As is so often the case, the Greeks got there first. Perhaps not always exactly or correctly, but at least in spirit. The seven liberal arts, as set out in ancient thought as the keys to education, are grammar, logic, and rhetoric, enhanced by arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Building a home, for instance, might require several of those elements. In ancient Greece, every free person was expected to take part in civic life through the conducting of one’s own affairs, which would necessarily require debate, the ability to defend oneself in court (there were no lawyers), serve on juries, and participate in military service.
A missing element in those requirements that I find interesting is the skill of agriculture. My guess is that animal husbandry and the growing of food stuffs was a given—an assumed chore for every person. But this omission troubles me in the same way that most philosophies do: a grand order is envisioned without recognizing the nature of the human beings who must abide by it. We must eat. We must drink. Some philosophies will address one aspect or another of our human traits, but few will propound their tenets based on what is—more usually envisioning what should be.
One of my favorite philosophers is Thomas Reid. The Scottish Enlightenment produced most of my favorite philosophers in fact, but he is special. Reid alone—to my knowledge, since the time of Aristotle—attempted to see philosophy as the outgrowth of human characteristics—the senses. He builds his castle of reason then with the hard stone of human physical limits. He is the source of much of my own thinking on these matters and deserves all credit but no blame for any enlightenment I might share.
Another favorite of mine is Robert Nozick. He was a regular customer in our bookshop, and a friend, and even a counsel. I wish he had lived longer for many reasons, but more so because he was uniquely open to change—to good argument. Too many philosophers are dogmatic, as if all of what can be known is known and the limits are set. I became acquainted with Nozick soon after he published Anarchy, State and Utopia, when he was a professor at Harvard and already carrying the weight of his success, yet he stood in the aisles of my little shop and debated Locke and Hume with me. (The thrill of that is still felt.) It was just this openness that meant that his views changed over time, but not his willingness to reason. I would love to ask his opinion of my thesis.
Reid too was an open thinker and his influence on the likes of Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith was great and can be seen in the foundations of our civil society to this day. But without the bona fides of a Reid or a Nozick, I would like to put forward a philosophical theory of my own that I think is useful, and different, and perhaps even enlightening.
It is my conjecture that there are actually seven senses of perception, not five, as assumed. I propose that a recognition of the two that I add to taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight are just as essential to human life and are keyed to the very same nervous system and brain that make the other five possible. Simply described, the two additional senses are imagination and empathy.
My opinion here is that it is the acuteness of these additional senses that has made human society possible, and the physical need to protect the values identified by all our senses that makes a civil society necessary and gives meaning to philosophy itself.
Without imagination, the five basic senses are essentially no better than reactions to the light, heat, sound, acidity, and contact (or the opposite and/or variation in each case—such as the feeling of music vibration). Imagination is the sense of those perceptions brought together in any combination and identified, a common faculty shared to one degree or another by all creatures, but ignored as such. (It is cold outside and therefore I imagine I should put on my coat before I leave or else find myself chilled. And of course, this grows quickly to more sophisticated thought such as, I think I’ll stay home instead and write a novel.) Even sea otters show imagination in opening abalone shells with specific rocks.
Empathy is the sharing of our senses with others. As a creature of a specific nature, we are ill prepared to survive without social behavior. If we share our knowledge with others, we enhance our own value. If, as an individual, we are constrained in our perceptions, our value to others is reduced. Moreover, recent studies have even identified regions of the brain devoted to empathy and noted that a lack of capacity in those areas seems to correlate with sociopathic behavior.
To take the last matter first, as it is key to the rest: the reason individual freedom is so important is that we each serve as a validation for the experience of others, much the same as an independent replication of results is necessary to scientific method. If our senses are impaired, so is the result. And empathy is greatly enhanced by our various forms of communication: speech, writing, even winking. If what we say or write or wink is restricted by custom or law, we are reducing the result of each individual test in our lives. Certainly the degree of freedom can be questioned and some guidelines or restriction made necessary by physical circumstance (watering a lawn during a drought is an example), but it must be understood that restriction has consequences. Worse, by forcing a society to accept only certain kinds of knowledge, as happens with certain religions, we can create the sort of mass hysteria that causes conflict with other societies. Thus, empathy is important for both negative and positive reasons in our actions. The insanity of some cultures is well explained by their restrictions on sharing knowledge.
Imagination too is dependent on individual freedom. If that faculty is proscribed or confined, our understanding of the universe around us is equally closed. If we are not allowed to fully perceive what our other senses offer us to know, the real world is not ours. Reality is defined by our senses—and the truth of those results is confirmed by experience. We burn our finger poking at the fire—we imagine a stick to poke with. Imagination then is essentially our natural reaction to our senses, without which they are relatively meaningless.
Reason is a tool, like the sea otter’s rock, first imagined by some long lost genius of the human past, for relating through the tool of language what we perceive with our senses. Because reality exists with or without us—it is what it is—we must accurately portray what we perceive in order to have a common experience with others. Reason makes that possible. The interaction with other individuals allows us to confirm our perceptions and thus imagine practical uses for that knowledge, using reason, or math, or logic. Empathy opens us to ways to share our knowledge and establish relationships with others. Our senses as human beings are useless without both.