Sensationalism (from XVII century Latin sensatio, der. from Ancient Latin sensus, “sense”) is the tendency to give exaggerated emphasis to certain news, to arouse the interest of readers and public opinion. See also: Empiricism vs Sensationalism vs Materialism

It is a type of editorial tactic in mass media, and a style of news reports that encourages biased impressions of events rather than neutrality and may cause a manipulation to the truth of a story. Sensationalism may rely on reports about generally insignificant matters and portray them as a major influence on society, or biased presentations of newsworthy topics, in a trivial, or tabloid manner, contrary to general assumptions of professional journalistic standards.

In philosophy, it is the doctrine, part of empiricism, according to which the original elements of reality are sensations: colors, sounds, heat, pressure, space, time, etc.; there are no innate ideas and that knowledge is derived solely from the sense data of experience. It, therefore, differs from sensism, that is, from the gnoseological doctrine that places sensation as the only source of knowledge, and from rationalism, which states that the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.

The system of ideas, sensations and experiences has been widely discussed throughout history by Greek and scholastic authors in antiquity and in modern times by John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Francis Bacon, Descartes, and John Stuart Mill, of which the hints can be found under the heading “Empiricism”. Here we will focus on the vision of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, and Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius, also the leaders of empiriocriticism, term that indicates a current of philosophical thought that intends to found philosophy as a science or based on sensitive experience, thus excluding any reference to metaphysics.

All these authors, in particular, ask themselves the question of how man is able to acquire knowledge of the world and of the reality around them, concluding with different philosophical, psychological and physical interpretations, but all of them conclude that the gnoseological source of knowledge lies in sensations rather than on other factors such as senses or experiences alone.

Étienne Bonnot de Condillac

Condillac dedicates an entire treatise on the study of the origin of knowledge: the “Treatise on Sensations,” from 1754. Condillac’s starting point is the liberal English philosopher John Locke. In fact, he substantially accepts the Lockean doctrine of ideas but makes a correction of fundamental importance: while accepting the distinction between the ideas of sensation, which come directly from the external world through the senses, and the ideas of reflection, generated by the reflection of the mind on own operations, he denies that reflection is a source of knowledge distinct from sensation.

Locke’s recognition of knowledge independent of sensation appears to Condillac as a residue of Cartesian innatism, barely veiled by the definition of reflection in terms of internal experience. The inevitable consequence of this reduction is absolute gnoseological sensationalism: not only the reflected ideas but all the spiritual operations (memory, judgment, the most abstract forms of thought such as the most complex forms of emotional life) are nothing but transformed sensations.

The mechanism of this transformation is explained by the feeling of pleasure and pain that accompanies sensations, and therefore by the fact that they appear favorable or contrary to the satisfaction of the physiological needs of man. The association of sensations with pleasure or pain, or with other sensations that lead to pleasure or pain, is the cause of comparisons, evaluations, reactions, and finally, habits in which all our intellectual and passionate activity consists.

To illustrate the absolute continuity of the development process that goes from sensation to the most complex operations of the spirit, Condillac uses the famous example of the statue. He imagines the existence of a marble statue which, however, closed to any sensitive penetration from the outside (since it is marble), is internally organized in our own way: it will, therefore, be provided with a spirit, a res cogitans (to cite Descartes) clearly opposed to the extended matter (res extensa) virtually capable of performing the same operations of the human spirit, even if initially completely devoid of ideas (a real tabula rasa).

Condillac then imagines opening the five senses one by one, according to the order he deems most suitable for explaining the origin of ideas and operations on ideas. Condillac begins with the sense of smell which, being the poorest sense of determinations, is the one that contributes least to the definition of the contents of knowledge, and then gradually passes on to the other senses. In this way, the statue, which initially did not think and did not want anything, gradually develops all the psychic operations that are characteristic of the man. The condition therefore for the statue to think and want is that the sensations that awaken spiritual operations in it penetrate it: outside of metaphor, the man himself would not be able to perform any psychic function if his spirit was not progressively informed and educated by external sensations. In Condillac’s gnoseological doctrine, touch has a privileged position with respect to the other senses. As long as the sensitive information coming from the statue is limited to the latter, there is in fact no direct contact between the subject he knows and the object that is known.

The ideas that come from the spirit of the statue thus have a representative content, that is, they allow us to describe the image of things, but do not yet demonstrate the reality of the external world. Only through touch, which allows us to perceive extension and movement, can the statue distinguish itself from what is different from itself. Through it, in fact, the statue first perceives the parts of itself and their mutual interaction, thus achieving that fundamental feeling which is the awareness of one’s own self, to which Descartes arrived with the famous doubt. Subsequently, by touching the other objects and feeling their solidity and resistance, the statue will be able to come to the idea of ​​the exteriority of these objects with respect to itself.

Ernst Mach

Clashing against positivist contemporaries, supporters of the “magical power of science” – a faith, precisely, magical (that is, not rational and not verifiable) insofar as it manifests itself as a claim to “reach the depths of the boundless abyss of nature, in which is not given to our senses” – Mach discusses his philosophical model of sensitive understanding of the world in his treatise “The Analysis of Sensations” (1886).

Starting from the assumption that, strictly considered, empirical bodies do not exist as such, they have no substantial consistency, what exists is only a series of simple, irreducible sensations, intimately joined together in a sort of continuous flow. Mach too often prefers to call these sensations “elements“, in order to try not to give a subjective-psychological connotation to his thought. His main thesis is, in any case, that “it is not the bodies that generate the sensations, but the complexes of sensations that form the bodies”. Sensations – adds Mach – are not the symbols of things. Rather, it is a mental symbol for a complex of relatively stable sensations”. And again: “Not things, but colors, sounds, pressures, spaces, times (what we ordinarily call sensations), are the true elements of the universe.”

However, these theses should not be interpreted as a pure and simple return to an old phenomenalism of the Berkeleyan type. In the analysis of the sensations, Mach himself, though not silencing his sympathy for Berkeley (and for Hume), he explicitly rejects an approximation of his positions to those of the Irish philosopher. In fact, he considers reality as something more complex than the mere result of a set of sensations: he writes in this regard “I must observe that the world is not for me either the simple sum of sensations. I speak rather, expressly, of functional relationships of the elements.” Where the Machian effort, as mentioned above, is to underline the not merely psycho-subjective content of the phenomena constituting the world.

On the other hand, also the sensation in and of itself in Mach it tends to disengage itself from too immediate a reference to the ego to the subject. Its objectivity is guaranteed by the objectivity of its physiological matrices and the scientific elaboration to which it is subjected. Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of the Machian thought is precisely the attempt to autonomize the phenomena, and the reflection on them, from subjectivity. He cannot, as he writes, correctly interpret the world which “is unable to abandon the idea of ​​the self considered as a reality that is the basis of everything”. The modernity of the Machian thought lies, among other things, precisely in its conception of a world without a “base”, without foundation; that is, a world where certain phenomena that it is a matter of explaining in the most immediate and sober way possible, through the use of those empirical-sensorial observations and of those physical-mathematical measurements which will shortly be privileged by the neo-positivists of the Vienna Circle.

Richard Avenarius

Taking up some basic assumptions of positivism (epistemic primacy of sensations, gnoseological relativism, criticism of metaphysics), Avenarius aimed to build a philosophy intended as a critique of “pure experience”, preceding the distinction between physical and psychic and not open to interpretation both materialistic and idealistic. Avenarius gave this philosophy the name of “empiriocriticism.” His basic thesis is that the empirical world has its own original unity deriving from an “indissoluble coordination” between man and the environment. This is the “original concept of the world”, already proper to the man before the unnatural distinctions introduced by philosophical systems, the result of an introjection process that determines an artificial distinction between external and internal world, between subject and object, between being and thought, between the image of things in the ego and the things themselves.

Moving away from classical empiricism, in his analysis of the Avenarius experience, he does not start from the individual conscience and from what he perceives but postulates the need to start from a plurality of individuals who interact with each other and with the environment. Man has experience of the environment as of himself; both experiences consist of the same elements: sensations, which describe aspects of the environment (sounds, colors, etc.), and characters (expressed by qualifications such as “pleasant,” “unpleasant,” “beautiful,” “ugly,” “known,” “unknown”) which refer to reactions of the individual to constituents of the environment. Physical and psychic are only different forms of the position of the same sets of elements, in the sense that their difference depends only on a diversity of “characters”, which in turn depends on the biological relationship with the surrounding environment.

The psychic processes themselves are physiological changes mediated by the central nervous system through which the adaptation between organism and environment takes place. This adaptation, in turn, also includes cognitive processes, through which a multiplicity of experiences is summarized in formulas (concepts, theories, laws) on the basis of the principle of economics, or “of the least effort,” which is the regulating principle of all phenomena. Contrasting the Spencerian idea that evolutionary processes would go in the direction of increasing complexity, Avenarius maintains that the universal trend is towards simplicity and homogeneity. Avenarius’ theories anticipate those developed independently by Mach and influenced the gnoseological discussions of the early 20th century.

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