The givenness of the proper sensibles

Some things can be sensed by only one sense (proper sensibles), others by more than one (common sensibles). Examples of the first are color, sound, smell and taste, examples of the second are shape, number, motion, etc. The benefit of the second kind is that they can be confirmed by more than one sense, and each of them can, more importantly, be confirmed by touch. This naturally leads to the idea that these sorts of sensibles are more reliable and more certain, even though, oddly enough, they are not the first things we know we sense.

We can never confirm the experience of the proper sensibles. This follows from them being given to only one sense. Colors, smells, sounds, all of these things are simply brute givens. Any attempt to confirm that we are seeing red- say by measuring the speed of the light or the angle of refraction- will of course be based on some original given experience of seeing red.

This inability to confirm and to touch the proper sensibles has lead many to doubt whether proper sensibles exist in the world. We could strengthen the point by remembering that many animals cannot detect the colors we detect, and others appear to be able to see distinctions in things that we cannot see distinctions in (we see a yellow flower, a bee sees many contrasts in the infrared light) Who can claim to see the color that is “really” there? Who sees the real color of the hunting vest: the man or the deer? Why not simply say that what is really in things are contrasts of light and dark, but no paricular color? The difficulty with saying this is that we are either arguing from the fact that certain animals do not have light-sensitive cones in their eyes, or from the fact that certain animals are able to detect electromagnetic waves that are outside the visible spectrum. In the first case (no cones) we cannot prove that there is no color in things, only that certain animals can’t see certain colors. You might as well argue that the whole world is colorless everytime I blink. The second case also proves nothing, for we are not talking about what the animal sees in the, well, visible spectrum.


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