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The idea of speech as the sixth sense — that is, as a natural faculty, akin to sight or touch — has surfaced repeatedly in the history of the Western sensorium. One of the first to champion it was Philo. It reappears from time to time, explicitly or implicitly in the Middle Ages: for example, in the confessional manuals, which mapped the sins onto the senses, where there is the occasional reference to “the five senses and speech,” as if they formed a set (Woolgar 2007: 11-12). One source in which there is no ambiguity as to the sixth sense status of affatus (speech or voice) is the great Catalan philosopher Raymond Lull’s Liber sexti sensus (Book on the Sixth Sense), written at the turn of the fourteenth century. This book appears not to have survived, but we can infer something of its content from a line in another of Lull’s works, where he speaks explicitly of affatus as the sixth sense: “and thus the affatus is the sixth sense, which went unrecognized for a long time.”

The seventeenth century play Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue and the Five Senses for Superiority, written by Thomas Tomkis, picked up on speech’s struggle for recognition and turned this into comedy. In the play, female Lingua (Speech) is painted as “an idle prating dame,” ever “babbling” by male Auditus (Hearing) and denounced for her presumption (wanting to be considered a sense): “We were never accounted more than five,” Auditus asserts. Common Sense, who is called on to judge the dispute, rules that Speech is not a sense, except in the case of women: “all women for your sake shall have six senses – that is seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and the last and feminine sense, the sense of speaking.” A sixth sense for the second sex.

In the late twentieth century, the notion of speech – or rather, “language” — being a natural faculty once again attracted a champion in the person of Noam Chomsky. He argued that the human capacity for language is innate. Chomsky’s hypothesis of the existence of a “language organ” in the human brain is now widely accepted by linguists, though they tend to see it as a cognitive faculty, not a sensory organ the way Lull did speech.

  • From David Howes, “The Revolving Sensorium” in The Sixth Sense Reader