that seem impossible and indeterminate. Apparently, today, even scientists say that the notion that we only have five senses is outdated and limited. Of course we have more than five senses! We sense balance and movement, we sense warmth and cold, we sense time passing. If we close our eyes we know the position of our hand, even though it’s not being detected by any of the five traditional senses.

Our ideas of how we experience the world and how we describe that experience are shaped by our environment: our history, our culture, our geography. In his hierarchy of the senses from the fourth century BC, Aristotle claimed that sight is the most important sense, and in western culture this has largely been accepted as true. Our first experience of something is how it looks, and we have the most words to describe the way we see something. In other communities and cultures, in other languages, there are more words to describe texture or taste. In communities where music is important they have more words to describe sound. We describe and define the world as we always have, and as we have been taught to do, and it’s difficult to imagine that what we accept as real and true is not so for everybody. “For men measure not only other men but all other things, by themselves.”

Maybe there are other senses that engage if we’re able to find a way to experience the world outside of our accustomed perceptions; senses not defined by Hobbes or science (as far as I know), but possibly the most important of all. Emotional senses, maybe. Sense of empathy, sense of decency, sense of humor–which brings us back to the beginning, when sense and wit collided in all of their shades of meaning. Even in Shakespeare’s time, “wit” meant not just sense and intelligence, but humor as well–the ability to see the absurdity of all of this confusion of sensations. What complicated creatures we are, moving through the world, taking it into ourselves and making it part of our memory and dreams. And this is true of man and beast, as well sleeping as waking.

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