Ibn Ezra, Nikolai Gumilev and the Sixth Sense

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Thinkers and scientists described more new methods of paragnosia complementing the usual five senses – “animal magnetism”, sex instinct, muscle sensitivity, work of vestibular apparatus, and telepathy.

However, our language reacts to the wish to reach beyond the world of senses in an even more responsive way. “The naïve picture of the world” reflected in locutions and language collocations confirms the confidence that there exist the means of world cognition, which cannot fit into Procrustean bed of five senses; its naming is a secondary issue. The language preserves such expressions as «gut feeling», «to be visceral», «feel in bones», as it is sometimes said today – we call it all intuition. But two great poets, Russian Nikolay Gumilev and Jew Abraham Ibn Ezra did not use this meaning, which has already become trite nowadays thanks to the efforts of parapsychologists and occultists of all kinds. For these artists the biggest flaw of sense organs system possessed by homo sapiens species was the absence of the sense of poetry, the key to the world of harmony, as a human deprived of it is blind and deaf.

Fine is the wine enamored of us,
and the good bread baked for our sake,
and the woman who delights us
when she's finished her tweaking games.

But sunset clouds, rose
in a sky turned cold,
calm like some other earth?
immortal poems?

All inedible, non-potable, un-kissable.
Time comes, time goes,
and we wring our hands and
never decide, never touch the circle.

Like a boy forgetting his games
and watching girls in the river
and knowing nothing but eaten
by desires stranger than he knows –

like a slippery creature
sensing unformed wings
on its back and howling helpless
in the bushes and brambles –

like hundred years after hundred years – how long, Lord, how long? –
as nature and art cut,
and we scream, and slowly, slowly,
our sixth-sense organ is surgically born1.

In his poem “The Sixth Sense” written in 1921 Russian poet Nikolay Gumilev gives the reader an opportunity to feel the limited nature of familiar senses, which enable a human to perceive the material world, and brings his reasoning to the necessity and inevitability of another additional sense, without which the world would not be full. Gumilev probably understood "the sixth sense” as something that helps to fully perceive «rose in a sky turned cold» and «immortal poems» – the sense of beauty. This is how this poem is understood by Friedlender2 and Zholkovskiy: “a rhetorical treatise about the need for the sixth, aesthetical, sense"3. One can also call it a sense of poetry and harmony. The image row of this Gumilev's poem most probably reflected the sayings of popular art historian of his time Walter Pater who also talked about a new organ needed to perceive beauty:

“Hegel, in his lectures on the Philosophy of Art, estimating the work of his predecessors, has also passed a remarkable judgment on Winckelmann's writings: 'Winckelmann, by contemplation of the ideal works of the ancients, received a sort of inspiration, through which he opened a new sense for the study of art. He is to be regarded as one of those who, in the sphere of art, have known how to initiate a new organ for the human spirit.' That is has given a new sense, that it has laid open a new organ, is the highest that can be said of any critical effort”4.

However, modern conscience has kept a totally different meaning of the "sixth sense" notion. According to dictionary definitions, "the sixth sense" is a «power of perception seemingly independent of the five senses; keen intuition»5 or a «power to discern the true nature of a person or situation»6. Why do we understand these words in a way different from that of Pater and Gumilev?

I asked myself this question when, to my great surprise, found a “Gumilev-like” definition of the sixth sense in the commentary of Abraham Ibn Ezra to the Book of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes). Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) was born in Muslim Span but travelled all over the world from Algeria to London. He was a poet, a mathematician, an astrologist, a philosopher, a commentator of Torah and a doctor – just as any educated Jew of that epoch. He was distinguished for his keen wit and wide scholarship, but he was an all-time misfit and wanderer, in particular due to his unsociable personality and sharp tongue. When commenting on the books of Tanach, he often wandered away from the main topic, and in one of such Сlyrical digressions’ (commentary to Eccl. 5:1) Ibn Ezra carefully, step by step trounces the art of traditional Hebrew religious poetry, piyut. He singles out four principal disagreements with piyut, but we are going to stop on one of them, which is important for our topic. Piyut authors sometimes permitted themselves loose rhyming: for example, the great Elazar ha-Kalir7 used to rhyme yom (day) and pidyon (redemption). It grated upon Ibn Ezra’s ears, and he venomously remarked:

“What is the actual purpose of rhyme? It is to be pleasant to the ear so that it could be felt that the ending of one word is similar to the ending of another. And he must have had a sixth sense (hargasha shishit), with the help of which he felt that mem is similar in its pronounciation to nun. But they pertain to different areas of sound-making!" (it is necessary to explain that according to ancient Palestinian book Sefer Yetsira8, which laid the foundation of Hebrew grammar, Сm’ pertains to labial sounds, and Сn’ – to dental ones)9.

Here Ibn Ezra calls the sense of rhyme, consonance, and harmony of the poem “a sixth sense”. The sense of his remark if the following: in his commentary, Ibn Ezra supposes that Elazar ha-Kalir felt rhyme not in the same way he did, that is why his consonances were so strange. And as from the point of common sense, taste and grammar Kalir's rhymes cannot be considered perfect, it is left to assume that he used some sixth sense in the course of writing his poems. Ibn Ezra uses this collocation with an inflection of disdain because (as it will be shown below) he couldn't have believed in the existence of the sixth sense. On the contrary, Gumilev as an heir to romanticism and a son of his epoch, which had already realized the limited nature of human cognition, seriously supposes that such sense might exist.

It is remarkable that "sixth sense" collocation is not found in any works belonging to Hebrew post-biblical and medieval literature10. To understand its possible sources in Ibn Ezra’s commentary, let us turn to the works of classical philosophy where it could emerge.

Following philosophers of the Stoa, Aristotle in his treatise “De anima” offered a statement that there exist five senses:

«All the senses, in fact, are possessed by animals which are neither imperfect nor mutilated; for the mole appears to have eyes beneath its skin. And thus, unless there exists some unknown body or some property different from any possessed by any of the bodies within our experience, there can be no sixth sense which we lack»11.

However, in the opinion of Aristotle, there is also some “common sense” uniting and synthesizing information received from five usual senses:

«Nor, again, can there be any special sense-organ for the common objects, which we perceive incidentally by every sense; for example, movement, rest, figure, magnitude, number, unity. For all of these we perceive by movement. [...] But of the common objects we have already a common sense which is not incidental to them, so that there cannot be a special sense for them»12.

But Democritus in his work “Small cosmos”, only fragments of which lived till our days, asserted that there can be even more senses:

“Democritus says there are more [i.e. more than five, as the context makes clear] in irrational animals, in wise men, and in the gods.

Democritus says that there are more senses than objects of sense, but because the objects do not correspond in number [i.e. presumably to the senses] they are not noticed”13

Muslim philosophy, which formed in the 8th and 9th centuries, was based on the essays of Greek thinkers – first in narrations of Syrian philosophers, and later in translations into Arabic14. In Muslim world, the great “Aristu” was an exemplary thinker, and his works served as a foundation for numerous independent and semi-independent philosophical concepts. The notions "five senses" and "the sixth sense" became widespread in medieval philosophy with reference to Aristotle; besides, they were used by followers of many religions who equally respected Stagirite.

For example, Spanish Muslim philosopher Ibn Hazm (994-1063) in his Kitab al-Milal w-al-Nihal supposed that the sixth sense is the soul’s knowledge of primary notions and axioms, which do not require proofs.

Knowledge arises, according to him, from the following:
(a) Sensory perception (shahadat al-hawas), that is, observation or sensory evidence.
(b) Primary reason (badihat al-`aql or awwal al-`aql), that is, a priori reason without the use of the five senses.
(c) Proof (burhan), which goes back, either closely or remotely, to the evidence of the senses or to primary reason.

Ibn Hazm holds definitely that man has six senses, and that the soul grasps perceptible objects (material objects) by the five senses; thus a pleasant odour is accepted by reason. Thus also the soul is aware that red is different from green, yellow, etc., or that there is a distinction between rough and smooth, hot and cold, etc. The sixth sense, ibn Hazm holds, is the soul's knowledge of primary things; that is, there are some things which man can know through his reason as being axiomatic, without requiring any proof for them. "Such is the soul's knowledge that the part is less than the whole; thus the young child, who is only just able to discriminate, cries when he is given only two dates, but is satisfied when you give him another. This is because the whole is greater than a part, even though the child cannot define the limits of his knowledge... The same sense gives the child the knowledge that two things cannot occupy the same spot; you will see him fight for a place where he wants to sit, knowing that that place is not big enough for another person, and that so long as another person occupies the place there is no room for him also”15.

Another Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), also mentioned “common sense” or “sixth sense”. Ibn Rushd's views on psychology are most fully discussed in his Talkbis Kitab al-Nafs (Aristotle on the Soul). Here Ibn Rushd divided the soul into five faculties: the nutritive, the sensitive, the imaginative, the appetitive and the rational. The sensitive faculty in finite, in that it is passive, mutable, related to sensible forms and dependent upon the animal's physical senses (e.g. touch or vision). A part of these senses is the sensus communis, a sort of sixth sense that perceives common sensibles (i.e. objects that require more than one sense to observe), discriminates among these sensibles, and comprehends that it perceives16.

Some followers of the great Hellene were audacious enough to dispute with him: as there are only five senses, there cannot exist a sixth one. This is how an Arabian Aristotelian thinker of the 12th century Ibn Bajja (1082-1138) retells the concept of the great teacher adding something from himself:

«As to the fact that there is no other sense beyond touch, this is clear by what we say: This is because if there were any other sense then it would have a particular sensible and this sensible must necessarily be a corporeal raovent. There is, however, no corporeal movent except these five sensibles. Hence, there cannot be a special sense organ for the common sensibles which will move several things. But the sense organ that apprehends them and how it works we shall soon explain later on. Again, if there were a sixth sense a definite animal would necessarily have it, and this animal would necessarily be different from man, because man has only these five senses by nature, so this animal must be an imperfect animal. And it is absurd that the imperfect has got that which the perfect has not got»17.

Muslim philosophy, in its turn, favored the development of Hebrew medieval philosophy, which was also primarily in Arabic. The latter was fed by ideas of Islamic philosophers and used their terminology18.

Hebrew thinkers cited and retold their Arab counterparts, sometimes not even bothering to indicate the source of their words. The great 'Aristu' was as much honored by Jews as he was by Muslims. Apparently, Ibn Ezra based his reasonings on the ideas of Aristotle (naturally, in Arabic translation) when he scathingly assumed that his predecessor had had some non-existing "sixth sense".

Muslims, Christians and Jews all revered Stagirite and admitted his almost indisputable authority. “Common sense” of Aristotle emerges also in Christian theology, in treatise "On free will” by St. Augustine Aurelius (354-430):

“Actually, I think that by reason we understand that we have a kind of inner sense to which everything is conveyed from those five familiar senses. An animal's sense of sight is one thing; the sense by which it either avoids or pursues what it sees is quite another. Sight is in the eyes; the other sense is in the soul. By it animals either pursue and accept what gives them pleasure or avoid and reject what gives them pain, whether these things are the objects of sight or of hearing or of the other bodily senses. This inner sense is itself neither sight nor hearing nor smell nor taste nor touch; it is some other thing that presides over all of them”19.

“Sixth sense” means “common sense” not in the philosophy only: this concept penetrated into the fiction too. In 1707, George Farquhar used in this comedy “The Beaux’ Stratagem” the expression “sixth sense” in the meaning of “common sense”, including and combining the five others:

“- It has often grieved the Heart of me, to see how some inhumane Wretches murther their kind Fortunes; those that by sacrificing all to one Appetite, shall starve all the rest.

- Right; but they find the Indies in that Spot where they consume them, and I think your kind Keepers have much the best on't; for they indulge the most Senses by one Expence, there's the Seeing, Hearing, and Feeling amply gratifyed; and some Philosophers will tell you, that from such a Commerce there arises a sixth Sense that gives infinitely more Pleasure than the other five put together”20.

The idea of “common sense” dominated in medieval epistemology and physiology. Even in the 18th century physiologists Albrecht von Haller and Charles Bonnet searched for a center of “common sense” in the brain, though without success.

Scientists of the New Age expanded the boundaries of cognition and, naturally, the area of unknown also got expanded at the same time. People started to believe that there were some natural forces, which were not indicated by Aristotle. During this period, a concept of "animal magnetism" became really widespread - it is "a force which all animals possess and which allows them to act one upon another and each one upon oneself with greater or smaller impact, depending on their mutual force and animal perfection... This liquid is weightless and so thin and transparent that it is invisible to our eyeЕ This liquid is warm but non-flammable, and it is capable of running like the lightЕ All Mesmer’s theories are based on this moistureЕ This is the liquid of atman or mesmeric liquid which, similarly to the rays of light, is not detained by non-transparent bodies, as it has already been said about; it flows through them just like a heater... it can be reflected, strengthened and transported by transparent bodies, such as mirrors...”21 F.A. Mesmer, a healer mentioned in this excerpt, defined the sixth sense as a supposed “means of communication with space magnetic fluids” with the help of this “animal magnetism".

The theory of the existence of a sixth sense as a convenient explanation of paranormal phenomena was first put forward in the era of animal magnetism by Tardy de Monravel in his Essai sur la Théorie du Somnambolisme Magnétique (1785). Departing from his mesmerist contemporaries, he considered the sixth sense as the source and sum of all our partial senses. (His colleagues attempted to explain clairvoyance and prevision by positing the existence of a "magnetic fluid.")

More recently the sixth sense has been given prominence as Charles Richet's comprehensive term for the phenomena of telepathy, clairvoyance, psychometry, premonition, prediction, crystal gazing, and phantasmal appearances22. They were, in Richet's view, manifestations of a new unknown sense that perceives the vibrations of reality. The conception is largely an attempt to do away with the spirit hypothesis, making its invocation unnecessary. Richet admitted, however, that the working of this sense is incomprehensible when a choice has to be made between vibrations of reality, for instance in the case of a book test, when the sensitive is called upon to read a certain line on a certain page in a certain book that nobody has opened.

His main argument in favor of his theory was that the hypothesis of the sixth sense as a new physiological notion contradicted nothing that we learn from physiology, whereas the spirit hypothesis does23. A hint of Richet's term survived in the concept of extrasensory perception as used by J. B. Rhine24.

The feeling that there exists something, which cannot be described by familiar "geography of senses", demanded for verbal expression. How, for example, can one name the method with the help of which a loving human senses the presence of his or her loved one? None of the five senses suits, does it mean that there is a sixth one? This is what great gastronome Brillat-Savarin believed, listing six senses in his "Physiology of taste”:

“Number of the senses. 1. They are at least six -

Sight, which embraces space, and tells us by means of light, of the existence and of the colors of the bodies around us.

Hearing, which, by the motion of the air, informs us of the motion of sounding or vibrating bodies.

Scent, by means of which we are made aware of the odors bodies possess.

Taste, which enables us to distinguish all that has a flavor from that which is insipid.

Touch informs us of the consistency and resistance of bodies.

The last is genesiac or physical love, which attracts the sexes to each other, and the object of which is the reproduction of the species”25.

During the new age experimental science also delved into the research of human sense organs system. In 1826, physiologist Bell defined the “sixth sense” as muscle sensitivity and proprioceptive reflexes26. Indeed, we perceive muscle strain or contraction, we feel it, but Aristotle saw it only as a manifestation of sense of touch, and until the 19th century no one singled it out as an independent sense. In the 18th century, the research of equilibrium sense started, and in the 19th century it was reinforced by studying anatomy and physiology of the middle ear and the whole vestibular apparatus. Equilibrium sense was also defined as the “sixth sense” by some researchers:

The division of touch into several sensations was entertained and rejected by Aristotle, but it was given anatomical, physiological and psychophysical support in the late-nineteenth century. A separate muscle sense was proposed in the late-eighteenth century, with experimental evidence to support it. However, before these developments, behavioral evidence of the vestibular (movement) sense was available from studies of vertigo, although it was not integrated with the anatomy and physiology of the labyrinth until the nineteenth century. The history of the search for a sixth sense is outlined, and the evidence adduced to support the divisions is assessed. Behavioral evidence generally has been accorded less weight than that from anatomy and physiology27.

But it was in the 3rd and 4th centuries that Greek theologians, whose writings are known to us under the name of Pseudo-Clementine, were audacious enough to dispute with Aristotle and claim that there were substances which could not be perceived by five physical senses and instead required a special, sixth sense for their cognition. First of all it is God. He is higher than the matter, and that means not available to material perception; the prophets who were honored with talking to Him perceive him with the help of “pre-understanding” with which they were gifted apart from five usual senses:

“But be sure of this, that until you find some new sense which is beyond those five which we all enjoy, you cannot assert the existence of a new God”. Then Simon answered: “Since all things that exist are in accordance with those five senses, that power which is more excellent than all cannot add anything new”. Then Peter said: “It is false; for there is also a sixth sense, namely that of foreknowledge: for those five senses are capable of knowledge, but the sixth is that of foreknowledge; and this the prophets possessed"28.

From science and philosophy the notion of “the sixth sense” came to literature and became a common heritage. In English literature, the familiar understanding of the "sixth sense” as intuition was acknowledged for the first time in early 19th century according to the authoritative American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms.

In the novel by Erskine Childers The Riddle of the Sands, which laid foundation for the genre of “spy thriller”, the “sixth sense" is defined as a skill of orientating oneself in the fog:

'You've got a sixth sense,' I observed. 'How far could you go like that?'29

And finally, after the appearance of famous film “The Sixth Sense” even those who did not read philosophical, mystical or medical books became familiar with this parapsychological notion.

Thinkers and scientists described more new methods of paragnosia complementing the usual five senses – “animal magnetism”, sex instinct, muscle sensitivity, work of vestibular apparatus, and telepathy30. However, our language reacts to the wish to reach beyond the world of senses in an even more responsive way. “The naïve picture of the world” reflected in locutions and language collocations31 confirms the confidence that there exist the means of world cognition, which cannot fit into Procrustean bed of five senses; its naming is a secondary issue. The language preserves such expressions as «gut feeling», «to be visceral», «feel in bones», as it is sometimes said today – we call it all intuition. But two great poets, Russian Nikolay Gumilev and Jew Abraham Ibn Ezra did not use this meaning, which has already become trite nowadays thanks to the efforts of parapsychologists and occultists of all kinds. For these artists the biggest flaw of sense organs system possessed by homo sapiens species was the absence of the sense of poetry, the key to the world of harmony, as a human deprived of it is blind and deaf.

«But immortal poems?..»

1. Gumilev N., Selected Works. Translated by Burton Raffel, Alla Burago. Albany, 1972. P. 116.

2. Friedlender G., "The Sixth Sense" // Pushkin. Dostojevsky. The Silver Age. St.-Petersburg, 1995. pp. 435-455.

3. Zholkovsky A.K., «Grammar of Love: Six Fragments» // Inventions, Moscow, 1995, pp. 105-121.

4. Pater W. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. 1873. P. 114. I would like to express my thanks to Vsevolod Zelchenko and Sergey Minov for their consultations in the course of work on this article.

5. “Sixth sense”, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

6. “Sixth sense”, Roget's The New Thesaurus.

7. He probably lived in the 6th or 7th century AD in Palestina, practically nothing is known about his life.

8. Probably written in the 2nd century AD.

9. Sefer Yetzira 2:3

10. According to Responsa (Bar-Ilan university) and Maagarim (Hebrew Language Academy) databases.

11. De anima 425a8-13

12. De anima 425a14-17, 25-27.

13. Aetius, Placita Philosophorum, 4:10. In: W.K.C.Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 1962. V.II. P. 449.

14. Sirat C, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p.36-37.

15. A History of Muslim Philosophy In Sixteen WebPage Parts - Part Fifteen. Edited and Introduced by M. M. Sharif. http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/muslim_philosophy014.htm

16. M. Fakhry, Ibn Rushd. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.

17. Ibn Bajjah's Psychology (Kitab al-Nafs), part 8. Pakistan Historical Society, Karachi, 1961. pp. 102-103.

18. Sirat C, A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 42.

19. Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will. Translation of Thomas Williams. Indianapolis, 1993. p.34

20. Farquhar G., The “The Beaux’ Stratagem”, 1707. Scene I.

21. K .Eckartshausen, Aufschlusse zur Magie [Explanations Concerning Magic]. München, 1790.

22. Richet, Charles Notre Sixième Sens. Paris: Editions Montaigne, 1928.

23. Sinel, Joseph. The Sixth Sense. London: T. W. Laurie, 1927.

24. Rhine, J. B. New Frontiers of the Mind. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1939.

25. Brillat-Savarin, J.A. The Physiology of Taste. Kessinger Publishing, p. 29.

26. Freeman C., Okun M. S., “Origins of the sensory examination in neurology”, Seminars in neurology 2002, vol. 22, 4, pp. 399-407.

27. Wade N.J., Journal of the History of the neurosciences 2003 Jun, 12(2), р.175.

28. The Recognitions of Clement II:51, in: Schaff P., ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001 [1886]. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.vi.iii.iv.li.html

29. Childers E., The Riddle of the Sands, 1903, part 21.

30. Crehore, John D. Mental Telepathy: Radiesthesia or Radesia, Our Sixth Sense. Cleveland, Ohio: J. E. Johnson, 1956.

31. Apresjan J.D., Systematic Lexicography. Oxford University Press, 2000. P. 104.

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