In the time of William Shakespeare, there were commonly reckoned to be five wits and 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.
Much of this conflation has resulted from changes in meaning. In Early Modern English, "wit" and "sense" overlapped in meaning. Both could mean a faculty of perception (although this sense dropped from the word "wit" during the 17th century). Thus "five wits" and "five senses" could describe both groups of wits/senses, the inward and the outward, although the common distinction, where it was made, was "five wits" for the inward and "five senses" for the outward.
The inward and outward wits are a product of many centuries of philosophical and psychological thought, over which the concepts gradually developed, that have their origins in the works of Aristotle (who only defined four senses, however). The concept of five outward wits came to medieval thinking from Classical philosophy, and found its most major expression in Christian devotional literature of the Middle Ages. The concept of five inward wits similarly came from Classical views on psychology.
Modern thinking is that there are more than five (outward) senses, and the idea that there are five (albeit that it superficially matches the gross anatomical features — eyes, ears, nose, skin, and mouth — of many higher animals) does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. (For more on this, see Definition of sense.) But the idea of five senses/wits from Aristotelian, medieval, and 16th century thought still lingers so strongly in modern thinking that a sense beyond the natural ones is still called a "sixth sense".
The "inward" wits
Stephen Hawes' poem Graunde Amoure shows that the five (inward) wits were "common wit", "imagination", "fantasy", "estimation", and "memory". "Common wit" corresponds to Aristotle's concept of the sensus communis, and "estimation" roughly corresponds to the modern notion of instinct.
Shakespeare himself refers to these wits several times, in Romeo and Juliet (Act I, scene 4 and Act II, scene iv), King Lear (Act III, scene iv), Much Ado About Nothing (Act I, scene i, 55), and Twelfth Night (Act IV, scene ii, 92). He distinguished between the five wits and the five senses, as can be seen from Sonnet 141.
The inward wits are part of medieval psychological thought. Geoffrey Chaucer translated Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy into Middle English. According to Chaucer's translation, "ymaginacioun" is the most basic internal faculty of perception. One can, with the imagination, call to mind the image of an object, either one directly experienced or a purely imaginary fabrication. Above that comes "resoun", by which such images of individual objects are related to the universal classes to which they belong. Above that comes "intelligence", which relates the universal classes to eternal "symple forme" (akin to a Platonic ideal). Humans are thus "sensible", "ymaginable", and "reasonable" (i.e. capable of sensing, imagination, and reason, as defined), all three of which feed into memory. (Intelligence is the sole remit of Divine Providence.)
To that quartet is also added "phantasia", a creative facet of imagination. A famous example of this is given by Augustine, who distinguishes between imagining Carthage, from memory (since he had been there), and imagining Alexandria, a pure fantasy image of a place that he had never been to.
The "outward" wits
The five (outward) senses, as described in Cursor Mundi, are "hering" (hearing), "sight", "smelling" (smell), "fele" (touch) and "cheuing" (taste). It relates them to the five Aristotelian elements (which Aristotle describes in De Caelo), with sight coming from fire, hearing from the upper air (the aether), smell from the lower air, taste from water, and touch from earth. This definition of the origins of human senses was an exceedingly popular one throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, not least because of its rough agreement with chapter 30 of the Second Book of Enoch.
The use of "wit" to describe these five senses is illustrated by The World and the Chylde (at right) and the following two quotations:
And this knowledge descendeth and cometh of the five corporal senses and wits of the persons, as the eyes, understanding, and hearing of the ears, smell of the nose, taste of the mouth, […]
—Larke, Book of Wisdom
My five wits have I fondly misused and spent, in hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, and also feeling, which thou has given me […]
—King Henry The Eighth's Primer, 1546
This definition of five senses has its origins in thinkers that came after Aristotle. Aristotle himself, in De Sensu et Sensibilibus defined four senses: sight (associated with water because the eye contains water), sound (corresponding to air), smell (corresponding to fire), and touch (corresponding to earth). Aristotle viewed taste as merely a specialized form of touch, which he in turn viewed as the primary sense (because all life-forms possess it). He rejected the earlier view by Democritus that there was in fact only one sense, touch.
Similarly, Plato, in Theaetetus, has Socrates stating that there are innumerable senses without names, and that the senses with names include hearing, sight, smell, senses of heat and cold, pleasure, pain, desire, and fear.
Aulus Gellius defined five senses, saying "Ex quinque his sensibus quose animantibus natura tribit, visu, auditu, gustu, tactu, odoratu, quas Graeci αισθητεισ appellant" ("Nature has given five senses to living beings, sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, called αισθητεισ by the Greeks"). But there is no evidence that this topos existed in the thinking of the Anglo-Saxons, since Old English does not possess the requisite taxonomy, and has difficulty with translations of Latin texts that do.
The concept of their being five senses occurs in Christian sermons, devotional literature, and religious allegories of Middle English, although not all authors agreed exactly which senses the five were. Peter Damian in the 11th century correlated the five wounds that Jesus suffered during his crucifixion with the five senses, which was echoed by John Bromyard in Summa cantium, although the latter only explicitly mentions hearing, touch, taste, and sight. By the 14th century, Richard Rolle was giving the formulation of five senses that is now familiar:
And þus were all þy five wittes occupied with peyne to bote þe trespas of our v witties. In þy syght þou were blyndfeled, […]. In þi smellynge […]. In þy tast, […]. In hyrynge, […]. In felynge, […].
Chaucer had the same formulation:
the fyve wittes, that been sighte, herynge, smellynge, tastynge or savourynge, and feelynge
- Stephen Hawes. The Pastime Of Pleasure. Early English Poetry, Ballads and Popular Literature of the Middle Ages XVII. Read Books.
- Richard Morris (ed.). Cursor Mundi. Read Books. p. 974.
- Horace Howard Furness (1880). "King Lear". Shakespeare 5 (7th ed.). Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. p. 187. ISBN 9780742652866.
- "wit". The Merriam-Webster new book of word histories. Merriam-Webster. 1991. p. 508. ISBN 9780877796039.
- Clive Staples Lewis (1990). "Sense". Studies in Words (2nd (republished) ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 147. ISBN 9780521398312.
- Charles Laurence Barber (1997). "Changes of Meaning". Early modern English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 245. ISBN 9780748608355.
- John Raymond Postgate (1995). "Microsenses". The outer reaches of life. Cambridge University Press. p. 165. ISBN 9780521558730.
- C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1964), pp. 162, 164.
- John Erskine Hankins (1978). Backgrounds of Shakespeare's thought. Archon Books. p. 73. ISBN 9780208017437.
- Francis Hugh Mares (2003). Much ado about nothing By William Shakespeare (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 67. ISBN 9780521532501.
- V. A. Kolve (1984). Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative. Stanford University Press. pp. 20–22. ISBN 0-8047-1349-9.
- Augustine (1990). The works of Saint Augustine. New York: Augustinian Heritage Institute. ISBN 978-1-56548-175-6. p. 470
- John Payne Collier and Henry R. Cook (1843). "King Lear". The works of William Shakespeare VII. London: Whitaker & Co. p. 426.
- Sarah M. Horrall, ed. (1978). The Southern Version of Cursor Mundi: Lines 1-9228. University of Ottawa Press. p. 350. ISBN 9780776648057.
- Horace Howard Furness (1899). "Romeo and Juliet". Shakespeare 1 (10th ed.). Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co. p. 60. ISBN 9780742652828.
- Earl R. Anderson (2003). "The Five Senses". Folk-taxonomies in early English. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. ISBN 9780838639160.
- Alexandra Barratt (1987). "The Five Wits and their Structural Significance in Part II of Ancrene Wisse". Medium Ævum 56: 12–24.