Reid's Discovery of the Sense of Balance

Journal of Scottish Thought 3:23 - 40 (2010)
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The sense of balance remains a Cinderella among our senses. Although the vestibular apparatus and the apprehension of motion, equilibrium and orientation which it serves has now been studied extensively and descriptions abound in textbooks on perceptual psychology, its key role in our agency remains neglected in philosophical accounts of perception. Popularly received wisdom on the senses also largely ignores balance and it has recently even been called 'the lost sense'. Recognition for the discovery of this sense should probably be accorded to Thomas Reid and his contemporary William Charles Wells. Both made crucial observations before the close of the eighteenth century. Since there is now a tendency to emphasize the role of the agent, brain plasticity, and the development of motor skills in all perceptual tasks, some of Reid's comments in particular strike us as remarkably modern. Reid also differs from many authorities in crediting the sense with specific sensations, as would be expected given the role of sensations in his epistemological scheme. In this paper some of the fascinating facts about the sense of balance are reviewed so that Reid's remarks can be evaluated in a modern context. Similarities and differences in the approaches of Wells and Reid are considered and the value that Reid's insights have even now in understanding perceptual processes is explored. It is suggested that Reid should indeed be counted among the hitherto unacknowledged discoverers of this fundamental sense.
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