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By Mike Mowbray

            The English-language prefix ‘clair-’, from the French ‘clair(e)’ meaning  ‘clear’, when coupled with a root associated with a conventionally recognized sense-ability, generally implies some extraordinary or super-sensory extension or ‘doubling’ of such abilities in a mode which exceeds limits to the availability of sense-data inherent in conventional understandings. Examples include clairvoyance (‘clear seeing’), clairaudience (‘clear hearing’), clairalience (‘clear smelling’), clairgustance (‘clear tasting’) and clairsentience (‘clear feeling’). ‘Clairvoyance’ appears to be the first such construction to enter the English language in the mid-19th century, making its initial appearance in texts concerned with the legacies of Mesmerism, and specifically in connection with a posited ability to ‘see at a distance’ objects, scenes or events too far away (or otherwise obscured, for example by the immediate physical barrier of a wall or other obstruction) to permit access to the seeing eye (e.g. Gregory 1851; Lytton 1862). The current OED definitions of ‘clairvoyance’ and ‘clairaudience’ (the first use of which is dated to 1864) continue to describe each of these as being putatively associated with “certain mesmeric conditions.”1

‘Clairvoyance’ existed as an firmly-established term in French (literally ‘clear-seeing’), dating from ca. 1580; however, its received meaning in French denotes merely “an exact, clear and lucid view of things” (Le Grande Robert de la Langue Francaise, my translation). Literally (in what is now an archaic usage), it is the opposite of ‘blindness.’ More figuratively, the French word implies acute, discerning, lucid, penetrating, perspicacious or sagacious qualities.  In English, however, the predominant meaning – that also attached to the other ‘claires’ enumerated here – developed from the confluence of popular discourses and investigations concerned with mesmerism, the popular spiritualism of psychic mediums, and efforts to constitute a more respectable scientific field under the banners of psychical research and parapsychology.

Contending, if not always mutually exclusive, notions of exactly what is at work in the extension or doubling of the senses denoted by the ‘clair-‘ sometimes complicate matters, though a basic level of agreement exists around (as the OED definition of clairvoyance puts it) a not-too-uncommon experience of “insight into things beyond the range of ordinary perception.” While some parapsychological researchers suggest a scientized understanding of clairvoyance (and its cohort of ‘claires’) as forms of “extrasensory awareness of objective events” (Krippner and Friedman 2010: 47), implying status as a ‘psi’ ability by which human perception operates in the physical world in heretofore unexplained ways, others invoke both religious and secular spiritualist notions by which perception of, or communication with, realms or entities on a plane of existence beyond the merely physical (the celestial realm of angels, spirits, divinities or the souls of the dead) is key to understanding the abilities and experiences described by these terms.

Both clairvoyance and clairaudience have taken up a place in the language of psychic mediums, as the English scholar Katie Wales has suggested, as ”where the medium claims to be able to hear in his or her mind, interpret and report the actual voices and message of the Departed or Discarnate spirits or ‘personalities’ in Ashby’s terms (1972): properly clairaudience. […] Mediums also claim to ‘see’ the spirits in their minds, and to sense or feel them: sometimes termed clairvoyance, although this is now more popularly used to refer to fortune-telling” (Wales 2009: 348).

Both these and the other ‘claires’ also permeate a variety of contemporary New Age spiritual beliefs. To provide just one example (pertinent for its mention of several of the less-talked about ‘claires’), in Learning Their Language: Intuitive Communication with Animals and Nature, Marta Williams (2003) groups the various ‘clair-’ terms under the category of “intuition,” which “refers to any extrasensory perception: something you perceive independently from the five physical senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.” She suggests that “[e]xtrasensory perceptions parallel the physical senses […] you can see things intuitively, but you will see them in your mind’s eye as a mental image of visualization, not as an actual image that your eyes directly perceive” (15). For Williams, an enhanced connection and communicative relationship with animals and ‘nature’ is available to those who recognize and cultivate such nascent human potentialities via any of the ‘clair-‘ based “extrasesensory perceptions”: clairvoyance, clairsentience, clairaudience, clairalience, and clairhambiance (‘clear tasting,’ elsewhere referred to as ‘clairgustance’) (16).

While explication and wrangling over the terms clairvoyance and clairaudience occupies a substantial body of literature, the others go largely unremarked (clairsentience somewhat less so)  – perhaps reflecting the primacy of vision and hearing in the prevalent modern hierarchy of the senses. As both clairvoyance and clairaudience are already the subject of their own discrete entries in the ABCDERIUM, the following presents only those lesser-known ‘claires’, drawing on Williams and other New Age interpreters, in particular, for illustrative purposes:

Clairsentience: Described, by one account (which attributes the term’s origins to followes of Mesmer), as a “superphysical sense of perception that is one of the primary tools of a psychic,” clairsentience is subsequently defined as a complex of psychic inputs: it “involves the psychic perception of smell, taste, touch, emotions, and physical sensations that contribute to an overall psychic and intuitive impression,” potentially classified by those experiencing the “fleeting impressions and flashes” of such perceptions as simply “imagination” (Guiley 1991: 110). Elsewhere, however, clairsentience is more strictly identified with a particular mode of perception (however loosely defined), specifically that of ‘feeling’ – in the sense either (or both) of a sense of touch and the ability to directly perceive the subjective emotional states of another human being (or animal). For Williams, it is “the ability to intuitively feel the emotions or physical feelings of another. Feeling someone else’s feelings is also known as empathy. Sometimes when people do this, they may physically feel pain in their own bodies or be overcome by an emotion they are picking up” (Williams 2003: 16).

Clairalience: According to Williams, clairalience “surfaces less often” than the other ‘claires.’ When it does, however, a person may be “able to get very clear impressions of smells.” By way of example, she suggests the experience of “asking a horse about her favorite treat and then getting an impression of the smell of a carrot or a pear” (Williams 2003: 16-17).

Clairgustance (or ‘clairhambiance’): Williams describes clairhambiance as “the ability to get intuitive impressions of taste,” and suggests the example of “asking a cat to tell you her favorite food and getting an impression of the taste of fish” (17).

Claircognizance: yet another ‘clair-‘ term, claircognizance, is defined by New Age psychic Astoria Brown as “the ability to know something without knowing why or how you knew it. It’s like something randomly appears in your head, and you don’t quite understand how it got there.” 2 The term seems common enough among some contemporary New Agers, and is clearly in evidence on online New Age discussion boards which regroup both the committed and the curious. One particularly detailed, if seemingly esoteric (and gender-essentialist), explanation from a discussion-board exchange seeking clarification of the term suggests the following:

The Purely Sixth Sense is called Claircognizance. Cognize means to perceive and become conscious of something.

This ability of the Third Eye (Ajna) can be processed by either side of the brain, or even both

Women tend to process it through the right, holistic brain, and thus just “know” things intuitively without elaborating or even understanding the details. This ability comes out of a gestalt view of reality in which everything is whole and all divisions are relative and artificial. Alison Dubois’ ability is an example of this kind of claircognizance. The flag of this ability is that the psychic will usually be unable to explain how they know what they know.

Men often process claircognizance through the left brain, and thus have the ability to explain what are essentially intuitive leaps in terms of logical reasoning. I have this ability myself – solutions and explanations will just pop into my head and unpack their sequential steps before my mind’s eye. This is a psychic ability, but because our society favors linear logic, it is one that can be disguised beneath the veneer of reason. It is commonly called Genius, after the inspirational guardian spirits of families (gens). Great scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and detectives posess this ability. Sherlock Holmes is a classic example of this; he was always able to explain to Watson how to arrive at the conclusions he did, but the real question was not so much about the solution itself but how he had perceived the answer so intuitively to begin with.2



1. Mesmeric conditions,’ after Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), refer to a state akin to what would now be referred to as hypnosis; Mesmer induced trance-states in patients as part of his approach to treating various ailments. See the entry on Mesmer in the ABCDERIUM

2. http://www.astoriabrown.com/Claircognizance.html


Works cited

Gregory, William. 1851. Letters to a Candid Inquirer on Animal Magnetism. Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 1991. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience. San Francisco: Harper.

Lytton, Edward Bulwer. 1862. A Strange Story. Boston: Gardner A. Fuller.

Wales, Katie. 2009. “Unnatural conversations in unnatural conversations: speech reporting in the discourse of spiritual mediumship.” Language and Literature 18(4): 347-356.

Williams, Marta. 2003. Learning Their Language: Intuitive Communication with Animals and Nature. Novato, CA: New World Library.